Forgiveness is Not a One Time Thing

December 13, 2018

Photo by Rui Silvestre on Unsplash

Growing up evangelical, forgiveness was taught as a spiritual mandate. Jesus forgives from the cross, and many saints in history forgave their oppressors, creating powerful redemptive narratives. 

I guess for me, I’m not spending too much time striving to be a spiritual hero anymore. (PTL) What I am doing is extricating myself from a lot of the harmful teachings threaded into my spiritual formation, and I’m afraid forgiveness is one of those doctrines that has infected my development. 

After the trauma of my job resignation, a Christian elder told me I should forgive the school for what they did to me. Not for them, but for me, they said, because bitterness would take root and rot me from the inside (um, okay?)

That sounds like benign and loving advice on the surface, but it sorely misses the mark.

Can we stop demanding forgiveness from the wounded? It’s so harsh. When someone is beaten down–hold them, tend to their wounds, tell them you’re sorry this happened to them. Don’t dictate their healing, that’s just plain insensitive. 

I believe forgiveness is a natural by product of healing. When we tend to our wounds with self care, surrounding ourselves with love and light, doing activities that bring joy and love to our souls, our pain GRADUALLY subsides, and when we are healed, we’re not going to be concerned with hating our enemies, we’ll be too busy creating beauty out of our own flourishing. 

But the thing is, we all heal differently, at different rates, via different routes. And the person who knows best where we are on the journey is our very own selves. People in our lives cannot dictate when forgiveness will happen because they can see into the condition of our heart only as much as we’re willing to share it. 

So nobody, NOT A SINGLE SOUL, is equipped to tell us when to forgive and whether we should forgive. We decide. Forgiveness can never be genuine, authentic, and complete unless it arises out of our very own agency. 

The other thing I want to address is what we are learning about trauma and recovery–which is that it is not a straight path but sometimes can revisit us when we least expect it. 

The problem with forgiveness as a spiritual mandate is that it is often taught as a one time thing. Extend forgiveness and the slate is wiped clean. This is a toxic by product of substitutionary atonement theology and purity culture. 

Our psyche doesn’t work that way. We can extend forgiveness at one moment but when our trauma triggers us once more, the resentment returns. And that emotion of resentment is CRITICAL to our healing, because it compels us to draw solid boundaries with the perpetrators of our suffering. Forgiveness is not a once and done deal, it is a current that rises and wanes.

We have to remember there is a distinction between the profound spirituality of forgiveness/redemption and the masochism of returning again and again to an abuser. 

Are we sure we aren’t blurring that line? 

Listen, if someone has hurt you (and let’s face it, all of us have been hurt unless we’ve been living in isolation), you get to decide if you want to forgive and when. There is no guilt or shame for not forgiving, even to your grave. That’s how much the power to forgive belongs to you and you alone. 

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