It is not an uncommon expression in Christian circles to laud the value of forgiveness as being more about the forgiver than the one who is forgiven. So the thinking goes that not forgiving in unhealthy, as it leaves people in a cycle of anger and depression. This is not an entirely unfounded idea. There are many people who we know of that hold grudges that far exceeds the actual harm done to them; for instance, a critique of one’s judgment can launch some people to take such criticism not simply as an expression about their thoughts but as them as a person. This feeling of being insulted causes them to reach into a cycle of anger at the offense, which in keeping the offense in mind, keeps them feeling vulnerable and stressed. In these type of people, the stress they experience is principally a result of a top-down cognitive process, where the construal of having been offended, hurt, etc. keeps their body in a state of physiological stress. In these cases, forgiveness is actually a step towards psychological and spiritual health, as their problems are perpetuated by their own lack of forgiveness, including the consequences that come with continuing a hostile or competitive conflict with another.
But there are many instances where the harm people faced matches, if not exceeds, the thoughts people have about the events and the otherr persons. Take the extreme case of rape, where a victim has been violated to the point that they fear for their safety, feel violated, lose trust, and can develop deeply negative views about themselves. It would take a heartless individual to attribute their struggles due to the lack of forgiveness. The problems they and other types of victims have experienced go much deeper, to the level of trauma where emotions and stress are activated not simply due to necessarily any grudge towards their perpetrator, but due to the unconscious activation of such emotionally laden stress by circumstances and events that resemble the initial victimization. Forgiveness is not therapeutic; in fact, if we have problematic construals of forgiveness that attempt to deny the victimization or shun speaking up, such victims will be further harmed by “forgiveness,” not benefit from it. For genuine victims, the stress they experience that impacts their well-being is a bottom-up cognitive process, which can and will occur regardless of what the person thinks or feels; forgiveness does not circumvent this process, but can in fact done in a poor manner, reinforce the trauma.
My point here isn’t to argue against forgiveness in the case of genuine victimization, although I would suggest such circumstances should call us to critically evaluate what it is we mean when we talk about forgiveness. Rather, it is to decouple the relationship between forgiveness and therapeutic health we as Christians often present. We are tempted to do this because it provides a potentially apologetic legitimation of our way of life, but there are in fact cases where forgiveness can be psychologically beneficial, but it is not a psychological law. It can create unrealistic expectations in many instances that forgiveness will help the person directly, when the truth is that is may provide very little direct benefit to themselves; for many people whose lives have been dramatically altered, they have to learn to live again. Forgiveness may be instrumental in that, but it is problematic to suggest it will lead to that result. Furthermore, this makes forgiveness rather egocentric, in that it is about what happens to be as a forgiver. Thirdly, this understanding about forgiveness can delegitimate people’s own struggles; it can be easy to say a person is suffering because they aren’t forgiving, when that may be far from the truth.
A more Biblical purpose of forgiveness, however, relates the purpose of forgiveness outward, rather than inward, in being people of peace. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is introduced with the Beatitudes, which offers a snapshot of a spiritual progression from being those who lack in their (spiritual) poverty, mourning, meekness, and hunger to those who are more active in being merciful, wholehearted, and peacemaking in their lifestyle. Then, this movement towards peacemaking then transitions into being persecuted for righteousness sake as false things are uttered about them. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount is introduced with the progression towards peacemaking, which culminates not in praise but in persecution. Thus, it makes sense why the center of the Sermon on the Mount in the Lord’s/Disciple’s Prayer is interpreted through the lens of forgiveness; if being peacemakers entails persecution, in order for God’s people to be light and salt, they must be one who engages in the practice of forgiveness.
On the flip side, however, if one fails to forgive, it is suggestive of a deeper problem. We may read Matthew 6:15 as a legalistic warning about forgiveness: “if you don’t forgive, God will eternally judge you.” But this doesn’t seem to be the exact issue at hand. Rather, the very same theme of human action being mirrored by Divine action occurs in Jesus’ warning about judgment in Matthew 7:1-2. The concern for Jesus seems to be that people who do not forgive but rather judge are the type of people God will judge and not forgive. Earlier in the sermon Jesus transitions from the spiritual purpose God has for His people in Matthew 5:3-16 with a discussion about His own usage of the Torah in 5:17-20, which provides the transition for giving moral and spiritual exhortation. Jesus transitions into the moral and spiritual exhortation with the statement in 5:20 “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” It is interesting to note that the first specific exhortation from 5:20 is that Jesus gives is against those whose abusive words impact another person; the appropriate response would be to make people through reconciling with the offended brother or sister; it is as if Jesus’ gets straight to his overarching concern: one should be a peace-making, reconciling type of people rather than unforgiving and abusive that face judgment. Thus, it seems more likely that Jesus’ exhortation and warning about forgiveness is about identifying what type of people will be forgiven or judged.
Thus, the Christian act of forgiveness has as its heart a peace-making purpose, which is at the heart of who God is in his complete, loving nature towards those who work against Him, which we ourselves are to have. This is not to deny the potential therapeutic benefits of forgiveness in some cases. But wisdom surrounding the circumstances should guide how we speak to others about the relationship of forgiveness to their own well-being. But at the end, for the Church to embody God’s mission, it must understand the purpose of forgiveness is not its therapeutic effects, nor draw unrealistic expectations about those effects, but act with the intentional purpose of being peacemakers so as to be salt and light. We as Christians are called to forgive not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of those who we have influence upon.
As a person who has been deeply hurt myself and have had to wrestle with forgiveness as I dealt with the negative consequences events had taken on me, I have had to remember this very peace-making purpose in forgiveness. And I remember it, as a Bible I was given to me for graduating from Asbury Theological Seminary had the following written by President Timothy Tennent in the front: “Never forget your calling to serve and to be His salt and light in the world!” There have been many days where even as I committed myself to forgive, I experienced the utter impacts of such overwhelming emotions, stress, and triggered fears and anxieties, but I had to learn that forgiveness has never been about myself and my benefit. I would have felt safer, less alarmed, and thus personally healthier had I not dealt with the ambiguities that come with forgiving. It is for the benefit of those who I forgive, and hopefully, through that, other persons who populate the gaps between those who both offended and hurt me and myself