Open Mouth, Insert…Forgiveness?

I think I’ve “stepped in it” over at DeConversion blog. In an attempt to be honest about my life, and encourage an openslforgiveness_lrg.jpg discussion about the concept of forgiveness, I’ve really backed myself into a corner. A poster named “Atheist” offered the insight that perhaps I was not at peace with myself and my concept of the God of the bible. Methinks he/she is right. I’m not at peace. I want to be at peace. I want to either be this or that, but never am. I guess the definition of forgiveness should have been explored in my post first, but I always write truest and best when I am in the throes of spiritual struggle. The spiritual struggle here being my concept of forgiveness, while de-toxing from christian fundamentalism. In this case, it’s interesting that people have come at the post mostly from the emotional and spiritual angle. What other angle is there you ask? Why the legal angle, of course. The responsibility and restitution angle. In this passage, Jesus seems to be saying that forgiveness is a debt AND is an emotion:

21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone[a] who sins against me? Seven times?”

22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven![b]

23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.[c] 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars.[d] He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters[e] from your heart.”

Notice that the one who offends owes a debt. The one offended against experiences the emotion and has the responsibility to correct that emotion. Notice also the phrase, “from your heart.” What does that mean? We have to FEEL forgiveness truly before we have truly forgiven anyone? God doesn’t accept a rote forgiveness, the releasing of debt without the emotional rancor involved? Or like the judge, are we merely forgiving a debt owed to us? To make things even more complicated (in my view), I received this in my email at work this morning (from a newsletter I subscribe to) and I received it AFTER I wrote the post at DeConversion blog:

Forgiveness, The Cement of Community Life by Henri Nouwen
Community is not possible without the willingness to forgive one another “seventy-seven times” (see Matthew 18:22). Forgiveness is the cement of community life. Forgiveness holds us together through good and bad times, and it allows us to grow in mutual love.

But what is there to forgive or to ask forgiveness for? As people who have hearts that long for perfect love, we have to forgive one another for not being able to give or receive that perfect love in our everyday lives. Our many needs constantly interfere with our desire to be there for the other unconditionally. Our love is always limited by spoken or unspoken conditions. What needs to be forgiven? We need to forgive one another for not being God!

Now here, Nouwen is discussing the community of church and Christians gathering together. That kind of forgiveness is easy (for me anyway) and the sins are not as grievous. But what do you do about forgiving someone who never asks for forgiveness, has no remorse, and is not a Christian? Who has hurt you body and soul; who has torn out your innocence and stomped on it? Am I obligated to forgive emotionally or as far as the debt owed is concerned? What do you do if there’s no possibility of someone asking your forgiveness because of death or another permanent barrier? I understand the benefits of being relieved of hate, rage, vengeful feelings, and other such things that accompany being offended against, but changing your emotions psychologically is not the same as forgiving a debt. I see forgiveness as debt cancellation. Is that wrong? What is forgiveness exactly? Must it always be couched in religious and spiritual terms?

Here, notice that Jesus adds “if he repents…” in the Luke passage:

Luke 17:3-4, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, `I repent,’ forgive him.

Right now, I’m free of hate toward those who’ve grievously offended me, but I think they still owe me a debt and they have never repented nor asked forgiveness. It’s taken a very long time to no longer feel the anger and betrayal and sometimes I still have those feelings, but I don’t seek revenge. Therefore, does the burden of forgiveness ALWAYS rest on the person offended against and why should that be so? Does anyone understand what I’m trying to say here or have I come up with some solution for me alone and a generally incomprehensible idea or can we indeed separate emotion from the responsibility of forgiveness and restitution?

I guess all this is predicated on your definition of God and forgiveness and justice. I’m still struggling with all that too. Remember, I believe the bible is a guide, not the last word. I’m coming at this from the viewpoint that we cannot know anything for sure and from an honest struggle to live spiritually in an extremist world, that’s all.


27 thoughts on “Open Mouth, Insert…Forgiveness?

  1. mystery, marriage and family are also community. Have you read Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen? Also, have you seen the movie Ostrov? The hero of the movie, Father Anatoly, is not at peace, and the abbot came to see him for spiritual guidance. Its ok not to be at peace. I am not at peace. Jesus Christ came to bring not peace, but a sword. Don’t worry about it. You are doing just fine. 🙂

  2. Welcome artisticmisfit! I’ve not read that book nor have I even heard of Ostrov. In my forays into religion, my family and I had been chrismated at an Antiochan Orthodox church in another state, but sadly there is not one near where I live now. I sense you know a bit about Christian Orthodoxy?

