I’ve always been puzzled by forgiveness. With little experience of God’s power to renew and heal — but a lot of “shoulds” in my head about how I needed to be a loving person — I thought forgiveness was about silencing my intellect, shutting my mouth, squelching my anger at unjust situations, and then forcing a smile that was so automatic, even I believed it communicated how I felt.
What does it mean to forgive someone who has hurt me? What does unconditional love entail? How is forgiveness related to my convictions about justice and truth? And how, if at all, is my loving and forgiving another related to God’s love and forgiveness for me?
Forgiveness that ensares, and forgiveness that frees
Over the years, I’ve watched many preach and teach forgiveness as they themselves permitted no opposition to their own power over others — theological, spiritual, personal, or institutional. I’ve witnessed savvy people use the concept of ‘forgiveness’ to keep others in line, even as they explicitly modeled behavior that could hardly be described as forgiving. Of course, this is not new. Scripture is full of warnings about powerful people who misuse sacred teaching for their own ends (see Matt. 23 and the books of the prophets).
I would discuss these observations with my parents, since they so stressed the importance of unconditional love and turning the other cheek. My mother had only one story she would tell us about her experience in a concentration camp in China. As a teenager, she realized that she had to stop attending a prayer group with other teenagers who were praying for release. True freedom, she had come to see, was not about being released from the camp, but about being released from the anger and hatred she felt for her Japanese captors. This experience of freedom was a definitive one for her. It gave her a sense of being rooted in God’s love and power, a sense that would be a bulwark throughout her life.
Yet she still struggled with forgiving others. She flinched whenever she encountered a man in military uniform. Some of my earliest memories are of her praying in a whisper for “buckets of love, Lord” (Rom. 5:5) for those she found difficult to love — from Amelita, a young woman who lived with us and projected her anger at her abusive stepmother onto my mother, to the many, usually male, Christian leaders who were threatened by mother’s charisma and sheer force of personality.
In some cases, the struggle clearly bore fruit. Strong and energetic, my parents were a match for each other’s drive, creativity, and conviction. For all their talk about being egalitarian, they played their roles with a romantic flair that I often thought could compete with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton or the characters in an Ibsen play. They fought with high drama, my mother imploring, “But, Bob”— and my father responding with a stern, ‘father knows best’ tone, “Now, Kari.”
In all this, they modeled for me that anger and strong feelings are not to be avoided or run away from, that total honesty about what’s going on is the only way through an impasse, and that the commitment to hang in there until death — through sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer — is the bedrock for handling that wildly complex phenomenon called marriage.
Forgiveness that flows from God’s fertile life
Yet, even though they modeled a healthy way of handling conflict, forgiveness, and reconciliation, I still managed to pick up some faulty ideas along the way — whether from them or from others, I am not sure — about what sacrifice, forgiveness, and unconditional love are all about. As an adult, I’ve gradually come to see, and am still in the process of learning, that forgiveness is not something I have to muster up within myself, but is already part and parcel of the new creation the Spirit has ushered in (as the Old Testament prophets and the apostle Paul have written about).
This new creation is not something that contradicts my creaturely humanity — or its sense of truth and justice. Rather, Christ’s justifying grace is always also a creative righteousness, which never destroys, but rather generates new life. It heals people and situations, and frees them from the old patterns that got them into trouble in the first place. In other words, God’s life is truly a fertile life.
As I am immersed in the way this fertile life permeates the universe, I realize that I can perceive the circumstances of my life differently, without my usual preconceptions about what “should” be happening. The unconditional character of God’s forgiveness — the inexhaustibility of its life and power — is precisely what breaks us free from the conditioning of our past. It enables us to respond spontaneously to life without being burdened by resentment, disappointment, guilt, or hurt over what has happened to us. We can accept what is happening right now, not with false expectations or resignation, but rather with a clarity that enables us to take full responsibility — to freely choose how we might respond, with conscience as our guide.
And the wisdom of conscience may, at times, simply tell us to avoid difficult people or circumstances — or it may tell us to tolerate them. It may inform us that we need not be reconciled with those we have forgiven — or it may tell us to be reconciled. It may even help us discern how best to use our resentments and hurts as clues for delving into the deeper issues that need to be resolved in our lives — those underlying stories about ourselves that keep us trapped in unhealthy and unjust patterns.
These wounds can be clues into our false self’s strategies for coping with the sheer anxiety of being human and not being able to predict or control what happens moment by moment. They can be powerful tools for self-discovery and liberation, for entering more fully into the death of our false self and the life in the Spirit that Paul describes in Romans 6.
Bathed in buckets of love
I call up my father every day now that he cares for my mother, who has Alzheimer’s. We talk about many things: how he’s handling being my mom’s full-time caregiver, what adult daycare to send her to, why God allows suffering and evil. Sometimes he can be grim—and even downright mad — about this duty that’s come at the end of their more than fifty years of marriage.
But usually his unique blend of Swedish Calvinism gives him the eyes to see the wonder that emerges each new day — in the delicious meals he’s learning to cook, the delightful people who have shown up to help him care for my mother, and the additional time he now has for things he didn’t quite have enough time for in the past (exercise, prayer, reading, writing in his journal, and sitting around having coffee with people).
And he’s correcting a lot of my faulty theology, especially about forgiveness. Of course, you must stand up for yourself. Of course, you must confront bullies. Of course, you must be true to your conscience and inner sense of integrity. Of course, you must become all that you are as a unique individual. Even Jesus confronted bullies, walked away from people and situations who were harmful, was true to his conscience, and stood up for himself so that he could be true to the unique vocation God gave him to enact.
And, in her blissful state of Alzheimer’s, my mother is probably teaching me more about unconditional love than she ever did with a clear mind. Or at least I’m finally receptive to it, as she looks at me — whom she still recognizes as her “baby O-i” — with an impish delight and an almost naughty giggle, her face completely unperturbed by anger or fear.
It is true that she has flashes of anger throughout the day — when humiliated because she needs help in the bathroom or indignant when we won’t allow her to have another piece of toast (having forgotten that she’s already had two). But she forgets these flashes just as quickly and there you are facing someone looking at you with such purity and contentment — both with herself and with you — that you catch a glimpse of what it means to be a creature whom God sees as “very good” (Gen. 1:31).