Forgiveness is one of the most difficult, if not at times, the most difficult part of following Jesus. It is one thing to struggle with what one wants and to sacrifice our desires to God; these struggles of the flesh are difficult but I would suggest it is generally to offer those up as a sacrifice. However, it is another thing to have to forgive someone, particularly when the violation and hurt cuts deep to a person’s heart. The deepest violations and betrayals cuts against the most basic part of our life lived together: trust. The reknowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson says that the very first stage of life is about developing trust. Since we are social creatures to our core, trust plays such a vital role in life together; it is the very foundation of healthy relationships, families, organizations, and even nations. So when something happens in our life that cuts at the very foundation of what it means to be human, we can find it hard to find a place for those who betrayed us.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ lifts up forgiveness as one of the central, if not the most important, aspects of discipleship. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 finds it’s rhetorical center at the Lord’s Prayer, after which Jesus immediately exhorts others to forgive or they will not be forgiven.
Herein lies the dilemma: In cases of serious victimization, it is next to impossible for a person to get rid of the feelings of anger, hurt, and loss of trust. The amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear, does not extinguish the connection to the source of memories; those memories will last for a lifetime. One of the main routes for managing the regulation of the feelings of threat is via the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for processing memories. In effect, when one remembers a threatening part of their life, people have to access memories that counter those feelings of fear in order to mange fear. One has to experience a threatening reality in an unthreatening way and rehearse the feeling of safety in the midst of the memories of violation. As a result, the feelings of hurt do not vanish; they remain and linger, even after recovery. So how can a person forgive like Jesus calls us to forgive if the feelings can linger long after the harm has been done?
One option may be to say that the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to forgive. However, the experience of many devout and genuine followers of Jesus who have not experienced a deliverance from wounds of days past suggest that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is not a magical answer to the psychological and neurological realities of deep violations of trust.
Another option would be to say that forgiveness is not about emotions but simply behavior in not extracting revenge. While I would suggest this is the beginnings of the answer, it doesn’t go far enough. In Jesus’ Parable of the unforgiving Servant1, Jesus concludes by saying that one should forgive “from the heart.” While the ‘heart’ was not seen as the center of emotions, it would be considered the center of a person’s inner life. This would include thoughts and emotions. So forgiveness for Jesus extends beyond the external aspects of behavior into the inner person, which impinges on the emotional life.
So how then can one who has been deeply hurt find a place for forgiveness if it isn’t a miracle of the Holy Spirit (but no doubt a process that the Spirit can lead us through) yet it does extend into one’s feelings about others?
The answer lies within the wisdom of Jesus’ own teaching. While Jesus was not legalist, Jesus’ teaching suggests he saw the wisdom of heart change coming through behavior. For instance, in teaching people to avoid hate, Jesus does not call people to control their emotions, but calls forth a practice of praying for one’s enemies.2 By taking action in opposition to one’s feelings, one can begin to process feelings differently. In the literature on cognitive dissonance, it has long been noted that people’s actions tend to cause change in people’s beliefs and feelings. If you feel one way but yet act differently, your feelings will begin to change to align with your behaviors. Likewise, the way to forgiveness is through the action of benevolence and kindness, not in trying to directly manage and suppress emotions.
Upon closer examination of Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant, we can infer the role of action in forgiveness. In discussing the King who forgives his servant a debt, the emotional state of the King is mentioned; he is said to have pity when he forgives the debt and is said to have anger when he decides to hold the servant accountable. When it comes to King figure who is an analog for God, the emotions are mentioned and they lead to the behavior that follows. However, when it comes the unforgiving servant, there is no reference to his inner, emotional state as he refuses to forgive the debt of another servant. He is described simply in terms of behavior and words. Yet, Jesus drawing the parable to talk about forgiveness from the heart is making a reference to our internal part. This suggests the beginning of forgiveness is the relationship between the inner and the outer.
Synthesizing these insights I would suggest the following: inner intentionality in the heart to forgive leads to outer behavioral actions of forgiveness, which then leads to an inner reformulation of the heart. Furthermore, that inner intentionality starts from a deeper inner attitude connect to our dedication to Jesus. As a) our devotion to Christ guides us to value mercy over vengeance, it guides b) our intentionality to act consistent with forgiveness that then c) becomes enacted through various practices of forgiveness, resulting in d) a resolution of the cognitive dissonance between emotion and action by reforming our feelings more in line with the action. However, since deeply felt attitudes such as distrust don’t change immediately, sometimes the intention and action to forgive has to occur multiple times; this is particuarly true if a victim has to repeatedly endure the costs that the violation has had on their life.
Having personally dealt with and still dealing with this in my life with the deep hurts of the past, I would suggest the following points:
1) To forgive deeply starts with a devotion to Jesus and being led by God’s Spirit – One must have a commitment to mercy rooted in our trust in God before one can resist the desire for vengeance and retribution with a contrasting desire for forgiveness. We must be motivated to forgive already, otherwise the experience of anger and hurt will lead us to seek and believe various justifications for enacting vengeance and retribution. Reminding oneself of the very way Jesus lived his life and letting our mind be drawn into the Spirit-led imagining of life and peace serves as the moral and spiritual foundation of forgiveness.
2) With the deepest of hurts, you will have to retake the intention to forgive again and again – There is no easy way to forgive sometimes. In the worst instances, each time of remembering is a little act of revictimization, so one must take those steps again and again to counter the potentially building rage. Over time, our heart and mind can slowly stitch things together.
3) Don’t measure your forgiveness by how much you feel the anger, and don’t accept other’s judgment of the presence of anger as the lack of forgiveness – In a society that wants quick and easy results and in cases where the offender has a vested interest in the victim overcoming their feelings, resist the temptation to assess your faithfulness by how often you feel the anger, fear, and hurt. The Gospel is not a gospel of emotional management, but it is a Gospel of liberation; sometimes that liberation happens over the course of time.
4) Do not feel guilted or manipulated by statements that imply the continuing presence of anger is hurting you – You may hear statements such as “Forgiveness is good for the soul.” While certainly, it is true that learning how to forgive can improve one’s life and outcomes, it doesn’t happen by directly controlling the emotions you feel and pasting over them. It happens by the Spirit-lead-and-motivated processing of the offenses as we move back towards the fundamental position of trust, most particularly towards God. However, I would suggest that overcoming of anger comes when one has overcome the hurt and accepted the reality moving forward. The resolution of anger is the result of a healthy approach, not the cause of it.
5) Forgiveness does not mean failing to speak the truth – Forgiveness should never be justification to cloak an offense, particularly if it is an egregious offense that suggests a fundamental danger to oneself or others in the future. Ceasing vengeance is not the same as ceasing to speak about what happened or getting help if the situation is continuing. While our speaking out against the offenders can readily bleed over into a subtle desire for retribution, wisdom can lead us to discern where, when, and how it is appropriate to speak about the offense without enacting vengeance. In fact truth-telling in a context where one does not seek vengeance can be an act of forgiveness, as we uncouple the memory of what happened from an intention to act with hostility.
6) Forgiveness is a matter of our heart and not about keeping the status quo – Forgiveness is an act of mercy where we do not seek retribution or further recompense on our behalf from the offenders; it is not about blindly maintaining or restoring the same patterns of relationships and authority. If a person has acted in such an egregious and abusive manner that there is a fundamental lack of trustworthiness for them to continue in the same relationship or power that they have, change may be necessary. Maintain and restoring trust is different from avoiding retribution. While the act of forgiveness does seek to keep a basic dignity for the offender, that dignity may necessarily be enjoined with various forms of accountability and restrictions.