    I don’t know why I worry. I am a little impatient when answers aren’t forthcoming and, well get the worry beads out, I ponder and dwell. Thanks for the encouragement! 🙂

    How’s that web page coming along??

  3. 🙂 I can’t resist reincarnating as Zoe again. Seems the best and truest fit for me. I have “become” Zoe. 😉

    May I join in with the discussion?

    I just want to chat a bit. Not that I have answers. Just some thoughts about the process of forgiveness, because I think I see it as something like healing, recovery, personality and life in general. None of it is a black and white issue. None of it.

    I think when we come out of our previous black and white worlds of fundamentalistic/legalistic (as I define it) behaviour, it is difficult to reprogram or redefine “issues” that were at one time cemented in our previous experiences.

    As you may have picked up in my struggle in various things I have written previously, I have had a difficult time with what I call “middleness.” The life-long pattern set down in early years and later in my Christianity, required a choice. At it’s extreme, it was Heaven or Hell, Jesus or Satan, Life or Death. Absolutely *no* middle ground allowed.

    In leaving Christianity, I stepped into the world of Agnostic Atheism. Then I felt the pressure of unbelievers who saw that label as sort of wishy-washy, or again, to much “middleness.”

    When push comes to shove, my angst about it all is not being able to just “be” and allow myself to not worry about how I’m perceived by others. If I’m always focusing on “them” I can’t “be” me.

    All that to say, I think forgiveness has layers or stages to it, just live healing, recovery, personality, life and death. Some of us have been nurtured to be “impatient” with those layers and/or stages by previous life-experiences.

    We tend to see impatience as a “negative” trait. For me, I turned it around and began to see it as a “postive” trait. Something that I paid attention to and asked myself, why it is that I’m impatient about it? What I learned was, that my “impatience” was about another layer or another stage I was going through, that was leading me to my answer. I learned that my “negative impatience” was to be expected, because it had become the “norm” for me. It was nurtured in an anixety-filled environment that demanded “answers” n o w! You have a choice. Make it. Make it now! Life or Death. Choose.

    Can’t you just feel the anxiety in that way of living?

    I believe we all do ourselves and injustice, if we move into forgiveness before it’s time. There is no set answer or universal answer. It’s incredibly individualistic and what has to happen, in my opinion, is that we allow ourselves to be different in our forgiveness then others are. Forgiveness should not look the same, across the board. If it does, then it’s cloned forgiveness, which we often see in certain churches.

    If you see the Bible as a guide, keep it as such and don’t tend to want to take certain scriptures as absolutes for you or for anyone for that matter. Use them as a guide, according to your experience, which is unique in that, it’s your experience. Yes, your experience may be similar to someone else’s but that doesn’t mean you are meant to follow their “map” to forgiveness.

    I think it’s likely you are following your own map. You might even be at the edge of moving into forgiveness as you know it, but, you don’t know it yet, because the edges are still stained with the tendency to try and do it right or a certain way, based on what you were maybe indoctrinated with before.

    I think the tendency to “worry” might be born out of your past and past fundamentalist belief. My perspective is that, my past fundamentalism was basically about death and talk about killing the spirit…yikes! But, you know Moi, so much of it was based on fear. And we were always told, ‘You’d better hurry up and decide or else!, what if God comes back and you haven’t made a choice!?, what if you die tonight and you didn’t get around to forgiving!?, you might end up in hell!, God might not forgive you!…think about how many people made decisions based on such a theology and/or worldview.

    I think when one comes out of fundamentalism, but still holds to a belief in God, it is very difficult to see that God in another light and I think it is very difficult to move into using the Bible as a guide without that past black and white way of thinking and being, interferring.

    I like the part above where ArtisticMisfit mentioned that you are doing just fine. You see, as a fundamentalist, we never saw ourselves that way and we were often reminded that we were anything but fine.

    I’ll end my dissertation now.


  4. Oh, Zoe, you elusive little minx you! I love you I really do! You wrote:

    “I think it’s likely you are following your own map. You might even be at the edge of moving into forgiveness as you know it, but, you don’t know it yet, because the edges are still stained with the tendency to try and do it right or a certain way, based on what you were maybe indoctrinated with before.”

    This is so unbelievably true, as is what your wrote about the hurry-up-do-it-now-before-it’s-too-late mentality. This is also so true. I feel pushed to make a decision and what’s waiting for me if I don’t? “Hell” I’ve done unbelievably well so far not offering forgiveness to those who refuse to ask it. Why should I if no one asks?

