This article originally appeared in the March 1985 issue of HIS magazine.
Lewis Smedes transformed my approach to fractured relationships. Before I read his book Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve (Harper & Row), I thought of forgiving other people as a duty. Now, I see it as a dubious pleasure I'm bound to benefit from—less like making my bed and more like eating my spinach.
Smedes, a professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes: "Recall the pain of being wronged, the hurt of being stung, cheated, demeaned. Doesn't the memory of it fuel the fire, reheat the pain again? … You are locked into a torture chamber of your making. Time should have left your pain behind; but you keep it alive to let it flay you over and over.
" … Is this fair to yourself—this wretched justice of not forgiving? … The only way to heal the pain that will not heal itself is to forgive the person who hurt you. Forgiving stops the reruns of the pain."
It's good for you
What spinach does for Popeye's biceps, forgiveness can do for your soul. When Professor Smedes visited Chicago recently, I asked him why he emphasized the personal benefits of forgiveness so much.
Smedes: The end of forgiveness is reconciliation. But you can't always achieve it, because the person who forgives has no control over that. The reasons may be natural—if someone who hurt you dies or moves, you can't be reconciled.
Or you may have to be reconciled to a new kind of relationship. You and your friend may have grown apart because your interests or convictions have changed. Even if you forgive, you may not want to be friends again. Coming back together in the same way is just not always possible.
HIS: But you can achieve personal healing without reconciliation?
Smedes: Yes. It's ego-oriented in a way. If you've been unfairly hurt, whether by some rank titan of evil or by your nice, sweet mother, the question is "Are you going to be chained to that moment in the past? Are you going to go through continuous unfair pain? Or are you going to claim a right that divine grace gives you—to be healed of it, to be free of it?"
Free at last
That's good news. We can be free from the pain of past hurts if we refuse to let it control us. Even when reconciliation is impossible, we can be healed by forgiving the person who hurt us.
Here's how it works: Smedes has outlined a four-stage process through whicb most of us pass as we forgive the hurts we don't deserve.
First comes hurt. Someone—perhaps someone you trust, like a friend, a family member or a teacher—betrays you, makes a cutting remark or treats you unfairly. And if you're at all normal, you'll feel pain.
Second comes hate. The person you formerly trusted becomes the target of your antipathy. You wish them the worst. And why not? The memory of the hurt continues to pain you.
Third comes healing. But healing comes only if you're willing to release yourself from the advantages of pain. Hate, after all, can be energizing. When we've had our flesh singed at the martyr's stake, the sense of our own holiness can fuel our self-esteem for years.
An unrealistic view of our own goodness and our enemy's evil can prevent healing. We must recognize that the person who hurt us is probably not so much a monster as a weak, needy, silly person who doesn't always act rationally—like us. Then, of course, we'll have to let go of hate and its energy. But at the same the, pain will release its grip on us.
Coming together again, the fourth stage and ultimate goal of forgiveness, is not always possible.
Smedes's scheme sounded like just so much more pop-psych to me: A numbered list of stages combined with lots of you-can-do-it encouragement.
Then it happened. Just a few days after our interview, somebody I trusted let me down and, when I complained, accused me of violating our trust. We were unavoidably separated over the weekend. As I indulged in introspection, I watched Smedes's four stages march by: Friday night I hurt. By Saturday morning my active imagination was creating unspeakable horrors for my friend to suffer. Saturday night I was able to talk the matter through with a confidence-keeping third party. And on Sunday morning healing arrived. I had only to wait for Monday to seek reconciliation. I'm a believer.
Many students are bitter about a school, church or other institution that has treated them unfairly. I asked Professor Smedes how someone in that situation should go about forgiving.
Smedes: Institutions are myths, just as corporations are legal myths. They have a terrible reality, but when you go looking for them, all you can find is a building, a board room, a secretary, or a dean.
HIS: Let's say a student has completed three years of college and is having difficulty pulling together the money for his fourth year. When he goes to the business office to get cleared for registration, there's a foul-up. He knows the money is coming, but he can't convince the clerk with the cat's-eye glasses. So he misses the fall term of his senior year. He is hurt and angry at the institution. How would you help him deal with that hurt?
