In 1979, Gerald Jampolsky M.D. wrote a book entitled “Love is Letting Go of Fear.” In it, the former alcoholic argues that the key to happiness is unconditional forgiveness of others and then yourself. Forgiveness, he says, has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. I’ve heard that idea before. From Christians in the church.
So then, what is forgiveness? Is it detached from reality? Can we really, just by an act of the will, forgive and forget? I’ve watched a few crime shows where a serial killer of women is addressed by the families of his victims just prior to sentencing. Occasionally there is one mother or father who tells the killer, “I forgive you.” The crowd in the courtroom is amazed and the stolid killer tears up. Was the forgiveness genuine? If the man is released, would the family of the victim invite the murderer to dinner? Allow him to date their other daughter?
Jampolsky said that “fear is really a call for help….a request for love.” That is not always true. Fear has more facets, more manifestations than that. When the car we are driving loses it’s grip on an icy, steep, down slope and it begins to spin at high speed and we have no idea where it will come to rest (an experience not uncommon in Alaska), then the fear we feel is not a request for love. Help would be nice. A gentle angelic visit would be timely. Love can wait.
My understanding of forgiveness is borrowed and reworked from Dan Allender and other sources. I believe it better fits life and the human reality. The problem with Jampolsky’s thesis is that it fails to pay homage to the depravity of the human heart. We cannot defeat our wickedness with willpower alone.
Forgiveness has four faces, four different aspects (at least.) Two can be done unconditionally and two depend on the behavior and brokenness of the offender. The forgiveness we offer can only genuinely contain the first two.
A healthy relationship demands trust, honesty and a certain vulnerability all under the umbrella of unselfish love. Wickedness can attack and destroy relationships. Unconditional forgiveness alone cannot restore them. Something else is needed.
Here are the two unconditional pieces of forgiveness.
WE CAN TOSS ASIDE BITTERNESS
Nothing in the human soul is easily disposed of. Sheer willpower might work for a strong minded few but most of us welcome bitterness in and set a place at the table for it. (“Have a seat. Diet Coke?”) To remove bitterness from our hearts requires that we replace it. Replace it with faith in the power of God.
Bitterness is a natural result of a genuine or perceived evil done to us for no good reason. I have seen people who deserve what happened to them because of their own actions but they are bitter nonetheless. Why are we bitter? Because evil happened to us and bypassed most of the other people we know. We caught the disease, lost our job, were dumped or divorced, bypassed for a promotion, got in the accident, lost a dearly loved friend or relative and other people escaped our fate. “Look how nice they have it! I deserved better. God hates me so I will hate Him…..bitterly.” The answer to this attitude is Romans 8:28 which is a good life verse for all of us.
Romans 8 28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (NASB)
All evil things are caused by God to work together for our good (I know, evil is not used in this verse but to say “all good things to work together for good” is just silly.) If evil ultimately is reformed by God into good (no matter how difficult that is to imagine) then how can we be bitter? “You did evil to me but God used it for good in my life.” These are a paraphrase of the words of Joseph in Genesis 50:20. He endured plenty of undeserved pain and conquered his bitterness by trusting in the unconditional love and power of God.
WE CAN TOSS ASIDE VENGEANCE
Sometimes, it feels satisfying to imagine being the bearer of vengeance on the head of someone who has done us harm. I’ve toyed with it. Blowing up a few buildings, exposing the sins and hypocrisy of my enemies, beating the tar out of a well hated foe are thoughts that have passed through my evil brain at critical moments. I did not actually do anything but I am more that a casual acquaintance with vengeance. Some of this is driven by the innate human desire for fair and rapid justice. On the other hand, we would rather delay or escape any justice imposed on us. Fortunately God is even handed. He will impose justice in due time and in the proper measure. The answer to the vengeance that wells up inside us and demands action is Romans 12:19
Romans 12 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord
Notice that He does not say “there is no cause for vengeance” but rather He is the broker and only governments have the authority also granted to them. We need to trust God to administer it. We are incompetent at applying it fairly anyway.
Those two (tossing aside bitterness and vengeance) are the only facets of forgiveness that we can do unconditionally. If I stand up in court and forgive the killer of my daughter, this is what I am offering. I cannot offer anything else short of a heart change in the offender. A complete brokenness brought about by the power of the Holy Spirit which is evidenced by subsequent behavior over time. Trusting God is difficult enough. Trusting an unrepentant human? Not wise.
(this is long enough for now. I will address the other two aspects of forgiveness in another post.)