Paying Attention
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September 2008 - Volume 08, No. 9
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Be Not Quick to Forgive

Be Not Quick to Forgive

As a religious man, I’ve been raised with the admonition to forgive those who have offended me - at least as many times as I have been wronged. Many sermons and much reading set forth that this is as much for my own sake as for my offender, because to hold a grudge over time does damage to one’s own psyche (soul) as well.

I recall the specific client incident years ago that set me to further thinking about this. This man had long suffered alcoholism (though sober a number of years), and we were discussing his father, also an alcoholic. It was obvious there was some unfinished business with his father, but as we began to peel more of the onion, he abruptly said “But I’ve already forgiven him.” With a bit of cheekiness, I responded “Why did you do that?” He said “Aren’t you supposed to?” (He knew the Twelve Step wisdom of AA very well.) We both knew that forgiveness, once given, cannot be withdrawn - yet this it made it much more difficult to accomplish his current work in therapy.

More recently, an older man of long-term minor acquaintance, approached me, telling me with great difficulty, that he had specifically and wrongfully slandered my name in a certain professional setting some years previously, and was now asking my forgiveness. After some initial shock, and being in my nice-guy personality, I told him I forgave him. Soon after, I realized my mistake - though now irretrievable. Fortunately the “slandering” itself was currently of only minor importance to me, professionally or personally. But I realized that my hasty forgiveness made it “too easy” for him, an easiness that would disallow any positive future relationship - that itself another purpose of forgiveness. Were he to be or become a friend, for his sake, I would need to have made it partially an earned forgiveness. Hindsight told me I should have requested that he specifically make amends of my name in the original setting (to which he still had access). And then having done so, to approach me again, and receive my forgiveness. For his sake, moreso than mine, I regret not doing that.

When I speak of earning forgiveness, I’m also aware that the very nature of forgiveness assumes an inability to make full restitution. To forgive a debt is to cancel any remaining part of it. Here the preacher and the psychologist may seem to collide. The theologian’s awareness is that we can never stand before the Almighty with clean hands. Traditionally, it’s our nature (“original sin” etc.). The shadow side of this is a “cheap grace” that easily draws the crowds that keep many churches alive and financially sound. Whatever you do, or have done, God loves you, and all you have to do is accept (or confess). Courtrooms are also familiar with the convict who has “found Jesus” and on that basis claims a right to the Court’s mercy (and thereby society’s forgiveness). [A sidenote here: I would consider that a convict who has “found Jesus” would be more willing to accept the (social, legal, moral) judgment of the Court - realizing that the forgiving grace of the Lord is the specific opposite of the social/legal debt incurred.]

The psychologist sees that the path to forgiveness must by nature go through the path of ordeal. At one level this is the need to earn forgiveness. (“If you really want her to forgive you, then you must earn it.”) Earn, here doesn’t mean to be able to completely repay the debt (which often can never be accomplished), but it assumes a self-imposed intentional ordeal (hard work, struggle, over time) by which to regain at least the respect of the offended, which can then give him or her a sense that by forgiving, the possibility of restoration of relationship can be maximized. Theology and psychology agree that the ultimate purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of relationship .

An ancient wisdom reminds us, “Whatever is done cannot be undone, but whatever is lost can sometimes be found.”*

In my clinical work, this question arises frequently when one of a couple has been unfaithful to the other. The offender generally begs for the forgiveness of the offended. [The other common all-to-common approach is blaming the other (“Well, you made me...”) - by which any sense of personal responsibility is abrogated, and restoration to any healthy relationship is even less possible.]

What is broken here is usually the bond of trust (‘trust you won’t leave me, trust you won’t lie to me’). In many cases, I’ll advise that the time and work necessary to rebuild trust needs to take at least a full year. And forgiveness for that wound (the breaking of trust) needs to be withheld until trust can be sufficiently rebuilt. Since forgiveness is for the purpose of restoring the relationship, that forgiveness must await the work toward restoration. This doesn’t presume a return to the previous relationship - in fact it rarely does. It may even involve a divorce, in which each party accepts the outcome and gains a freedom (hopefully mutual) by which to pursue new futures. It often involves a time of separation (emotional and/or physical). The optimal “restoration” is the emergence of a new relationship, in which each person is stronger, more differentiated (one of my favored psychological terms), more maturely gracious, and hence more capable of living in and actively supporting a vitalized relationship/marriage.

There comes a particular time in this process when the offended can look at the offender and say to him or her, “I forgive you for (wronging me).” This is given without pity, or any sense of rescuing. Rather it’s a gift from one to another that releases the debts of the past, and invites a shared openness and dedication to building (restoring) the adult relationship for which each hungers, and which is the promise of every mature marriage ceremony. Forgiveness is then the gift that can finally restore balance.

That’s why I say “Be not quick to forgive.” But by trusting its deeper purpose and the longer process, taking time can more faithfully accomplish its rich purpose.

Bill McDonald

P.S. One of the highest examples of this difficult process is the group Parents of Murdered Children. After an excruciating process (ordeal), they are often finally able to really forgive the person that has murdered their child. They accomplish that which I personally cannot consider possible. But when I meet them, I believe (and honor) them. It is forgiveness at its most real.

* borrowed from the author Stephen R. Lawhead

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Comments (1)

  • malignant narcissist

    I forgave a malignant narcissist and possibly too fast. I broke contact with him but had a brief chat with him when we had to complete some unfinished financial business. We were in a romantic relationship for six years and he abused me often. I knew something was wrong but I was not sure what it was. Having had a great deal of success with therapy myself, I encouraged him to also go. He said he would and finally he went with me. He only managed two sessions and gave up. The therapist later told me that he ad NPD. I was shocked and ended the relationship and began trauma therapy in order to break the betrayal bond between me and my ex. It had been many months since then when we chatted and he did not ask me directly for forgiveness but he kept putting out statements like, “I feel like a betrayer.” I answered, “Well, you are one.” After many similar interactions, I was fed up and finally said, “I will be fine, I forgive you but I don't want any contact. Goodbye.” In this case, he did not try to earn my forgiveness, he did not sk me directly and since it has become clear that he has no empathy, maybe it would gcve been in my best interest to not offer him forgiveness. I know he is sick and I do not feel sorry for him. I am often in a rage about what happened so was that my learned “good Christian” behavior that so easily offered it to him???

    — Maya, 12/15/2013

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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