I am sort of in the middle of an on-going conversation with several people (including my closest friends ... i.e., my wife and my mentor) regarding the concept of forgiveness—both of oneself and of others. Before I begin rambling about some of these thoughts, etc., let me give a little bit of background information that may give some much-needed context.
My family and I are only about a year removed from some horrific experiences at a church we attended. Those experiences combined with the experiences of several friends at other churches—four close ministerial friends were pushed out of their ministerial jobs and are not currently in the full-time ministry; another friend was made several promises by the church where he worked for nearly a decade only to have the church completely renege on all said promises, thereby forcing this particular minister to look for ministry work elsewhere; another close friend served on a pastoral search committee that called a pastor only to have several problems with this particular pastor, causing a great deal of division in the church and leaving my friend looking for a new church home; the list could probably continue—have left me somewhat bewildered about the nature of the church, and, more importantly, about the nature of forgiveness. In discussions with all those involved, I have found some consistent themes that have a great deal of bearing on my thoughts.
First, as one can imagine from the fact that these people and events were all connected with evangelical church ministry, all of the people involved claim to be evangelical Christians. They understand the concept of forgiveness, and all base that concept of forgiveness on Almighty God and the consummate expression of forgiveness, namely Christ on the cross and His resurrection.
Secondly, all of these people have thought through their respective situation(s) at great length. Not all of these people have come to the same conclusion—some have ascribed all of the blame to themselves; others have seen plenty of blame to go around on both (all) sides; others have seen themselves as completely blameless—but all have spent a great deal of time thinking through their situation. Most of these people have discussed the situation with several other people. In fact, for a given amount of time, each of my friends (and I am included in that group) found him-/herself obsessing over the events of the given situation.
Thirdly, every single individual has moved on from the sad situation. The most recent of these happenings occurred a mere four months prior to this writing; the most distant occurred some two-plus years ago. When I say “has moved on,” I do not necessarily mean “has put the entire situation behind them.” In fact, that leads to the fourth theme.
Fourth, every single individual still deals with aspects of pain, bitterness, hurt, or simply “raw” feelings. Several friends have suggested that they would prefer not to talk about and/or hear about their previous churches because of the hurt and/or anger with which they still have to deal. Another friend asked that the only mention of the previous church be reminders to pray—that way, any untoward and/or painful feelings can be taken directly to God. In other words, for every single person involved (myself included), the feelings remain all too fresh. Indeed for another friend (one I had not thought of previously, whose painful situation occurred some 15 years ago), the memories remain difficult to handle.
And so the questions begin to arise: is something wrong with all of us? Have we somehow not understood the meaning of forgiveness? I mean, so many people say that we should be able to move on once true forgiveness has occurred. Now, I recognize that the human brain does not work in such a way so as to allow complete dissolution of painful memories. In fact, it works in just the opposite way (at times)—i.e., the more painful the memory, the easier it is to remember (up to a point ... I do recognize that once an event becomes technically traumatic, in the psychological sense, those rules do not necessarily apply). Regardless, one must wonder whether true forgiveness has been granted to oneself and/or others if the very memory of the other party(ies) involved brings tears or anger or pain.
To be honest, I am not sure at all what to do with those issues. I have some thoughts on the subject ... actually one of my best friends had some thoughts. Specifically, this friend suggests to spend conscious time praying for the other party. (This is the same friend that asked only to be reminded to pray for the other party ... no other mention of the church was desired). This doesn’t mean that the pain goes away, but it does mean that the pain leads somewhere worthwhile. Just off the cuff, I am reminded of Paul’s (oft-cited) thorn in the flesh, and I can’t help but wonder if that may have been pain from any number of his church-torturing days (perhaps the stoning of Stephen). If so, that pain was left in place by God as a reminder of His grace ... perhaps that is the purpose of raw feelings, pain, anger left from some horrendous scenarios at churches. Perhaps.
Ultimately, all of us involved need to spend some time sincerely seeking wise counsel, plumbing the depths of our own souls (not using that term in a technical/theological sense) in an effort to completely deal with the situations. Let’s face it: it is extremely easy to simply say we have dealt with a situation, given (or accepted or both) forgiveness; it is another thing altogether to actually forgive and accept forgiveness. All too often, I think we move on too quickly, thereby artificially sabotaging the healing process and cheating ourselves (and perhaps the other party/ies) from true forgiveness. Too often, we do not accept that we have guilt to bear in the painful situation; we become self-righteous, deflecting all guilt simply as a defense mechanism for our battered psyches. Hopefully, as we mature in Christ we will be able to see these situations as insights into our own continued sinful lives, insights which will drive us back to our knees in humble adoration of God’s all-encompassing love!
If we have come to that place already—we have honestly dealt with the situation, accepted blame, learned about ourselves and others, and become awestruck at God’s amazing grace—and we still deal with raw feelings, perhaps my friend’s suggestion is the best: return to prayer at every thought of the other party. Remind yourself of your own learning curve, and simply pray that God would bless that church’s ministry. Return to the awesomeness of God’s grace ... that He could forgive me (a saint who is still a SINNER!) ... and think of the awesomeness of that grace that encompasses that church, those people, them.
Before I end, let me give a warning ... this is not intended to be a cure-all. This is not a cheesy suggestion about how to make it all go away. I’m not suggesting that prayer will somehow magically make the pain cease. I’m not even suggesting that the pain is supposed to go away or that the raw feelings are supposed to be gone. I’m simply giving what I think is a coping mechanism ... not for ourselves so much (though that is a nice by-product) but for the church-at-large. I mean, if everyone who has ever been involved in nasty situation at a church could always turn to God upon every remembrance of that event, I think we would probably all be praying all the time. Maybe that’s where Paul gets the idea to “pray without ceasing.” (sorry, bad joke).