Lately I’ve been thinking about forgiveness and how sometimes it is pushed as the cure-all for relationship problems. All of us have bad days when we grumble, snip, argue, or generally want to be left alone and do not act like ourselves. When these responses hurt others, they can be quickly resolved by asking for forgiveness and returning to joy (being glad to be together) with those whom we have offended.
But it seems to me that major hurts can easily leave us estranged from others if not addressed. How do we handle forgiveness differently when the hurt is major versus resolving every-day conflicts?
Trying to get through a major conflict without talking through what caused it and potential consequences from it is like being in a car wreck where there’s major damage to the car and then driving off and acting like the car’s alright. Would we ignore the hurt loved ones and just get into the car and try to drive away? Is it possible to think, “Oh, the car is messed up but it will be OK; it still drives.” I doubt many of us would respond this way. We would want to talk through the cause of the accident and the consequences it brings. We would not just “forgive and go on.”
So it needs to be with major breaches in our relationships. It can feel awkward and even scary to talk about the difficulties and to sit with others whom we’ve hurt or who have hurt us, but when major hurts happen they need to be discussed and learned from, not just forgiven. When we fear discussing and working through rifts, and decide not to talk it through with others who are involved, forgiveness can be more like pretending. It can be like getting in the wrecked car and driving away as if the pain from such an event doesn’t exist. Our fear over the potential conflict involved in working through major issues often keeps us from truly forgiving and reconciling. (For this look at forgiveness I am not ignoring the fact that some relationships can never be reconciled face-to-face and forgiveness has to take place in spite of never being discussed.)
Let’s look at this from another angle: How does forgiveness fit with identity? If we can see the other person as who they truly are in Christ, we can see that how they acted in the moment that caused us pain is really not how they want to act with us. It can help us overcome our fear of checking out causes and consequences together, and it can make resolutions easier. When major breaches happen, they most likely happen when we are not acting like ourselves. The hurtful behavior does not reflect who we are in Christ. Who we are, and who the other person is, is more important than what we did in the moment that the hurt happened. The relationship is more important than the problem. The problems get worse when fear is greater than the desire to return to joy (be glad to be together again). The questions are more like this: “Can I chance helping someone who hurt me see that their behavior does not reflect who they are? Am I willing to chance that they will blow up, attack, reject me, or not listen? Is it too risky to give a good shame message?” As we depend on God, He can work us through our fear so that relationships can be restored.
Like our car wreck illustration, if we look at the need to overcome fear of confrontation using a scenario where a child is being abused, perhaps it might be easier to consider what we need to do. This is not something that we would ignore or forgive and go on. If the fear is too great to speak up, we might need to get someone to help. Forgiveness is not a band-aid to make pain better without addressing the wounds. Big hurts are a big deal. Pretending is not the same as forgiveness.