Forgiving isn’t always what we think it is. Part 1 of “Forgive Intentional Sin—Don’t Just Manage Emotions.”
Forgiving isn’t managing emotions. Most Christians know Jesus taught that we must forgive. But when anger and hurt linger, we sometimes turn to forgiveness substitutes that merely manage our emotions—and not all that well.
Here are five stand-ins that masquerade as forgiveness.
Forgiving Isn’t Pretending
One of my most vivid, recurring nightmares was about me lying in my bed as a man and woman quietly opened the door to my bedroom to see if I were asleep. In the nightmare, I watched them through nearly closed eyes as I pretended to sleep, repeating over and over again in my head, “I’ve got to pretend I didn’t hear or they’ll kill me; I’ve got to pretend I don’t remember or they’ll kill me.”
Our childhood home was violent. Pretending nothing happened was required.
But pretending nothing happened isn’t forgiving because forgiving is always based on truth.
When I started dating Clay, I brought the habit of pretending into our relationship. He’d ask if something were wrong and I’d respond, “No, everything is fine.” I thought telling myself everything was fine and making myself believe everything was fine was the same as being fine. Clay never let it pass and always probed. I’d be surprised at the anger that would come out when I tried to talk about things: obviously, everything wasn’t fine.
God wants us to speak truth in our heart (Psalm 15:2, 51:6). Pretending nothing is wrong is not only a lie, it’s a form of holding a grudge. Pretending’s purpose is to make others think you’ve forgotten or forgiven when you haven’t.Forgiving isn't pretending nothing happened or nothing is wrong Click To Tweet
Forgiving Isn’t Forgetting
As with many authors, movies often play in my head. Years ago I was with a group of ministry leaders when a woman spoke up about her struggles with forgiving an abusive mother. She said, “Maybe I just need to forget.”
Immediately in my mind’s eye I saw a raincoat-clad girl begin to climb down from a boat’s deck as the boat swayed gently in a calm sea. She reached the lower deck and entered a tidy, brightly colored room with yellow walls and a painting of a red boat on a calm, blue sea. On the back wall a dark brown curtain covered a closet. The girl went to retrieve something near the closet.
Suddenly the tip of what looked like an octopus tentacle reached out from beneath the curtain and grabbed her ankle. The girl struggled, but quickly broke loose, overturning a chair as she escaped. However, the tentacle—surely a sea monster’s arm—thrashed around, toppling more furniture and knocking the painting askew before retreating behind the curtain.
That, I thought, is exactly what happens when you try to forget. Life seems calm and tidy, until something happens that brings you too close to the sea monster memory you’re avoiding. That memory disrupts everything.
Shoving Out of Mind Doesn’t Work
I was skilled at shoving things out of my mind. Perhaps it was because our father claimed he could read our minds and would punish us if he found we were thinking anything bad about him. I believed him. At a hair’s-breadth notice, my mind would blank out every negative experience.
In my twenties, another occurrence of my father’s rage triggered an onslaught of memories and all those shoved-down emotions came roaring back with more intensity than I thought possible.
Doesn’t God Forget Sins?
Sometimes I hear someone say that God forgets when he forgives and so should we. God doesn’t give up his omniscience such that every time a pastor preaches on David and Bathsheba, he declares, “What? I didn’t know David sinned!” In the Bible, when God says he’ll “remember” someone’s sins against him, he means he’ll punish them, and when he says he’ll “forget,” he means he will no longer punish. God knows the depth of what he forgives.
Shoving things out of your mind and trying to forget is merely an ineffective way to manage emotions: ineffective because life will trigger memories along with the accompanying emotions now multiplied.Forgiving is neither forgetting nor shoving memories out of mind Click To Tweet
Forgiving Isn’t Taking the Blame
Victimizers blame their victims. Unless they repent and turn to Christ for forgiveness, how else can they live with their conscience?
I’ve accepted blame I shouldn’t have; I’ve jumped in with a “That’s my fault” plenty of times when it wasn’t true. Sometimes it was because I mistakenly thought something good or neutral to be bad. But other times I was simply hoping to be liked or looking for the easiest way out of conflict.
Jesus paid the price for our sins; he didn’t say he caused them. We can forgive without taking blame that isn’t ours. Knowingly accepting blame we don’t own is deception, not forgiveness. It’s a sign of being a people-pleaser rather than a God-pleaser.
Forgiving Isn’t Taking Revenge
On the other side, I’ve also given blame I should have owned, justifying cutting words because the other person was “more” wrong or was the first to do wrong. This makes forgiving harder because it requires the other person to take more blame than he or she is due, and most people refuse. Besides, God won’t let anyone truly walking with him get away with such nonsense for long.
It may feel like getting back at someone will make you feel better so you can “forgive,” but it won’t. Revenge escalates matters. Revenge—whether responding tit-for-tat, unleashing anger, or back-biting—exacts payment in place of forgiving. It’s also sin (Rom. 12:19, Col. 3:8).
Forgiving Isn’t Excusing
In my pre-teens and teens, I struggled with anger, particularly towards my mother. I longed to know why she hated me. My mom said it was because I’d ruined her life; my dad said it was because he wanted to hurt her so he told her I was smarter than she. Both answers hurt and I wanted something else: an answer that made neither my mom nor me bad people.
At about fifteen, I read the New Testament. I became a Christian in the middle of the Gospel of John. I read what Jesus said about forgiving, so I prayed, “I forgive,” over every hurt that happened.
At sixteen, I took a psychology class. The nice, graying teacher soothingly said that abusive parents were either abused themselves or just didn’t know better. I finally had an answer. I knew my grandparents weren’t abusive (my aunts have since confirmed that), so I hung on to ignorance: it’s easy to forgive someone who doesn’t know better. The anger washed away.
Until nearly a decade later when I sat in her dark living room with my sister and three-year-old nephew. He started whining that he wanted to go home. Both my sister and I jumped to hush him before my mother yelled or hit him.
She stopped us and said, “This house has a rule: No one is to say an unkind word to him.” I jerked back, stunned. She knew better! Jealousy consumed me and I said I had to leave. For years I had corralled all the anger and hurt behind the fence of “She doesn’t know better,” and now that fence had fallen and the emotions galloped out like horses finally freed.
Unintentional sin is much easier to forgive than intentional sin. But telling ourselves that deliberate sin is involuntary just because it makes it easier to forgive isn’t honest. When it comes to intentional wrongs, we must do the much harder job of forgiving without excusing.
What Forgiving Is
So forgiving isn’t pretending, forgetting, taking wrongful blame, taking revenge, or excusing. So what is it then? That topic begins in my next post.
A brief note is due: My father has changed and no longer has bouts of rage. My mother was prone to depression and was an alcoholic. I believe that before she died, she had deep regrets over many things.Forgiving isn't excusing Click To Tweet When it comes to intentional wrongs, we must do the hard job of forgiving w/o excusing Click To Tweet Are you forgiving or merely managing emotions? Click To Tweet