    I’ve made peace with that. I don’t fly into rages as much as I used to. I don’t hate the abusers. I can take or leave them. It’s this religious concept that has me going in circles. Why do I listen? How to stop the noise?

    Please, please chime into any conversation. You and I both know we have to watch each others’ backs, especially “over there!”


  5. Moi, yes I know a bit about Eastern Orthodoxy. I am a member of an Eastern Orthodox church and sing in an Eastern Orthodox choir. Congratulations on your chrismation. The Antiochian church is wonderful, I know many excellent Antiochian priests. Why don’t you attend church?
    I have several prayer ropes, plus several rosaries. Most of them were gifts. My favorite one is my 100 bead rosewood prayer rope. I use it all the time.
    I got my blog site up an running last night, you can get to it through my name. What should I write about next?

  6. Artistic,

    There isn’t one where we now live. We all attended in another state when my husband transferred for work. Now, back in our home state, there is no Orthodox church within 300 miles. So we attend the Catholic church now and then and I attend a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) now and then. My background is fundie Baptist.

    I too used to sing in the choir. I used to joke that they should have oxygen tanks next to the choir gallery for all those high notes! I’m a soprano or think I am anyway. 🙂 Our congregation was an entire Episcopal congregation and priest that converted to the Antiochian Orthodox Church, so it was Anglicasized a bit, but we loved it. It was an experience!

    Well, I’ll hop on over and check it out!

  7. I have not found oxygen to be the problem, but the strength of my diaphragm and confidence. We have several strong sopranos in our choir already, and several strong altos. I kind of feel unnecessary… There is not much on my blog. I have to be very careful, as I say, what I put out there in public, on my web space. I can not afford to be identified.

  8. Ah, I wuv you too.

    This part here: “It’s this religious concept that has me going in circles. Why do I listen? How to stop the noise?”

    Maybe, in order to stop the noise, we have to listen? It may be the only way to help us sort it all out.

    Then over time, the circle, or the merry-go-round as I’ve dubbed it, comes about less and less and the times we go around become less and the amount of time on the merry-go-round lessens. Maybe. 🙂

  9. I understand that happens for some people. I’m of the group that jumped before the thing slowed down and skinned my knees. 😉

  10. Mystery:

    You have nothing to apologize for regarding your post on forgiveness over in d-C. I know how you FEEL. (Or, I’ve got a pretty damn good idea, he said, hoping she remembers his other post.)

    Where you are is simply…where you are. Accept it. And knowing that you want to be at peace with your hideous fundamentalist past and everything you have endured is a very serious step toward getting where you want to be.

    Be patient with the process, please. I beg you.

    I have a hunch you’re too smart not to get where you’re going. Not that I know where you’re going I just…I have a hunch you’ll get there.

    (I work nights so I’m not making any sense…that’s probably why!)

  11. You guys are speaking to me but I don’t know if I fit. I have such a different take on things. As I’ve said at the “other” site, I would be considered a fundamentalist, but I buck at the term. I attend a Bible church now, after a long search to find the best fit. I taught Bible studies for years, and find my best moments are when I’m in the word, listening to the Lord. Does all of this sound strange to you?

    My steps toward forgiveness have been slow. I find I move forward and then fall back. . . a few more steps forward . . . a couple more back….you get the picture…

    I do not believe anything will ever separate me from God’s love, and that He totally gets my struggle to make sense of senseless deeds. To forgive abusers seems so wrong, but in doing so (the small amount of mercy I have been able to extend) I have felt less angry. Rage isn’t an issue anymore – but I do think I’ll always struggle with the shame and lack of self worth. I have to remind myself, many times a day, that God sees me, knows me intimately, and will accept me through His Son.

    I’m going on and on……….sorry. Hope I’m making sense.


  12. Hi NorEaster!! (Waving),

    I appreciate the encouragement. And I do have to realize it’s a process, but I tend to get a tad impatient as Zoe can attest. And despite your lack of sleep, you are making a lot of sense. 🙂

  13. Michelle,

    NEVER talking about you personally, because you are one of those who hold their beliefs close to the vest I think without being pushy. It’s the pushy ones that really get me.

    I too believe that nothing will ever separate ANY of us from God’s love, whatever that is in ultimate reality. Perhaps the truly evil cannot face such love and that’s their “punishment” if there is one. I too wrestle with the same things you do and despite all the noises to the contrary, there is still a place where I do believe and I’m sure that will never go away.

