What You Have to Do Before You Forgive Someone
The surprising first step.
My grandfather molested my older brother back when all of us were kids.
And not long after I found out, Grandpa died. When I heard the news of his passing, I felt a colossal indifference settle in my chest. I was surprised how much space nothingness takes up. I knew that nothingness is not forgiveness. I knew I was commanded to forgive my grandfather. But for a long time, I did not care.
This year, our grandmother also died. I realized I could not really mourn her passing without figuring out how to feel something about my grandfather. Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity. We refer to it during the Lord’s Prayer, study the Sermon on the Mount and confess our sins in order to rest in God’s pardon. I used to think I understood forgiveness. I used to think believing in Jesus made forgiveness easy. I imagined forgiveness was an act of will.
Instead, I have learned that forgiveness is an undoing.
While I struggled to forgive my grandfather, I read Walter Brueggemann’s Spirituality of the Psalms.
Much of the book is devoted to the complaint, or lament psalms, the ones we often avoid or edit because of their violence and bitterness. Brueggemann writes, “The psalms issue a mighty protest and invite us into a more honest facing of the darkness.”
It was in Brueggemann’s book that I started learning a way to forgive my grandfather. It did not involve clichés or forgetting. It lay in lament: a fierce reckoning with what had happened, and how I felt about it.
Brueggemann taught me that without lament, there’s no forgiveness. Here’s why:
Lament Forces Us to Be Honest With God
Psalm 137 starts so prettily—“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept. …” But its ending has a shocking twist: the Psalmist wishes for the deaths of Babylonian infants. Back when I thought I understood forgiveness, I did not know what to make of it.
But I’ve found answers in the book of Daniel. Putting Daniel and Psalm 137 side-by-side, it’s shocking that Daniel chose to be a faithful servant to the empire that decimated his world.
How did Daniel forgive?
I think it’s because his community did not sugarcoat their rage or explain away their bitterness. Instead, they shouted everything at God. As Brueggemann puts it, “What is said to Yahweh may be scandalous … but these speakers are completely committed. … Yahweh is expected and presumed to receive the fullness of Israel’s speech.”
I think the Israelite’s lament helped them surrender their hatred, reconcile with their enemies, achieve positions of influence and sow seeds for their eventual return to the Holy Land.
Lament Ensures We’re Not Deluding Ourselves About the State of Our Hearts
It’s easy to pay lip service to forgiveness when we’re still stuck in indifference. It’s easy to say we’ve forgiven if we haven’t felt our anger.
But if we look at Christ, He raged in the temple and wept by a grave. On the cross, God’s forgiveness was accompanied by tearing, shaking and darkness. It required suffering, torture and anguish.
How could I think forgiveness is ever easy?
In his book, The Cry of the Soul, Dan Allender says that smooth, unruffled acceptance is delusion. “For many [Christians], strong feelings are an infrequent, foreign experience. Their inner life is characterized by an inner coolness, bordering on indifference. Unfortunately, this is often mistaken for trust.”
Lament allows us to unleash our emotions to God so that we can get real about what we actually feel.
Lament Protects Us from Exposing Ourselves to People Who Aren’t Safe
When people hurt us, God commands us to forgive, period. But that doesn’t always mean we reconcile with them. In fact, without repentance, complete reconciliation is unwise.
Lewis B. Smedes put it this way in Forgive and Forget: “Forgiveness involves a heart that cancels the debt but does not lend new money until repentance occurs.”
Lament is an audit of our heart that gives us clear-eyed understanding. That process of discernment shields our hearts from unsafe people, so we can stay tender for everyone else.
It took years for God to start shifting the cold indifference I felt for my grandfather. And the biggest shift happened when I started writing laments.
I asked my brother for permission. Then, I sat and wrote out my anger, bitterness and numbness. I shared it with my siblings. I discussed it with some of my extended family. I posted it on my blog.
And to my surprise, the act of expressing my rage started moving my heart.
I am still trying to forgive my grandfather. I feel pity for his weakness and selfishness. I ache to consider the state of a heart capable of such destruction. I wonder if what he did to my brother was done to him.
I no longer expect forgiveness to happen easy-as-pie. Instead, I depend on the incredible power of lament. It will lead us to truth, connect us to God’s mercy and soften our hearts.