The Outrageous Act of ForgivenessMarshall Shelley is the associate editor of Leadership magazine.

Lewis Smedes depicts forgiveness as the only way to heal the hurt we never deserved.

Should Jane forgive her husband? It is neither an idle question nor an easy answer. Consider:

Jane and Ralph had finally brought their three children through the crazy maze of adolescence, and Jane was ready to have a life of her own again But tragedy struck. Ralph’s younger brother and his wife were killed in a car crash, leaving three children: ages 8, 10, and 12.

Ralph had a strong sense of duty; he knew that it was his sacred calling to take his brother’s orphaned children in. Jane was too compassionate or too tired to disagree, she never did know which. Jane did most of the parenting since Ralph was gone a lot, traveling for his company. Nine years later, the second crop of kids raised and gone, Jane thought at last she was home free.

Not quite. Jane’s body had gotten a little lumpy by this time, while Ralph’s secretary, Sue, was a dazzler; besides, Sue really understood his large male needs. How could he help falling in love? He and Sue knew their love was too true to be denied. So Ralph divorced Jane and married Sue.

Ralph and his new wife were happy, and their convivial, accepting church affirmed and celebrated their newfound joy with them. But Ralph needed one more stroke of acceptance to make his life complete. So he called Jane to ask her to forgive him, to be glad with him, to rejoice in his new happiness.

“I want you to bless me,” he said.

“I want you to go to hell,” she replied.

As usual, reality is the surest antidote for pat answers (especially if the question is forgiveness). In his new book, Forgive and Forget (Harper & Row, 1984), Lewis B. Smedes, professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, uses stories of real people such as the one above to let readers feel the ambiguity and unfairness of turning the other cheek.

An Excerpt

“But you are not thinking clearly when you refuse to forgive on grounds that you would not be fair to yourself. Forgiving is the only way to be fair to yourself. Getting even is a loser’s game. It is the ultimate frustration because it leaves you with more pain than you got in the first place.
The only way to heal the pain that will not heal itself is to forgive the person who hurt you. Forgiving stops the reruns of pain.…
When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life.
You set a prisoner free, but you discover that the real prisoner was yourself.”
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“If we forgive, we are likely to forget; and if we forget the horrors of the past we are likely to let them happen again in the future,” he writes. “If you forgive a man who rapes your sister, you may mute society’s scream of outrage against rapists. If you forgive a pusher who sells your daughter cocaine, you may make it a little easier for him to get to your neighbor’s daughter, too.”

Smedes stares hard at the case for not forgiving, and, without blinking, answers firmly that forgiveness, properly understood, is still better than its alternative.

When asked in a recent interview if that was true even for Jane, Smedes replied, “I vividly remember Jane sitting across from me and asking me how she could forgive Ralph. My response was ‘Do you want to be stuck forever with his awful behavior? If you can’t forgive, you’re doomed to be shackled to the unfairness of the past. In fact, the unfairness is multiplied. Forgiveness is the only way to heal yourself.’ ”

The book distinguishes forgiving from excusing, from mere acceptance, from tolerating the intolerable—there are times to prosecute even after granting forgiveness. Neither is forgiving forgetting—indeed, if you can forget, the offense is probably too trifling for the serious work of forgiveness. Instead, forgiveness is what Smedes calls “redemptive remembering.”

The book identifies four steps in this process:

Hurt: When somebody causes you pain so deep and unfair that you cannot forget it. “True forgivers do not pretend they don’t suffer. They do not pretend the wrong does not matter.”

Hate: When you want the person who hurt you to suffer as you are suffering. “Hate gives instant energy,” writes Smedes. “Hate can keep us going while we feel battered, but … then hate turns its power against the hater. It saps the energy of the soul, leaving it weaker than before, too weak to create a better life beyond the pain.”

Healing: You are given “magic eyes” to turn back the flow of pain and begin seeing the person in a new light. “You cannot change the past, you can only heal the hurt that comes to you from the past.”

Coming together: You invite the person back into your life. If he or she comes honestly, love can move you both toward a new, healed relationship.

Smedes points out that the most any person can do alone is reach step 3. (The offender must cooperate to reach step 4.) But healing can begin even if the final stage is never fully realized. Indeed, Smedes observes that forgiveness often comes slowly over months, even years. And he allows for gradual and incomplete forgiving.

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At this point, the book’s realism will trouble many Christians who expect spiritual and emotional battles to be won instantly. Just as zealous individuals expect a widow to accept immediately her husband’s death without grieving, so some supersaints expect victims to forgive their oppressors immediately. The forgiveness cycle, like the grief cycle, must run its course before healing can happen.

What prompted Smedes to write a book on forgiveness?

“I was walloped by three Jewish sources,” he says. “First, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, in which she shares her discovery that the only power that can stop the inexorable stream of painful memories is ‘the faculty of forgiveness.’ Second, Simon Wiesenthal in The Sunflower and other Jewish writers who suggest that forgiving Hitler his atrocities is unthinkable. Third, Michael Christopher’s play The Black Angel, which probes our deep need for forgiveness.” (All three sources are used as illustrations in the book.)

“I looked for Christian literature on forgiveness, and it was mostly hortatory, or else it dealt with conditions for forgiveness by God. I looked in psychological literature, and if it appeared at all, it was mostly jargon. There was nothing on the dynamics and ethics of human forgiveness.”

Forgive and Forget is the most mature treatment yet of the painful necessity of forgiving. The strength of the book is Smedes’s ability to speak thoroughly Christian concepts with the vocabulary of a newscaster. And because it does not rely on proof texts or Christian jargon but presents the benefits of forgiveness as valid for everyone, the book has potential for reaching secular readers, perhaps even more than Karl Menninger’s Whatever Happened to Sin?

As Smedes points out, no one can ever force us or trick us into forgiving. It is a totally free act, but an outrageous act—a voluntary forfeit of our right to fairness, to extract sweet revenge.

But, as he concludes, forgiveness is also the only way to “heal the hurt we never deserved.”

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