Smedes: I would try to get him to make sure he knows who hurt him.
HIS: Not just the faceless university?
Smedes: Yes, he's got to know whether someone did something unnecessary to him, something terribly unfair that could have been avoided.
This person may have to discover the painful lesson that we live in a world that sometimes hurts us, yet nobody needs to be forgiven. He may have to distinguish between things that are appropriate for forgiving and things that are appropriate for saying, "This is the way it is, and I got stung."
My son had an experience just like that recently. He stayed out of school and worked for a while. He's a dedicated Christian who gave away more than 25 percent of his salary. When he went back to school he had no job—and no savings. He'd given his money away.
So he asked for a student grant. They didn't ask, "How much did you give away?" And they didn't ask, "How much will you be making in the coming year?" They asked, "How much did you make last year?" They told him he couldn't have a grant.
He's still angry about it. But I think he's come to see that in a world of big places and computers, you can get caught in a squeeze, and there's nothing to do but wait it out. I don't think he had anybody to forgive.
Sometimes maturing is more necessary than forgiving.
We also talked about students who were hurt by a parent who has died or disappeared. These students continue to hurt because the person a child should be able to trust most abused them physically, emotionally, or even sexually. These students travel an especially difficult road to forgiveness and emotional healing.
HIS: How would you help a hurting student forgive a dead or absent parent?
Smedes: That kind of hurt is as hard to heal as any past pain. First of all, I would help that person accept the fact that it's going to take time.
HIS: So time is an important factor in forgiveness?
Smedes: Expecting instant healing can be disappointing. Forgiving is like drawing compound interest. You get gradual increments rather than one big bonanza. The student should expect to suffer for a while.
Second, it's very important for a student who's been hurt by a parent to realize that it is natural to hate a father or a mother. We all want to remember our mothers as saintly and our fathers as noble. But to forgive means to hate first. Sometimes parents are wacky people. Even the best can have a cruel side. Hating parents isn't all that unusual.
Hate is a valid feeling. But it's a terrible feeling. "God will kill me for hating my mom!" You know? But I would never tell a student, "Don't hate your mother." I'd let him writhe until it hurts so bad. And when he reaches the bottom of the abyss, he'll be ready to forgive.
Healing is helpful, I thought. But Jesus seems to say forgiveness is a duty, not an option.
HIS: Jesus told us that we have to forgive in order to be forgiven by God.
Smedes: I don't think he said, "In order to be forgiven." You have to remember that all talk of forgiving in the Bible is metaphorical.
HIS: Like the Lord's Prayer using the metaphors of debt and trespass?
Smedes: The pictures come mostly out of the commercial world. But I can't believe that Jesus would say, "I'll forgive you as a reward for forgiving someone else."
HIS: You're right, because that would turn forgiveness into buying your admission pass to heaven's gate. But Matthew 18 does say that if we do not forgive our brothers from our hearts, our Father will not show us mercy.
Smedes: That statement of Jesus crystallizes the absolute incongruity of separating being forgiven from forgiving. If you don't forgive, if you practice a lifetime of going for the jugular, it is utterly inconceivable that you have been forgiven.
I've never laid forgiving out as a duty. It just isn't. The law of Christ isn't like that. The law of Christ is always an invitation to freedom. All I can say is "The terrible thing that happened is irreversible. It can't change." Do you want to he tied to that forever? Or do you want to go on from there?"
HIS: But doesn't our experience of God's forgiveness introduce us into a realm of grace where we're expected to act in a new way?
Smedes: Yes. When I'm in a self justifying mood, forgiving is not a seven-story, but a seventy-times-seven-story mountain to climb, because what you've done to me assaults my desperate need to be on top of things.
But when I experience not only the sadness of my own guilt, but the gladness that comes from knowing that my past is irrelevant to God's feelings about me now, two things happen: I lose my desperate need for justice, and I have the freedom to see other people not just as monsters who walloped me, but as needy human beings who tried to cope with their problems by being cruel to me in one particular instance.
If I were talking with a young person who hated a parent, I would work first of all on leading him into an experience of forgiveness.
