Second post in a series on forgiveness
Beverly loved children and kittens. She had a fondness for sweets and routinely overspent for gifts on Christmas and birthdays. Meals were an occasion for her to pour lavish affection on family and friends in the form of rich comfort food.
That’s why her bitter rants could catch me off guard. More than a decade after the divorce, any reminder of her ex-husband sent Beverly into an enraged recitation of the litany of his cruelties and vices.
If I mentioned trying to forgive her ex, her response was almost always the same: “I can forgive, but I can’t forget.”
Strictly speaking, there was plenty to forgive. Beverly’s husband beat her repeatedly, threatened her with a gun, and flagrantly cheated on her. Typical of abusers, he tried hard to isolate her and to control every aspect of her daily life.
Beverly endured this brutality for 14 years and finally fled with her only child.
We can learn a lot about forgiveness from Beverly. The first lesson is the most important and may be the most difficult for some of us to accept.
Forgiveness is a response to moral wrongdoing. Beverly’s ex-husband physically abused her and committed adultery. His actions injured her in body, mind and soul.
Her outrage was entirely appropriate. That’s what moral theologians call righteous indignation. Her first step toward forgiveness was to deal with her moral outrage by leaving instead of hiring a hit man.
I said that this first lesson might be the most difficult for us. What I meant was this. We live in an age that mistrusts (or simply rejects) the idea of moral absolutes.
Forgiveness can only begin with the starkest realism. There can be no sweeping under the rung. No excuse-making. We must name a moral offense for what it is.
Without an objective standard by which to measure virtue and vice, the first step toward forgiveness becomes impossible. I can say that I am hurt or offended, but these are not moral categories.
A physician hurts me when he gives me a shot. He doesn’t need my forgiveness.
Your opinion about the current President or one of his predecessors may very well offend me. Again, you don’t need my forgiveness. I simply need to get over myself and allow for our difference of opinion.
Violence against the innocent? Adultery? That’s more than painful. It’s not merely offensive. It’s a sin. It violates an objective moral law.
Now that I’ve mentioned sin, I have to make another thing clear. Beverly’s forgiveness of her ex-husband did not absolve him of the sin. Only God can do this. That’s what the Cross is about. Beverly refused to retaliate.
Sometimes we hesitate to forgive because we believe that this absolves the offender of all accountability for his or her behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Forgiveness begins with the acknowledgement that a person has done something wrong and that he or she is accountable for it.
There is a debt, and the debt has to be paid. Jesus teaches us that his disciples refuse to go into the moral debt-collection business. God is the judge and redeemer of humankind.
That’s why I teach my children about how to respond to apologies. I council them never to say, “That’s okay.” Instead, I suggest that they say, “I forgive you. Don’t do that again.”
In other words, what you did is not okay. But I’m going to let this go.
Forgiveness let’s me move forward. I can move forward with you if you change how you relate to me. But this brings up the topic of reconciliation, and that will need to wait for a later post in this series.
In addition to reconciliation and how it connects to forgiveness, there are several more lessons to be learned from Beverly’s experience.
Does forgiveness heal our hurts? Do we have to get along with people who have hurt us? Why do I forgive and then keep getting angry about the very thing I’ve forgiven? Will I ever forget?
We’ll take up these questions, among others, in the coming posts.