On the Impossibility of Forgiveness

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Lately, and vaguely, I’ve been thinking about the impossibility of forgiveness. My own thoughts are not developed on that subject, except this: forgiveness and reconciliation seem impossible, sometimes dangerous, and psychologically unhealthy this side of heaven.

I want to tell that to Christian victims who feel guilt, shame, and confusion over their response to abusers, but I’ve never been able to frame it in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m asking them to deny a major part of their Christian faith.

Chris, on this post, left some powerful and more articulate thoughts on the seeming impossibility of forgiveness:

I think forgiveness and reconciliation of the kind seen in the New Testament are as rare as the physical healings also recorded. Not saying they don’t exist, nor am I saying they are unhelpful things to hope for (though they can be).

The point is, these are concentrated *foretastes* of our future redemption. And yes, the Kingdom of Heaven is now, but it’s also not yet. But for some reason (because it’s neater? because emotions are intangible?), Christians push for reconciliation and/or forgiveness like it’s a daily prayer discipline, when it’s something more extraordinary and rarer.

I wouldn’t want this to be used as an excuse for complacency, but we all have our own healing journeys and I think we need to be OK with God doing some works in slow time, or leaving them incomplete until he comes.

P.S. Check out Chris’s blog about hope, sexuality, and consent here.

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14 thoughts on “On the Impossibility of Forgiveness

  1. ChrisW

    Just to say, I’m really touched that you considered this comment worthy of reblogging!

    For those interested, my thinking behind it was largely developed when I recently blogged about the fate of the villains in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Fifty Shades”. There are some striking differences to observe and the full post can be found here: http://wp.me/p5IlMc-dO

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    • handtothyplough

      Your thinking was “largely developed” by reading “Fifty Shades” and Beauty and the Beast”? You may want to think about what is developing your thinking. I clicked on your blog to get an insight into what you were referring to and was amazed how you took characters turning their lives around as redemptive examples. They may be redeemed but not in the sense of redeemed in Jesus Christ. The stories have nothing to do with redemption through Christ. If forgiveness is this “rare” thing then then i guess when the word says:

      Matthew 18:21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

      22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

      we should just look at this as something that was suggested or exaggerated by Jesus to just make a point that if you can somehow capture this “extraordinary or rarer” concept you should do it a multitude of times. For those that can not, well, continue your journey down the path of what may “seem impossible, sometimes dangerous, and psychologically unhealthy this side of heaven.” Trust the Lord and let His Word lead your thoughts.

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      • ChrisW

        I think it would be best if discussions regarding my blog are held there, rather than here.

        In regard to forgiveness, I’m not sure whether you’re agreeing or disagreeing with Bailey’s position and/or mine, as illustrated in the above post. On the one hand you say Mt 18:22 is hyperbole (which is a supportable interpretation, but not the only one), however the way you quote Bailey’s and my words suggests you are critical of them. I can unpack my thinking and theology further, but it would be helpful to understand whether you are actually encouraging people who struggle with forgiveness to embark on something rare / impossible / dangerous, or if you think forgiveness needn’t be any of those things.

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      • handtothyplough

        You brought up your blog on this post and so did Bailey. It was mainly a quote from you. That makes it relevant to this blog post. I am also sorry to post something in a way that made you misunderstand it for hyperbole. I do not believe forgiveness is always easy but definitely not rare, dangerous, or impossible.

        I will stop commenting on the blog posts for this sight and most likely will not be back to read them either. Contrary thoughts and writing styles are not well received and so it seems that the purpose of this forum is for Bailey to express herself and for those that feel mainly the same way to join in. Godspeed.

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  2. Rebekah

    Hi Bailey, I agree with the idea that forcing or “expecting” or putting pressure on people to forgive and reconcile is unhelpful. Sometimes people need and take time to reconcile if they ever do. There are people like abusers or toxic relationships that need to be cut off and for good reason. Expecting forgiveness to be the automatic norm is ridiculous. However, without Christ and the supernatural work of the cross, Christians have nothing to offer the world beyond platitudes. I think from the point of view of faith, I truly believe that without God nothing is impossible. Forgiveness and reconciliation is humanly impossible, I know that.Reconciliation is something that, if it happens, happens with the right time and place.