HIS: How can I help someone experience God's forgiveness? Let's say I have a classmate who feels terribly guilty even though, on the intellectual level, he can say, "I know the Bible says I'm forgiven. But," he continues, "I just can't feel it."
Smedes: You can be a midwife. You can't be much more than that. You can inculcate the right doctrines. But you can't inculcate the feeling of being forgiven.
I wish I had a simple formula for helping people experience God's forgiveness, because I'm experiencing that with someone close to me. She thinks that God is letting her down. She's angry at God. But I'm convinced her anger at God is partly a matter of guilt feelings. She's not relieved of them. It's hard to love God when you suspect he's going to clobber you.
Forgive and remember
HIS: You said in your book that forgiving is not forgetting. As a matter of fact, remembering is very important. After all, we don't want another Holocaust. So we make sure it gets into our history books; we produce a TV miniseries about it. We do these things to remind ourselves.
What's the difference between the kind of remembering that keeps us from repeating the same mistake and the remembering that binds us to hating someone from the past?
Smedes: There's a difference between destructive remembering and redemptive remembering. The Old Testament is full of the redemptive kind. The Hebrews were a people who found their identity in memory. They were always remembering what God had done, what God had promised, who they had been. I never hear Moses tell the Israelites to remember how rotten it was in Egypt or how horrible Pharaoh was to them.
HIS: According to Moses, there are two things to remember. One is what God did for you, so that you can serve God better. The other is to remember that you were a slave and a sojourner, so that you will treat slaves and sojourners better.
Smedes: True. But remembering is never just for the sake of savoring the acrimony of how bad it was. Rather, that experience becomes a goad to help us treat other people better.
HIS: And Jesus tells us in the Eucharist …
Smedes: Always to remember in the Eucharist. But not to remember just so you can recall how rotten the Jews were who crucified him.
HIS: The medieval church focused on that aspect.
Smedes: That was a great mistake. That's why resurrection is also part of the Eucharist—to make it redemptive remembering.
While we were talking about redemptive remembering of such awful events as the Holocaust, I asked Smedes about forgiveness and the broad social phenomena of racial hatred and oppressed peoples.
Smedes: When society prevents us from feeling and expressing hate, it finds release through the social body. I'm convinced that Southerners who lynched Blacks did not necessarily hate the "nigger" all that much. They had other repressed hates they were expressing.
HIS: Racism becomes the channel for all sorts of hate. In Studs Terkel's American Dreams: Lost and Found, he interviews a former Klan member. The man came to recognize that the Klan was able to take his frustrations—at being kept down, at faithfully running his corner service station but never getting out of debt—and to focus those frustrations on Blacks.
Smedes: Individually, repressed hate is channeled into what is socially allowable. When somebody does something to your group, you take great pride in saying, "We're going to wallop them twice as hard." It's respectable. People praise you for being an aggressive part of the group.
HIS: While we're talking about social anger, let's discuss oppressed peoples.
You quoted Algerian psychiatrist Franz Fanon's book The Wretched of the Earth: "Violence is a cleansing force. It frees [the person who suffers unfair hurt] from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect."
How does a whole group of people—people who have been unfairly treated for generations and are now energized by their hate and made fearless by the promise of violent victory—how does a group like that forgive?
Smedes: I honestly don't think they can. Groups can deal with life creatively when individuals forgive. I discussed this with South African theologian Alan Boesek. Forgiving is a terrible problem for him personally. He says he can't forgive when he's got the boot on his neck.
I'm sure that's true. But oppressed people had better prepare to forgive, or the cure is going to be worse than the disease. If the South African Blacks get political power, but don't have the power to forgive, that's going to be hell. The energy that Fanon described is eventually a very self-destructive energy.
HIS: Then a group needs a forgiving leader, someone with spiritual insight that can channel the energy.
Smedes: An Anwar Sadat, for example. That helps a lot.
HIS: Let's talk about forgiving God. You recounted in your book the horrible emotional ups and downs of the birth and death of a baby you had desperately wanted. It was going to make it, the doctors said. Then it wasn't going to make it. So you went through a lot. And you had to forgive God.
If I believe in God's sovereignty, goodness and wisdom, why should I forgive God?
