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The Challenge of Forgiveness

February 1, 2021 by Beth A. Richardson

I was sitting in the office with a friend watching tears flow down her cheeks. She stumbled to find words, but when she did, they came haltingly from her. “He assaulted me. He told me I had to keep it a secret. He told me I had to forgive him. I felt I had no choice, so I said I would. All these years later, I’m still haunted by what he did. I feel so guilty for not forgiving him. I’ve kept this a secret all of these years.”

My intense anger flared toward the person who betrayed the trust of a vulnerable young woman and then shackled her future by asking for her silence and her forgiveness without repentance, justice, or reparation. She carried the secret, the guilt, and the scars. 

We’ve all been wounded—or have wounded someone else. It’s the human condition. And we may have had the experience of not being able to forgive another person—or ourselves. And especially in these days of “cancel culture” and political polarization, I find myself challenged by these concepts of justice, accountability, repentance, and forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is tricky business. It’s something we’re supposed to do, Jesus says, “Seventy-seven times”—too many times to keep track of. And yet, as my friend had discovered, forgiveness is not something we can accomplish at will. As much as we’d like to forgive, sometimes we’re just not able to. 

Forgiveness is a complex process that involves naming our hurt, working through old wounds, and processing feelings of anger, guilt, shame, sadness, etc. It is hard work that requires us to examine things we’d rather forget. 

Forgiveness is a process and a gift from God. It is our goal as people of faith, but it’s a journey that is paced out according to God’s time, not ours. Sometimes it takes years of inner work with a therapist or spiritual director. And then one day we realize that everything is different. We’ve been given the gift of forgiveness. In the midst of this inner work, God gives us an abundance of love and the grace to forgive. 

One of my teachers is Flora Slosson Wuellner, a writer, pastor, counselor, and great healer. Flora would caution us to enter gently into this topic, to listen to the voices inside of us who might (or might not) be ready to talk about an experience of hurt. She would encourage us to reach out for help if that is needed and to open our hearts to the presence of Christ, who walks with us through every experience, who sits with us in our pain, who cries with us in our sorrow. 

May you travel through these days holding the hand of the One who was wounded. And may you anticipate with joy and gratitude the promise of Christ’s resurrection and God’s abundant grace. May you be set free from the past through the guidance and love of The Great Healer. The risen Christ is with us. Thanks be to God.

Beth A. Richardson serves as the director of prayer and worship life and Dean of The Upper Room Chapel. Her latest release from Upper Room Books is Walking in the Wilderness: Seeking God During Lent. Join us for the eCourse, beginning on Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021.

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