    But that’s why I have faith in God, and I really do believe that He heals hearts and brings wholeness in the right time and place. The cross of Jesus Christ doesn’t work in ways that we want or expect it to, certainly. I feel the important thing is not to place expectations on people based on our own experiences and “rules” but let God work, maybe slowly, maybe over a long period of time, maybe in ways we don’t expect, but surely God is God and God wants the best us and is a loving Father. There is NOTHING too difficult for Him – that shouldn’t bring us condemnation or guilt but HOPE, hope which nothing in this world and in this life and not a single person can give. What makes us Christians us that the worst of the worst, the most terrible of circumstances, cannot separate us from the love of God and the healing power of the cross. I believe that even if the “reconciliation” we expect doesn’t come about, healing, wholeness and peace is not impossible, in fact, is only possible through Jesus. And God uses can turn the most terrible of circumstances into good and make them redemptive, not because bad occurrences are ever justifiable and excusable but because God alone is powerful enough to turn the worst things caused by human sin into something redemptive and positive and meaningful, to make things work out for good to them that love Him.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I would like to understand what you’re saying. I’m not sure we’re talking about the exact same thing, or maybe we are, and I’m just missing your point. I definitely think forgiveness through the cross is possible. Are you talking about God forgiving us and/or forgiving our transgressor? I’m talking about interpersonal forgiveness and reconciliation. I definitely think that healing, wholeness, and peace is possible without reconciliation (and sometimes, on this side of heaven, only possible without reconciliation).

      Liked by 2 people

  3. David

    Not only is it OK for forgiveness to take a long time and reconciliation to happen very slowly or not at all, but also, *both of those things are conditional on the wrongdoer’s repentance.*

    And repentance is a very tricky thing to judge, right? Ask anyone who’s ever sat on a parole board. We have very little knowledge of what’s going on inside another person’s head, so it’s completely reasonable for a victim to say, “No. I don’t trust that he’s changed.” and have nothing to do with her victimizer — even if he’s gone months or years or decades without, so far as anyone can tell, a blemish on his record.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Yes, I agree. I have always heard that reconciliation is conditional; rarely do Christians say forgiveness is conditional. To be frank, I don’t know what it means to forgive someone apart from reconciliation. God doesn’t forgive us apart from reconciliation. Forgiveness seems relational, not juridical.

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  4. milkandpickles

    Perhaps we have different definitions of forgiveness, but I’m not sure I agree with you on this. What about people–I’m sure you must also know someone like this–who have been wronged and who refuse to forgive, overshadowing their whole life with the fact that they’ve been hurt? The people I know who are like this have become shells of what they could have been if they hadn’t allowed bitterness to take over. Neither of these people is, however, a victim of abuse (to the best of my knowledge), and it’s not abuse that has made them bitter, but just their relationships with people who were close to them. At any rate, it seems to me that forgiveness, or a letting go of hurts and refusing to let your soul dwell on them, is essential for a person’s wholeness.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Honestly, I am not quite sure what it means to forgive, or rather, I don’t understand forgiveness apart from reconciliation. I certainly don’t advocate revenge or bitterness; that, like you pointed out, is unhealthy. If forgiveness is not dwelling on hurts, then I think it is imperative we forgive for our own well-being. I feel like it’s more complicated for abuse survivors, though, because the trauma changes a person, and often the process of rehashing, feeling anger, etc. comes unbidden. I do agree with you; I’m just talking aloud about the complications.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Elizabeth

    I think, in order to better respond to this, I need to better understand what is meant by forgiveness and reconciliation. I think Christ asks a lot of miraculous things from His followers: we’re to love our enemies, pray for our persecutors, give away our money and time to the poor and needy, give our cloak to the demanding, etc. The Sermon on the Mount seems like a long list of too high standards, and Jesus’ view on forgiveness is no less stringent. He *commands* that we forgive others *as we are forgiven by God or else we will (may?) not be forgiven at all*.

    I no longer believe that these standards are unreachable, but I do believe they are miraculous and the outgrowth of the miracle that takes place by the power of God. However, its not something that we can demand of others, only that Christ can command of us. Of course it takes time and love to get it done, and sometimes it may not come in this world, but we if we stop striving for it, how can we claim to be Christians?

    I do encourage anyone dealing with abusers in their life to seek mental health care to help make sure they’re forgiving in a way that is healthy and safe (so often I think we confuse “forgiving” with what’s sometimes called “rugsweeping”). I also want to emphasize that forgiveness should not mean foregoing justice. But I don’t think we can, as Christians, say its impossible in this world when its so clearly developed in Scripture and tradition as a vital part of our everyday worship and obedience. “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. These impossibilities and their actualization here and now — isn’t this the bedrock of our faith?

    I need to look into this more, but in the interest of a lively discussion, I will say that I do believe forgiveness *is* more akin to a daily practice of obedience rather than a miraculous event such as a healing (although I do still believe it can sometimes be a miraculous thing). For me, this is because of the way its spoken about in the Bible and tradition, especially the epistles, as a regular exhortation for the health of the church, and because it seems to be mainly an act of the will — not anything that relies on the supernatural alteration of an external, physical reality (except the offender’s repentance).

    Just some ideas! I’m considering committing myself to investigating the idea of forgiveness in 2017 as a part of my New Years resolutions. This has certainly helped me begin to think about it.

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