Smedes: I have a very conservative evangelical friend who teaches philosophy of religion at Notre Dame. He says, That's absurd. God never needs to be forgiven.
I say, Right. By definition God is good. Being God is never having to say you're sorry. But in experience, it sometimes seems as though he could be doing a lot better than he is.
Now Rabbi Kushner's book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, said you can't blame God. He's not up to this, you know. One little God, how can he run everything? In the end, however, Kushner still asks whether you can forgive God, whether you can excuse God. For a person who believes that God is up to his job but, as in Updike's Rabbit Run, chooses not to do something as simple as pulling the rubber stopper out of a bathtub to prevent a baby from drowning, that person is faced with the same kind of crisis that you are when a human being that you've trusted lets you down.
What happens when you forgive God is only analogical. In faith, I have to believe that God means only good and that he isn't in the business of killing babies. After I discover that God is doing okay and will do okay in the end, I'll do something like forgiving God. I'll say, I don't understand why you didn't conic to my help, God. But I'm going to feel about you as I would a God of love who wants only my good. I have not conceded that God was my enemy. I can't do that. But what I do, in a fuzzy way, is something that has the same results as forgiving.
HIS: So when we "forgive" God, we do it for ourselves. Not because God needs to be forgiven. But because it reconciles us and brings the relationship together again.
Smedes: I think when my baby died, God was weeping. He said, I really wish that hadn't happened.
HIS: Some years ago I read an article that interpreted the torn temple veil at the crucifixion as the Father rending his garments in sorrow.
Smedes: Yeah. Nice metaphor. I know there were Christians who said that even at the cross, God was above all suffering. Well, that makes him too cool for me. I can't live with that. Once I could live with that in my head, but I can't live with it in my head any longer, because I realize that I never really lived with it in my heart.
It's Not Fair
Although personal healing is important and interpersonal reconciliation is substantial, there were deeper theological and social issues that spurred Smedes to write his book.
Smedes: The question that motivated the writing of this book was Jewish anger at Christians who glibly tell them they have to forgive Hitler. "Forgiveness is not fair," they respond. "It's dangerous to wink at evil."
That's the same problem the Pharisees had with St. Paul's claim that God says, The sinner? I'll treat him like a not-sinner.
God's playing make-believe, they said. It's a charade. It's not fair.
I decided to tackle the question of fairness, because forgiving is close to the core of the uniqueness of the Christian ethic.
One ingredient in the answer to the question "Is forgiving fair?" is being fair to yourself. That takes away the burden of deciding when someone deserves to be forgiven. The answer is simple: No one ever deserves to be forgiven. Hitler doesn't deserve it. Eichmann doesn't deserve it. Neither do I. If I hurt you unfairly or unnecessarily, it's the height of folly for me to say, "I deserve to be forgiven."
In ordinary moral bookkeeping, there is no way to factor in forgiveness. You can factor in getting even. You can factor in revenge. That's what we all do. "An eye for an eye" makes perfectly good moral bookkeeping sense. But it makes terrible practical sense. You never do get even.
And not getting even leaves you the victim—with an unfair burden of a painful memory.
This article originally appeared in the March 1985 issue of HIS magazine. Copyright 1985 © Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Used with permission.
Other stories appearing on our site today include:
Forgiveness—The Power to Change the Past | To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.
Controlling the Unpredictable—The Power of Promising | When you make a promise you have created a small sanctuary of trust within the jungle of unpredictability.
Arguments in Favor of Abortion Are Strong … | … if you accept one all-important assumption.
Books written by Lewis Smedes are available at Christianbook.com.
Additional Christianity Today articles written by Lewis B. Smedes include:
How to Deal With Criminals | Is there a biblical principle behind the punishment of those who break the law? (July 8, 2002)
Keys to Forgiving | How do you know that you have truly forgiven someone? (Dec. 3, 2001)
Who Are We to Judge? | Did Jesus forbid us from judging others? (Oct. 8, 2001)
Can God Reach the Mentally Disabled? | Are mentally challenged adults whose intellectual age is probably that of a 1-year-old sheltered under God's salvation? (March 21, 2001)
Is Suicide Unforgivable? | What is the biblical hope and comfort we can offer a suicide victim's family and friends? (July 6, 2000)