Today over on Seedbed, J.D. Walt posted on their Daily Text a devotion on Ephesians 4:31-32 and the importance of forgiveness. There is much to commend in it; that forgiveness is something I do apart from the action of another is a critical part of what forgiveness is; conflict between others can be a way of derailing the mission of the Church. However, part of how forgiveness is defined presents some problems that I am particularly sensitive to myself. While exegetical and theological precision is not something to expect to be given in a devotion, and as such, it can be easy to misconstrue what is intended, an analysis of forgiveness and Ephesians 4:31-32 is important. At the core of the concern is the idea that forgiveness itself is about management or changing of one’s emotions.
The problem boils down to our translations and how we think about our emotions in the present-day world. Most translations will use emotional terminology in v. 31, particularly in talking about anger. However, Paul’s language is not typically used to refer to a description of a type of inward emotion that we feel towards others. It can give the impression that Paul is saying “All of you should just get along and like each other.” However, the word choices of Paul reflect an emphasis not on the inner world of feelings, but on particular types of conflict behaviors. In a couple instances where Paul refers to thymos or orge which are frequently translated into emotional terms such as wrath and anger. However, these terms themselves are commonly used to refer to certain types of impassioned actions, such as acting in rage or seeking retribution from others. The word often times translated as bitterness, pikria, can also be used to refer to a type of hostile behavior towards based upon some sense of grievance. In our modern world, we are more inclined to translate and interpret psychological terms with an inward sense of what I feel and think, whereas for Paul and that world, emotions were more typically viewed from the perspective of the behaviors one does in the throes of passion. Hence, I would translate verse 31 to say something along the lines of “You should remove all of bitter fighting, displays of rage, seeking for retribution, shouting in arguments, and abusive denigration from yourselves, along with all evil.”
Therefore, when Paul talks about forgiveness in the following verse, his focus is not on inwards feelings. It isn’t about my mental state and my thoughts about another person. Rather, it is focused on the actions that members of the body of Christ direct towards others. Forgiveness is not about getting rid of negative feelings; it is about not acting with vengeance and acting with a level of openness towards the person who has hurt you (although, the nature of this openness can and should be qualified is cases of abuse). When Jesus tells the parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:21-35, the emphasis is placed upon the servant’s unforgiving actions. When Jesus says one should forgive from the heart in v. 35, it isn’t about changing one’s emotions towards the person as much as it is about acting with the genuine intention to not make a person pay back their (moral) debts.
Why is this important? Because in our modern psychological world, our inclination is to interpret the language of heart and emotion in an inward, psychologizing manner, where what is forbidden are angry thoughts about someone who hurt you. When we then start to expect and tell others to forgive, we begin to create a potentially damaging dynamic where we engage in an act of emotional manipulation and control of other person’s emotions. When we realize someone is angry at us, it can be a quite threatening feeling, and so we as Christians can often time employ “forgiveness” as a moral burden upon the ones we hurt so that we can avoid dealing with the discomfort and difficulty of our own behaviors and place the burden upon the one who feels harmed. Put more simply, when we blend the Biblical language of forgiveness with an interior, psychological focus on emotions rather than being more action and intention specific, forgiveness can easily turn into a form of spiritual gaslighting that is used by people who feel threatened by other people’s negative feelings towards them and refuse to deal with the truth. In the end, treating forgiveness as emotional change is all too frequently not really about grace, but rather as a way to avoid dealing with the truth of consequences of one’s action, even if one is not truly morally culpable for what happened.
Furthermore, for those people who have been victimized in deep, traumatic ways, they have little ways to actual control what they feel. Emotions are a visceral, bodily reality that often times overwhelms us; this becomes even more true in cases of trauma where the activation of memories of what happened actually automatically activate the physiological components of emotions and stress, such as releasing of cortisol in the system. The reality is, we don’t have direct control over our emotions; but we can do have some control over how we intend to act based upon those emotions. But if people are deeply victimized and hurt, they will only experience a sense of failure and weakness if they can not stop feeling angry and hurt by what happened. Thus, trauma victims are put through a double bind where they either feel they have to deny the pain to be faithful to God or deny forgiveness so they can own what happened to them. Even when we operate with the best of intentions, teaching that forgiveness is about emotional management or emotional change rather than about one’s intentions we set up an unhealthy dilemma.
In the end, forgiveness is about withholding all acts of retribution to seek to make people pay for what they did (but this does noy forbid discipline or truth-telling if it is needed for other reasons), allowing for the space for reconciliation and even the potential to show charity towards those who harmed. Thus forgiveness puts a stop to the tit-for-tat, negative reciprocity type of conflicts and instead allows for the real possibility of a better way of engaging one another. That is the type of forgiveness God shows the world; that is the type of forgiveness Jesus shows to his enemies. Often times as a result, a change of emotions occurs as the result of forgiveness: a person acting in a pro-social way may find the intensity of their anger diminishing a bit. Furthermore, by acting in a pro-social way, they in some cases be the recipient of more respecting and honoring behaviors and this will help allay their emotions. But the emotional change and cessation of negative feelings comes about as a result of forgiveness and the response from others; emotional change is not the condition of forgiveness but its hopeful result.
However, the moment we define forgiveness by some pop psychology theory, and often times we select the psychological theory based upon how it validates and comforts us and how it explains our own personal experience and not on its truth, reliability, and validity for all people (we often times project our psychological experiences as other people’s psychological experience), we begin to shift it from the demonstration of God’s forgiveness in His actions through Jesus Christ and into some realm where we can define forgiveness however it best suits our own interests. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a psychological theory.