Forgive and forget?
A quote attributed to Robert F Kennedy, that has been made into many a poster, T-shirt and even a song by AEROSMITH, is the suggestion that rather than getting mad, we should simply get even. That any emotion or hurt we feel should be channelled into energy for revenge. If you have ever played computer games and lost, this line of thinking is probably quite familiar; just one more game in which you will try even harder to beat your opponent and teach them a lesson or two.
As Christian leaders, what do we do when we are the ones who have been hurt, upset and wounded and all we want to do is get even? Passages such as the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, suggests that the forgiveness we should offer to others should be without limits, which is all very well and good but what do we do with the hurt and pain we feel? A counsellor friend of mine once advised me, ‘hurt people hurt people.’ Effectively, that people who have been damaged and wounded by the words and treatment of others, carry significant risk of causing hurt to others; effectively they can be a ticking bomb! I cannot help but wonder in our desire to see restoration and forgiveness, both Godly attributes, we can skip the hurts we feel, swallowing them down where they fester and brew, to re-surface at a later time, often amplified.
In so many ways emotional trauma is not so different from physical trauma, in that it needs urgent attention and failure to do so can leave permanent damage. Perhaps the first step in tackling the problem is to acknowledge the problem, rather than pretend is doesn’t exist. The account of Joseph speaking to his brothers in Genesis 50 offers those of us who are in Christian leadership some hope: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20 ESV)
It seems to me in this statement Joseph is acknowledging the hurt he felt, but at the same time restates his forgiveness by promising to provide for their families and not get even. Joseph didn’t minimise the hurt; he pointed to his brothers and was honest, “you meant evil against me” but importantly he highlights the transformative power of God to bring good from it.
I’ve had it said to me that God forgets our sins when He forgives us, usually followed by a quote of Hebrews 10:17 or Isaiah 43:25, and the suggestion that I should do likewise. Invariably the petty insults and personal opinions of others do not need repeating or indeed remembering, but just occasionally in leadership there will be something that will cause us deep pain, and we cannot simply pretend it never happened. To do so means we are not being honest with ourselves, others or God. The damage that the offence caused can be too great to have full restoration and reconciliation, especially immediately. We need to accept this possible reality as part of our broken, fallen world.
Forgiving doesn’t mean that we restore the relationship with those who hurt us as if nothing ever happened. Trust might have been broken, circumstances may have changed, abuse could have occurred, however what the verses in Hebrews 10 and Isaiah 43 seem to imply that rather than being forgetful, God simply chooses not to bring them up. And this is exactly what is involved in forgiveness. It is a promise not to remind the person of the offence.
True forgiveness is one of the hardest things to accomplish in Christian leadership, yet this is our mandate and call. Forgiveness is hard because it demands a surrender of our right to get even, which is exactly what Jesus did on the cross where looking down he cries, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
I believe as Christian leaders we need to acknowledge our pain, our hurt and yes, even at times our anger. But we should also, like God, choose not to keep repeating and rehearsing such things, but instead allow the love of Christ to transform our bitterness and pain into something of beauty and good for the kingdom of God. Perhaps we should see forgiveness not so much as the absolution of guilt, but more in terms of the restoration of community.