    Much love and hugs to you.

  14. Thanks, I’ll keep dropping by. I know we don’t see everything the same, but I’d love to know your take on some of my blogs. I’m not trying to come off as a know-it-all, but I think people see me that way. I’m not sure if it’s the Texan in me, or my “authoritative teacher” mode.

    Anyway, thanks again. I do pray God richly blesses you.

  15. I don’t know if anyone else has mentioned in, but in the Bible story you’re mentioning, I think it’s key that both parties begged for mercy. One from the king, and received it. Then the one who had received forgiveness was in turned pleaded with himself … and refused to grant forgiveness, and insisted on the “pound of flesh.” Not only that, but the first debtor was forgiven quite a few pounds of flesh, whereas he got stingy on the one owed to him.

    In the situations you were mentioning, the people who had done wrong weren’t begging for mercy. In the abstract sense, if we call Fred Phelps on his abysmial behavior, he’s going to tell us how wrong we are, how hell-bound we are, and then make sure he lives long enough to picket our funerals. He’d never beg us, or any he’s attacked, for forgiveness.

    In terms of the heart — the king who forgave was moved with pity. And in response to that pity, he acted. So his desire and his action were in tune. The king didn’t feel a need for revenge, and forgive anyway. He was rather “open” to the compassion.

    So with the unrepentent, I think you’re more supposed to make sure that their behavior doesn’t control you in an unhealthy way. And then release the debt if they ask. But the story doesn’t really go into what to do with those who don’t ask for mercy. You’re still suppose to “love” them, but I would see that “love” in the sense of preventing them from hurting another person, and trying not to act as they do, even to them.

    **We need to forgive one another for not being God!**

    On a random note, I have a real problem with this statement. How can we be forgiven for something impossible for us in the first place?

  16. Onesmallstep,

    Agreed on all points. Yes, I’ve witnessed a lot of people, me included, that say they are Christian yet do not forgive as God forgives when asked. And that right there is the key, forgiving when asked! If people don’t ask, I’m not obligated to forgive. Why do some people skip over this point? Nowhere in the bible does it say to forgive if another doesn’t repent.

    Yes, Nouwen’s statement at the end is the one that I disagreed with as well. It’s kind of “out there” and is meaningless in the sense that, of course no one’s “God.” I’ve never thought of others in that way either. I still don’t know what it means.

  17. Isn’t that what Nouwen is saying, ‘that it’s impossible to “be” God in the first place, so stop expecting it out of one another.’ My paraphrasing of course.

  18. MOI,

    **I’m not obligated to forgive. Why do some people skip over this point? Nowhere in the bible does it say to forgive if another doesn’t repent.**

    Agreed. However, I still go back to the difference of forgiveness and letting go. While the person may be unrepentent, so long as we hold anger at the person, it’s like the person can still control us. It seems heathy to be at the point where the person no longer emotionally affects us — and that doesn’t always mean forgiveness. We may still hold the person accountable for his/her actions, we simply don’t let those actions affect us.


    That’s not how I read it. Obviously, given what I said. 🙂 But he mentions that we have to forgive one another for not being able to completely give/receive perfect love, even though that’s what we long for. But if we need to stop expecting everyone to be perfect, why would we then have to forgive each other for not being God? Unless you’re seeing the last line uttered sarcastically? But it seems that if the problem is our expectation with others, then forgiveness of others isn’t the issue. Rather, we need to work on re-molding our expectations to something more realistic.

  19. I’m not sure OSS. I guess I read it at first, the way I paraphrased it.

    See as a Christian, I never saw forgivenss quite the same way as everyone else.

    Here’s an example of a situation I found myself in one day after church.

    A certain family had a father that was dying. The son-in-law was in a panic because he thought that his father-in-law was going to hell because the Christian FIL had not forgiven the Christian SIL for something the SIL had done, which the FIL took offense to.

    The SIL had his whole family in a tizzy over this, based on the scripture that if you don’t forgive, God won’t forgive you.

    They asked me to pray for them and I said I would, but, first I asked them to sit down in the pew with me for a talk.

    You see, they weren’t going to see the dying man anymore because of this whole issue and they felt he wouldn’t know they were there and well there’s more to the story, but that’s enough for my comment here.

