Do I Really Have to Forgive?
I had a conversation with a parishioner one time that still vexes me. At one point some years prior, she and her husband had opposed me on the issue of homosexuality. A wealthy and influential couple, they were convinced that I was leading the flock down the road to perdition. I was a young pastor at the time, so their opposition proved particularly worrisome from a vocational standpoint. But, after a great deal of work, we mended fences--unfortunately, without ever really addressing the hurt I'd experienced.
A few years after the controversy, we were sitting in my office speaking candidly with one another--about what I don't remember. But I do remember feeling like it was important for me to say something out loud about the kerfuffle we'd had. So, apropos of nothing we happened to be discussing at the time, I said, "Gladys, you know that whole big thing we had a few years back over homosexuality?"
I saw her eyes widen. She nodded her head, perhaps more as a warning gesture than an affirmation. "Yes," she said.
Gladys was a true southern woman, one who did not like to engage in direct interpersonal dust-ups. She was the kind of person who preferred never to attack a problem head-on. Instead, she preferred to circle it for a while, sneak up on it, then strike passing blows—hoping, I think, to wear it down and force it to surrender. I, on the other hand, grew up in the North thinking that speaking directly is a virtue. Two different ways of communicating, the conflict between which often trips me up still.
"Well," I said, not picking up on the signs, "I felt very hurt by you and Henry in that whole thing."
I'm not sure what I was expecting. I guess I hoped she would say, "I know, Derek, and we're so sorry about that. I hope you'll forgive us." Or, "Yeah, I've been meaning to talk to you about that. I wished that had never happened." Or maybe even, "Mistakes were made."
Instead, what she said was, "That's behind us now. We don't need to talk about it."
I wanted to object: "No. It's really not behind us. Otherwise, I wouldn't bring it up."
What I said instead, however, was . . . well, not much of anything.
I've been thinking about forgiveness. There are things in my life I need to forgive, things for which I need to be forgiven. But what exactly does that mean? Say, for instance, you've been involved with an addict, who's left a trail of devastation behind. This person has done some work to get clean and work through the process of recovery. What now, though? What does forgiveness look like in this situation? I don't think Gladys' response that "that's behind us now. We don't need to talk about it" is the answer. Forgiveness is not willed forgetfulness.
On the other hand, I realize that forgiveness at some point means taking a chance on getting hurt again. When is it time to take that chance? If I'm the offended party, is it up to me to decide when is the right time? This seems right to me.
But what if I'm content to nurse my wounds, to savor the wrongs? Does the offender ever have a right to say, "I've said I'm sorry every way I know how. I've tried to regain your trust, but you won't let me near?"
I'm torn because I realize that some hurts are so grievous that getting past them seems impossible. The offender has a difficult time regaining the moral high ground in this interchange.
But as someone who follows Jesus, who regularly preaches that forgiveness isn't part of the optional special off-road package upgrade, I think the offended has certain responsibilities to the offender.
(I'm a thoroughgoing liberal, so let me just say that that last sentence scares me—since this sounds eerily like what the powerless are often urged to offer the powerful who've hurt them.)
What does that forgiveness look like? When, and under what circumstances should I offer it? I wish there were an algorithm into which I could plug my experience, the depth of the hurt, the nature of the offender's remorse and recovery, and have it spit out answers to those questions.
But I don't have such an algorithm. All I have is a community. So, let me ask you: What does forgiveness look like? When, and under what circumstances should I offer it? Do I really have to forgive?