As I was writing this, the news was broadcast of Nelson Mandela’s passing. His was one of the great human examples of forgiveness and grace in the face of injustice. The nation of South Africa and the world has learned much from him and others of like mind , who strove to combine justice with forgiveness, to forge a way forward for a nation in peace and reconciliation without denying evil.
(For an interesting account of how some of South Africa’s recent history of discord was addressed in this spirit, I recommend Desmond Tutu’s work “No Future without Forgiveness”Image books, 1999)
I’ve studied a lot on the subject of forgiveness, because I’m really bad at practising it. Actually, I’m both bad and very good at forgiving. If somebody says that they are sorry for a wrong that has affected me, I find it easy to move on. But if there is no remorse, not even a hint that they’ve been in the wrong, no apology or sign that they will change their hurtful behaviour from this point on, I relive the hurt and hang on to bitterness and grudges that can last a long time. I understand how some elderly people are locked into their cages of hurt that have lasted for decades, even after the offenders are dead.
That’s why I’m so grateful for Lewis B. Smedes’ classic book, “The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How.” Smedes has become widely known for his attention to this subject and the efficacy of what he teaches, and quotations by him are often used and found on various internet sites offering inspirational sayings.
Smedes sums up the heart of the matter in his introduction:
“It would give us some comfort if we could only forget a past that we cannot change. But the ability to remember becomes an inability to forget when our memory is clogged with pain inflicted by people who did us wrong. If we could only choose to forget the cruellest moments, we could, as time goes on, free ourselves from their pain. But the wrong sticks like a nettle in our memory.”
Sometimes as Christians the whole issue of forgiveness hits us like a conundrum. God is just. He is forgiving. He requires repentance before he forgives us of our sins. He forgives us and says “sin no more.” Yet He tells us to forgive in the face of injustice. We are to forgive the unrepentant. We are to forgive even when we know the unrepentant sinner will keep on doing the same hurtful things. Where’s the justice in that? And yet we are also constantly aware of the magnitude of our own wrongdoing, our own propensity to offend, and the grace of a just God who gave everything for our forgiveness. We are so little and petty in the face of His grace.
So, in a way, I’m glad to be able to grapple with forgiveness, because it makes me think through the whole issue, to lean more heavily in the end upon God’s grace to enable me to do what I can’t possibly do, or sometimes even want to do, in my own strength.
In succinct and easily readable prose, Smedes defines what forgiveness encompasses and what it is not. He identifies the need to acknowledge our pain and apportion blame where it is due. There’s a chapter on how to deal with the person who will not say “sorry”. And there is good advice regarding the issue of restoring relationships with another, including the fact that hurt changes relationships, and forgiveness does not necessarily mean that they are restored to their former state.
Smedes suggests a three stage process of forgiveness. Firstly, we rediscover the humanity of the person who wronged us. They are sinful humans, as we all are. We may not ever know the circumstances which led them to be hurtful, but wisdom teaches that hurt people hurt others. There may be generations of difficult family circumstances that have produced their behaviour. There may be hurts in their own past that they have yet to deal with. They may be far from a right relationship with God, and therefore unable to be in right relationship with others.
Secondly Smedes advocates the step of surrendering our right to get even. The Bible tells us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”(Luke 6:27). One of the first steps in healing from hurt is to pray to God for the willingness to forgive, even to admit our own lack of inclination to do this if that be the case. There’s no fooling God, he knows our hearts, and struggles. It’s never wrong to pray for another person, and a good starting point is that the person concerned will have a deeper understanding of God and His ways, that they will be blessed with wisdom so as not to have the same thing happen again. Smedes rightly points out that in this unbalanced world, retaliation does not set the scales right, but tips them the other way. We hit back harder than we were hit, and invite further conflict, and so the sorry saga continues.
The final stage in forgiveness is to wish the other well. We may not ever have the relationship we once had, probably not, but may be able to feel that we have moved beyond the situation, perhaps learned from it, and be freed from it. After all, as is pointed out throughout the whole book, forgiveness is a gift for ourselves. We owe ourselves, who have been hurt, freedom and peace of mind.
To return to Smede’s introductory paragraphs:
“The only way to remove the nettle is with a surgical procedure called forgiveness. It is not as though forgiving were the remedy of choice among other options, less effective but still useful. It is the only remedy.”
Smedes writes from a Christian viewpoint, but his style is never preachy and is equally applicable to a broader audience as his advice reflects his background in pschology as well as theology. I thoroughly recommend it as a solid foundation for anyone interested in the topic.
“The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How” by Lewis B. Smedes Summit Publishing Ltd. 1996