Cheapening Forgiveness

Forgiveness: self-sacrifice, or self-help?

Forgiveness is just as prevalent a topic of discussion in self-help books as it is in Scripture, and in recent years, I think many of us have subscribed to the notion that forgiveness simply means to let go of an offense.  Whether at church or in a counselor’s office, I hear many of the same ideas that forgiveness is about our own emotional health.  One catchy phrase I have often heard is, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” We speak of “letting go” and “being free” and “moving on.” We say that once we forgive, we’re off the hook and it becomes the other person’s problem.  We don’t have to deal with the pain of being wronged.

Recently, though, while I was reading The God I Don’t Understand by Chris Wright, I came across this thought-provoking quote:
“[Forgiveness is] costly, for the offended one who chooses to forgive chooses to bear the pain and cost of the offence rather than hold it against the one being forgiven.”

When I look at the cross of Christ, I see that the quote rings true.  Christ ‘drank the poison’ and willingly died, and throughout eternity, even when all has been made right, His body will still bear the scars of his forgiveness.  He hasn’t forgotten or moved on, and praise God that in His darkest moment of suffering, He NEVER let go of us.  He held the offense close to His heart, and held us closer still.

Sometimes I forget this, when I haughtily decide to ‘move on’ because the person who hurt me ‘isn’t worth my time.’

I’m afraid that I’m guilty of cheapening forgiveness.

When we forgive, a deeply spiritual transaction takes place.  We transfer the hurt of the offense by declaring that the pain the other person deserves to hold in their guilt, we take upon ourselves to hold in our humiliation. We have the power to hold them guilty, or to declare them innocent.  The choice is ours.  Refusing to forgive is possibly the natural and just thing to do, and it continues along the predictable downward spiral of humanity’s fallenness.  Forgiveness, though — forgiveness is the choice to create a new reality, to live in the reality of the Kingdom.

When I speak of forgiveness as a form of emotional therapy, I rob it of any spiritual meaning and power.  When the purpose of forgiveness becomes about the benefits to me rather than about bearing the offense for the sake of another, I have neglected the very heart of forgiveness: namely, the other.

Was forgiveness ever really about my happiness in the first place?

Or do I distort it– do I cheapen it — by making it all about me?

“Forgiveness is costly,” Wright says.  Am I willing to pay its price?


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well said Lauren! May I add a thought? (Thanks!)

    Forgiveness is also an act of judgement. It is not just “letting someone off the hook.” It is acknowledging a wrong took place–injustice happened and it should not have happened–and a willingness to embrace the injustice and take it into one’s self, bearing the scars (physical or emotional) for the healing of the offender.

    (If you don’t believe it is judgment, then tell a stranger “I forgive you” and listen to their response: “What are you talking about? I haven’t done anything!”)

    If you haven’t read him, I highly recommend Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation or the more accessible Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. As a Croatian who experienced the atrocities meted out by the Serbian Cetniks and the persecution as a young Christian living in Communist Hungary, Yale Theology professor Volf personally knows about forgiveness and reconciliation.

    Keep on writing! Enjoy your blog!

    • Excellent point, Darryl! Thanks so much for adding your thoughts! I haven’t read Volf’s book, but Wright mentions it in the book I referenced in this post. Brilliant concept that made the idea of judgment so much more understandable to me. I’ll definitely add that to my summer reading list!

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