By Megan Graham
Some might say the F-word gets thrown around a little too easily in church. Forgiveness. Jesus taught it’s the Christian thing to do. But sometimes natural reactions at being seriously wronged are invalidated by the call to ‘just forgive’.
Can people forgive on demand? Should they be asked to? And what does forgiveness really mean? Is a person who forgives ‘good’; one who doesn’t, ‘bad’?
These questions and the concept of forgiveness in a church context were explored at a workshop held at CTM and facilitated by Bethel Pastoral Centre in November. Approximately 20 people gathered to consider the topics raised, particularly with reference to abuse.
Dr Jenny Dwyer is a therapist and consultant who has worked extensively with victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse and violence.
During the workshop, Dr Dwyer questioned the helpfulness of the dominant narratives around forgiveness – that it is the ‘right thing to do’ and that without it, there can be no closure. She has found in her clinical practice that, in the majority of cases, the most important thing for the victim’s healing and recovery is the need for self-forgiveness.
“It’s about guilt – what did I do wrong? A profound hurt causes a profound change to one’s relationship to one’s self. My clinical experience is the profound damage to this relationship causes the most harm,” she said.
Dr Dwyer has found that what helps the victim is safety (immediate and future); belief and support from others; acknowledging the impact of the harm; holding the person who committed the wrong responsible; evidence of measures taken to ensure it won’t happen again and a sense of justice.
Dr Dwyer believes these help, primarily because: “These affect the future relationship with the self.”
With regards to the perpetrator of the wrongdoing, what she has found most helpful for them is support – but not in a way that minimises the harm done.
“Sometimes the primary task is to assist them in sitting with their shame (to dismiss it too quickly is harmful). Understanding what allowed them to switch off their conscience in that situation,” she said.
Dr Dwyer emphasised the need to hold people responsible and to account. This is different to retribution – and much more painful.
A confronting video containing footage of parents speaking about the years-long abuse inflicted on their daughter from the age of five by their priest left the group speechless.
“If we’re going to talk about this, we need to be mindful of the nature of that grief and suffering – the layers and layers of hurt and distress that exist for people,” Dr Dwyer said.
“The pursuit of forgiveness and the emphasis of forgiveness out of context can cause harm. Forgiveness needs to sit alongside other words such as mourning, sorrow and rage – deeply held feelings and experiences,” she said.
Dr Dwyer does not dismiss the reasons people might pursue or desire forgiveness, believing them to be noble and very human motivations. But out of time and out of place, she said, forgiveness is “a bridge to nowhere”.
“I think there are more important questions [than forgiveness]. Like how do we mourn together over time for as long as it takes without a quick surrender to forgiveness? How do we make sure it doesn’t happen again? How do we make reparation, restoration, justice?”
Rev Chris Mostert, Professor of Systematic Theology at CTM, also spoke at the event. Referring to what the Bible says about forgiveness, he emphasised the mistake in reading it as if it had the force of law.
“Forgiveness can’t be put on us as a law to be obeyed. We should hear the Bible more as saying what God longs to enable us to do than what God requires us to do,” he said.
Mr Mostert explained that the idea that we should be able to simply and easily forgive is like expecting that we can do everything that God can.
“We can’t forgive on command any more than we can love on command. Forgiveness is not the point of departure – but, by the grace of God, a point where we may arrive. I’m not saying Christians can shut their ears to these Biblical texts about forgiveness; if we’re able to forgive a person, that’s a gift,” he said.
In refining the concept further, he also described what forgiveness isn’t. It isn’t sentimental, it isn’t forgetting or condoning, and it isn’t bypassing the requirements of justice. Where possible, damage should be repaired, compensation paid and punishment accepted.
While describing the difficulty of forgiving serious harm, Mr Mostert also claimed its great importance in the Christian faith tradition. Forgiveness allows the victim to establish distance from the harm – putting it “in its place” so as not to be continuously tormented by it.
“We understand how much we are creatures of our past; we also see those who have wronged us as creatures of their past,” Mr Mostert said.
“Forgiveness means letting go … and focusing on the future as much as (if not more than) the past.”
Despite its positive aspects, Mr Mostert does not discount the fact that forgiveness may not be possible in some situations.
“Where the truth of the matter is not confronted and responsibility not taken for it, then I think forgiveness is impossible in that situation,” he said.
Forgiveness. Desirable? Perhaps – but not required.