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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

For the Suffering...

Luke 17:1-4, “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.  It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.  So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.  Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”[i]  The word of the Lord.

This is a hard teaching for people who have been oppressed, abused, and sinned against, but I’m not sure it is as hard as we have made it out to be.  Unfortunately, in our zeal to preach forgiveness for the sinner, we have often missed the very real and pressing suffering of the sinned against.  Even with such a short passage, we focus in on the very last verse, never accounting for the strong language that Jesus uses in support of those who have been harmed.  As someone who has endured abuse, myself, I believe I have a voice that can speak into this blind spot in our teaching about forgiveness and healing, but it begins with redefining terms and accepting the brokenness of human experience.  

At the expense of sounding arrogant, forgiveness has never been all that hard for me, at least as I define it.  I think this might be because I always believe people can change and be better.  Honestly, that's sort of weird, since I am decidedly not an optimist.  Now, forgetting?  That’s another thing altogether, but we should take great care in remembering that the notion of ‘forgive and forget’ is not actually found in Scripture…  Huge sigh of relief for detail oriented people who remember everything…

We need to make a distinction between forgiveness and healing related to pain, suffering, mourning, or grief.  Too often, I feel that we approach wounded people by insisting that they forgive those who have harmed them.  That is biblical after all, right?  But we also project unreal expectations on forgiveness.  In so doing, we perpetuate cycles of abuse.
Let me tell you what forgiveness is not:

  • Forgiveness is not forgetting the offense and moving on without taking the necessary time to heal.  No one can determine the length of time that another person needs to grieve the loss that comes from being violated.  Grief is not something that is only associated with death, and we have to move away from the misconception that it is.  Although there are some predictable patterns of grief, it does not look the same for everyone, and we cannot put limits on the number of days that are appropriate to suffer from denial, anger, bargaining, or depression.  Even in acceptance, there is no need to embrace the act of abuse but to acknowledge that suffering occurred, and that it was terrible.  The victim gets to determine the timeline for the healing process.  Of course, people who genuinely love the hurting person should come alongside him or her and offer support as directed by the one who has been harmed.  Empathy is a beautiful gift, but none of us should conflate our own narratives with that of the one who is currently hurting most, and we absolutely must not ask a victim to care for our emotional needs in the midst of his or her pain.  One of the best articles I have ever read regarding this phenomenon was written by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, entitled, “How not to Say the Wrong Thing.” Their principle of “comfort in, dump out,”[ii] is exceptional.  The general idea is that the people closest to tragedy and pain are allowed to hurt however they need to.  They are allowed to express themselves however they deem necessary, and anyone in a larger ‘ring,’ further removed from the suffering, may only offer comfort.  If those people also feel a need for comfort, themselves, they must seek it from someone even farther removed from the pain.   
  • Forgiveness is not indiscriminately returning to how the relationship was before the offense.  This is incredibly difficult to flesh out, because as followers of Jesus, we also frequently cite passages of Scripture about losing our lives and participating in the death of Christ, which may include being persecuted in some way, but please hear me clearly… none of this means that you have to participate in unhealthy relationships that violate who you are as a human being, created Imago Dei.  You do not have to allow yourself to continue to be abused in any way.  In the passage we began with, Jesus is clear that abusive actions are not justifiable.  Abuse and oppression cause harm, and nowhere… in any of this… do I see forgiveness defined as offering yourself to someone who will hurt you over and over again, without boundaries or consequence.  Nowhere.  We have to stop telling people that forgiveness means sucking it up, putting yourself in danger, and moving on, because it doesn’t!
  • Forgiveness is not blaming yourself, as opposed to the offender, for what happened.  There are some very important lessons to be learned about the difference between being culpable for terrible things that happen and taking responsibility, even when we are not directly culpable, but these burdens should never fall on the victims of oppression or abuse.  If we’re going to talk about taking responsibility for things that are not our direct fault; we must encourage people who are healthy and whole, in a good place where they are able to bear the suffering forced upon others either by individuals, corporate communities, or systemic systems, to work toward solutions.  This is never an opening to blame victims for the abuse that has occurred.  We should all be living by basic standards that do not allow the personhood of another to be violated in any way.  If such a violation occurs, it must never be labeled as the fault of the victim, regardless of circumstance, because offenders take advantage of anyone they can.  They will look for weaknesses to exploit, and they will create them if they do not exist.  Any story can be twisted to make it look as if even the most innocent victim was at fault, but ‘innocent’ is the key word here.  Abuse and oppression are not acceptable in any situation and cannot responsibly be explained away.

So what do we do about this?  Things are bad, but can they get better?

As the church, we have done a miserable job of helping victims to work through their pain, blanketly stating that forgiveness will restore all things.  Maybe we can roll with this from an eschatological viewpoint, but let’s be real, friends… most hurting people are more concerned with how they might survive the next few minutes than the end of the world as we know it!  We have to stop making these things congruent, because they’re just not…

I’ve made a decent case for several ‘just nots,’ including how we should not define forgiveness, but we must always be careful to reconstruct after tearing a concept apart.  So what is forgiveness?  As I set out to answer this question, I found that even Webster struggled…

Webster’s definition of forgiveness is “the act of forgiving” (ahem… super helpful).[iii]

Webster’s definition of forgiving is “willing or able to forgive” (there’s something to work with there).[iv]  I would argue that the capacity to forgive comes, at least in part, from care and healing.  To ask someone to forgive when he or she is still in the depths of sorrow and concerned about meeting the basic requirements of survival from moment to moment, is cruel.

Webster’s definition of forgive is “to give up resentment of or claim to requital.”[v]

If I were to define forgiveness, I would say it is the moment at which you reach a point where you no longer hope the one who has harmed you will be run over by a truck or struck down by lightning… or actually have a millstone hung around his or her neck and be thrown into the sea.  Admittedly, even this can be a process, depending on the offense.  And that’s OK.  Jesus said it!  The biblical definition from the Scripture we read also allows for rebuke and requires the offender to be repentant.  When translated, the original Greek from this passage speaks of the offender having a change of mind or purpose, and forgiveness is referred to as a sending away or leaving alone.  How often do we talk about that?  We don’t?  Well, we should, starting now.

Of course, Jesus gives us an example of forgiveness that neither demands nor receives such repentance when, as he is dying, he says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[vi]  So, I’m not necessarily saying we must hold out for an apology, and, in fact, I have certainly offered forgiveness to others, myself, who have hurt me deeply and never bothered to care.  But… we have to stop shaming victims into this kind of obligation, because even if it is freeing to stop praying for that thunderstorm to hit; there is so much more work to be done than this.  Forgiving someone who does not deserve it is not a magical band-aid that removes all pain… And it certainly doesn’t remove scars.

What I’m trying to say is that we should stop lying… and we should also stop discrediting and humiliating victims.  Forgiveness is important, but it comes with guidelines and often with really long timeframes.  Perhaps we could stand in the gap while our brothers and sisters are allowed the space they need for legitimate healing to occur.

[i] Luke 17:1-4 (NIV).
[ii] Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. How not to Say the Wrong Thing. Dallas News, April 2013.
[vi] Luke 23:34

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