OK, I admit it. I hate forgiveness too.

When my children turned 5 and 6, I started re-living my own elementary school experiences. Apparently comebacks haven’t changed much in 35 years.

Call someone a name and you’ll hear, “I know you are, but what am I?” Mention that odor wafting in, someone will chime, “Whoever smelt it, dealt it!” Blame someone for something, and you’ll get: “If you’re pointing the finger at me, there are three pointing back at you!”

My last post, “Does the church hate forgiveness?” pointed a blaming finger. Some readers pushed back. The church is just the people, they said. It’s not the church that hates forgiveness, it’s specific people. Even worse, someone had the guts to point out that what we condemn in others, we often struggle with ourselves.

Is it really just me that hates forgiveness?

I Love Being Forgiven

Photo Credit: Chris Owens
Photo Credit: Chris Owens

“No!” I protest. Forgiveness has changed my life. God’s grace is all that’s has kept me in the church and in ministry. There’s nothing I can do to make God love me more or less. I’m adopted not because of my performance, but simply because of God’s mercy. This motivates me and shapes my life!

But the question burrowed deeper.

I was just talking about me, God’s grace and forgiveness for me. But there are other people out there.  God’s grace extends to them too, right? Regardless of their choices. People who hurt and abuse, who exclude and degrade, liars, cheaters and thieves. God’s grace is available for them too.

Sure, we can talk about the need for repentance. We can remind each other that God’s not content to leave us where we started. But that doesn’t change the wild and unexpected availability of grace! Think of the thieves crucified with Jesus. They were criminals given a capital punishment. Yet, Jesus was ready to walk them into paradise, if they wanted to go with Him.

Having pastored for eighteen years, I’ve seen forgiveness work miracles. I’ve seen a homeless meth addict change forever; get married, build a career, have grandkids. I’ve seen adulterers accepted home and forgiven, and end with happy marriages. I’ve seen pastors betray their people and calling, who then go through the long tunnel of transformation and come out the other side forgiven, more whole and effective in new ministry.

Photo Credit: Unknown
Photo Credit: Unknown

But what about forgiving?

But the people who hurt me? The question pushed harder and deeper in. Real stories of malicious hurt and betrayal surfaced. People who had hurt me and the ones I love. The word that rang in my ears was, “Unforgivable!” They don’t deserve it! At least that’s how I remember feeling in the moment of the injury.

I can still remember the intensity of the pain.  First the pain of the hurt, but then later, the molten pain of my fight with forgiveness.

Sure, I can forgive them.

…when they say they’re sorry.

…When they make things right.

…When they tell the world how wrong they were and how right I am!

Then we can talk forgiveness.

Remembering that struggle showed the three fingers pointing back at me. When we’re talking about forgiveness of me, I love it. When we’re talking about a cloud of abstract poor, dejected sinners who need a savior, I champion it. But when we’re talking about people who wronged me, who hurt me, I hate forgiveness.

Ugh… So I hate forgiveness too.

I hate how hard it is. I hate how much effort it takes. I hate how it asks me to overlook whether they deserve it or not. I hate it showing how deeply the need to be right is embedded in my heart.

Most of all, I hate that I’m supposed to forgive people who haven’t paid the cost. I remember that pain particularly in one situation where I felt betrayed. I loved this person and I could imagine some future, a long ways off, where all had been forgiven. But in that moment I wanted them to pay. I wanted them to feel pain too, their relationships torn and the community looking down on them. I’d be happy to forgive but only once the price was paid.

But see, that’s the problem. In Jesus’ bloody body, the price for every betrayal, every abuse, every injury was already paid in full. If I’m honest, I hate forgiveness because it upends my sense of fairness.

The economy of this world is simple: Work hard and you will earn credit. Reputation. Affirmation. Compensation. You worked for it; it’s yours. Forgiveness will not comply with this system.

I know this, but my heart still has a lock grip on the blankie of legalism. If you do the right thing, God will reward you. If you pay the price, you will be forgiven. It’s not Biblical. It’s not the character of God, but it’s pretty human.

Forgiveness is hateful to the legalist heart. It’s hateful to a performer who has worked hard to earn his place. It’s hateful to the fundamentalist who has invested her life in a clear system of who is in and who is out. It’s hateful to everyone who has a stake in being right.

The church has a problem with forgiveness because the church is made up of broken humans (like me) who can’t fathom that in the end God’s kingdom is not a meritocracy. (Tweet that!)

For some of us, and I am one, God is breaking through our iron-clad hearts. We are seeing that our performance buys us nothing that matters. God is unwrapping our layers of legalism, helping us let go of our need to perform in order to belong.

We are seeing, I am seeing, that everything is grace and forgiveness is the way in.

Question: What struggles does forgiveness bring up for you?

12 thoughts on “OK, I admit it. I hate forgiveness too.

  1. Nailed it dude! Right on the head. As long as it is generic, I’m all for it. As long as it is about ME being forgiven…dish it up high! But…let it be someone that wrongs me…and you might as well be talking another language that my soul doesn’t even WANT to understand. So glad Jesus is so different from me! Thanks for the reminder my friend.

    1. Hey Don! How cool to see you here on my blog. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment–and for being a spiritual influencer in my life and in Christina’s life. Blessings!

      1. Glad to see you have such good stuff! ???? I can’t help but comment when something hits me right between the eyes. Blessing to you my friend.

  2. I -want- to be better at forgiveness than I am. My father was an expert at it – he never held a grudge. I am utterly terrible about letting go of things, even small slights that really don’t matter at all in the long run. I’m working on it – but it’s tough.

    Like you said – it’s hard to face the fact that life/the Kingdom are not meritocracies. Evil is not always repaid with misfortune, and waiting for someone to get their “comeuppance” or trying to seek revenge only makes life harder. But it’s a hard truth to accept.

    1. It’s hard. I agree. But it’s amazing how much forgiveness gives freedom. I’ve had some pretty brutal betrayals in my life (At least, they were for me.) But coming to a place of real forgiveness turned those moments into places of deep growth and peace for me. And learning to let go of the little things has cut down on the incessant stress buzzing around my head. Managing all those details take a lot of emotional energy!

    1. By hating being forgiven I mean they spend their whole lives provoking you so you will hate them and NOT forgive them? What the heck is behind that?

      1. Great question. The particularities of each person’s story means there is no good single answer. Being forgiven means you were wrong. It means you were in someone’s debt. It’s hard to admit that. Accepting that someone has forgiven you is an intimacy. That can be very hard to accept. There is a kind of vulnerability on both sides of forgiveness. Being weak is hard for all of us.

  3. Forgiving the unforgivable is hopeless and saying that it’s possible is cognitive dissonance. You want to believe it, you tell yourself it, but you know it’s not true. There is only acceptance. Someone who did something to you will do something to the wrong person and will pay the price. Take solace in that, live your best life, and don’t get victimized again. That’s how to get over being victimized.

    1. I appreciate that perspective. There is real wisdom in acceptance so that you can move on. However, I have personal experience with forgiving the unforgivable. It took time, therapy, and spiritual process. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t superficial. It was by no means letting someone “off the hook.” But it is possible. If you’re interested in hearing about a view of forgiveness that is healthy, doesn’t let abusers “off the hook,” and contributes to mental health, you might take a look at my friend Byron Kehler short course on the topic. He’s a trauma therapist with a lot of wisdom. https://byronkehler.teachable.com/p/the-forgiveness-workshop

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