Saturday, 2 February 2013

Forgiveness and emotion

 I have been looking at a video about the mass shootings at Sandy Hook entitled, Forgiveness doesn't happen overnight . Forgiving others is an important part of christian teaching yet there is often not enough understanding that forgiveness is a journey. When people have been on the receiving end of  very serious hurt or atrocity then to demand or force forgiveness is extremely unhelpful. It also puts us in danger of judging - how many of us would find it easy to forgive if we were a parent whose child had been killed?  I've known people who have told me that forgiveness is not so difficult because forgiveness is not an emotion, it is simply an act of will. All I know is that the way I forgive is from the heart, so this doesn't make much sense to me. Indeed we are told in the bible that forgiveness must come from the heart.
The problem with forgiving from the heart is usually because those trying to forgive are experiencing extreme anger or even hatred. Most of us can relate to this. A problem people are less aware of is that sometimes it can be hard to forgive due to a lack of emotion. This can be particularly true of some survivors of childhood abuse  because it is common for abused children to build up a barrier between themselves and their emotions as a coping mechanism. As an adult it may be hard for a survivor to identify any emotion connected with the abuse- let alone say whether they have forgiven.  A social worker I knew told me that one of his clients had been so damaged by a childhood during which she both witnessed and was on the receiving end of appalling physical and sexual abuse that she would laugh quietly while recounting horrendous events and once told him that, "she didn't give a shit" about what had happened to her.  Some survivors of abuse have had their own identity and emotional foundations so damaged that naming or even completely "feeling" emotion can be difficult. It is  also quite possible to be generally emotionally literate and functioning but to find that you experience an emotional void when it comes to the area of the abuse.

So what should be the attitude toward  forgiveness in christian thought and teaching? It is important that we do not sideline forgiveness. The ability to know ourselves as forgiven and forgiveable, and in turn to forgive others, is the huge liberation at the heart of Christianity. When we can truly forgive from the heart then the thing we have forgiven has no more power over us and we begin to bring about healing in others as well as ourselves.

Any teaching of forgiveness must though be handled with care and sensitivity. Perhaps we cannot forgive from the heart until we have reached a place where we are emotionally secure enough to do so and the journey is a learning and healing process that needs to run its course.


  1. When I had been on the receiving end of an extremely hurtful marriage break-up (my husband going to live with my best friend, having been having an affair, unbeknownst to me, for some while), I was - well, led to, or reminded of, Jesus' words regarding part of the Lord's Prayer ('Forgive us our sins, AS WE forgive those who sin against us': 'If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins.' Ouch! But it did bring home to me that as Christians we don't really have the option not to forgive, however hard it is, in the long run - and the only way we can do it is by the grace of God and the help of the Holy Spirit. But I can truly say that when I was enabled to tell them both that I forgave them, it was the most liberating thing I ever did. And we are now better friends than we ever were before. The other thing is that we so need to be able to forgive ourselves for things that we feel guilty about - and that's sometimes harder than anything! I noticed that when I was prompted to forgive the other two, I was reminded of the things for which I needed forgiveness as well, and had to deal with that at the same time. For me, forgiveness from the heart was part of attaining emotional security. I think, too, that it may be easier (relatively) to forgive sins against oneself than against people one loves - that's possibly where desire for revenge or retribution can so easily take over. But, as you say, it's a very steep learning curve, and never works the same way twice.

  2. I am sorry you went through such a hard time and glad you were able to move on and forgive.
    I agree christians should forgive. I don't think that if christians find they can't forgive (not won't) that they or others should see this as a sign they are not worthy to be a christian as this can make people lose their faith, perhaps over something for which they need it most.
    I can't say how I would feel if someone I loved (such as a child) was murdered. Because I've never been in that position, I wouldn't be prepared to judge someone who was!