    What I wanted to do was get them to “think” about how they were handling this. To slow down and remember that God is God and they have no idea how God handles these situations. 🙂 I encouraged them not to give in to their fears, and to remember that, even if their dad was unable to respond to them, quite possibly, he could still hear, as it often is that last sense to leave us, when we are dying. Maybe they would never hear an audible declaration of forgiveness from the father, but, that doesn’t mean in might not happen. I reminded them that we have no idea the conversations that take place in a dying person’s mind. We simply have no control over that. What we do have control over, is our own actions and our own words.

    The SIL was restless about that and I said, look, you have no idea what your FIL can hear or what he can say to God in his last hours.

    I only shared that with them because I had seen this whole forgiveness stuff looked at it such a legalistic, black and white way. People were acting and speaking as if they were God. In our church, people were playing God all the time. I figured that people should let God be God.

    It seemed to me that taking a few words written down on paper and taking them literally, just got in the way of people having common sense. And, it’s really difficult to have any common sense when one is overwhelmed with the prospect of a family member spending eternity, burning forever in the flames of hell. 😦 This SIL couldn’t think straight and he and his family were ready to walk away from a dying family member (over what really was an argument and misunderstanding among loving family members), because they couldn’t handle thinking, he was going to hell.

    I mean, I just looked at this family in their pain and thought, geesh, you guys aren’t thinking straight.

    Anyway, I went home, onto my knees, prayed for an hour and got up. The next week at church, the family wept in front of me, tears of joy, for talking to them and encouraging them to go to their father’s side. They talked calmly, lovingly, asked his forgiveness (because they had been in the wrong too), and said goodbye to him and left it in God’s hands. Because of this, the family was at peace, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

    So, yes, I read into Nouwen’s comments (based on my own experiences) that it may not be an issue of forgiveness as much as it is our misunderstanding about what forgiveness may mean, based on the interference of our expectations of one another and or the pressure of our own needs.

    I’m not sure I can articulate it well enough to communicate it properly here. I just felt like I knew what Nouwen was saying.

    I also noted that Nouwen is referring to “community.” I think of the close knit community of a church and of a family. Nouwen seems maybe, to be talking about the benefits of forgiveness when it comes to maintaining cooperative relationships with one another.

    When it comes to major offenses as in abuse of any kind, I’m not sure Nouwen would even say his quote here applies to that sort of situation. I don’t know what he’d say then.

    Heinous crimes officially break the bond of community, whether that be a family or the church. A rush to forgiveness (and victims are often pressured to do so) in those situations, I believe is a grievous error.

    Did any of this make any sense at all? 🙂

  20. Onesmallstep,

    I understand what you are saying about healing. But, I still contend that emotionally dealing with the fallout of an event and forgiving the participants are two very different things. Forgiveness implies release from a debt owed, however I may feel about it. I cannot see that continuing to link the two things together has any merit or helps in any way. Forgiveness is a transaction. Emotion and the releasing of it is beside the point. Even after we no longer feel bitter and no longer hate an abuser, forgiveness is still not forthcoming. Why? Because the offender is unrepentant no matter how far I’ve come emotionally. One does not precipitate the other.

  21. Zoe,

    I think I see what you’re saying, in that the power can seem to be in the person’s hands. Our perspective becomes God’s perspective, and we then “know” what God will or will not do in terms of a person, even though we can only know the exterior of the person, where God knows the person inside and out.

    However, your story has also highlighted why I have such problems with the idea of “hell,” simply for the act of being human.


    I think we’re saying the same thing? Given my last statement of, “We still hold the person accountable for his/her actions, we just don’t let it affect us.” We can tell a person that they no longer make us angry or really even register to us, but that doesn’t in turn mean they’re released from the debt. It just seems in Christianity that two are synomous, and so if you do one, you “naturally” do the other one. As in, if you haven’t forgiven someone, you must still be angry at them.

  22. Good to be “among” those who share ideas. I have been a blogger now but for a few short weeks, but blogging came into my life at a time I was figuratively “starving” for someone with whom I could converse, share ideas, even argue a point or two now and then. I’d like to ask just one question at this time. . . why should I, or any one of you, be burdened with the onus the church has laid upon the backs of its parishioners for some two thousand years and that is . . . a sense of shame and a lack of self worth?
    While I don’t believe it, mankind is supposed to be created in the image of God, is he not? It seems to me that as long as person is loving, thoughtful, kind, and, as generous with his wealth as has his circumstances allow, I see no reason for any feeling of debasement whatsoever. Man was made for walking upright but given knees so he may sit and refresh himself when tired, but not for kneeling in self-doubt.

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