Forgiveness is not a passive act. The first step of forgiveness is actually recognizing and declaring that something is evil. After all, if an act isn’t wrong there isn’t really anything to forgive. It might be a cultural faux pas or a stupid action, but those things don’t need forgiveness because blunders in etiquette, clumsiness, and ignorance don’t purposefully hurt someone. Forgiveness on the other hand deals with actions that result in harm. This harm might be societal, relational, physical, or any number of other ways but it is still harm.
As a follower of Jesus I am called to forgive because and as I have been forgiven by God. “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). I believe the reason for this is not just for the restoration of relationship but also for the destruction of evil. Forgiveness defeats evil by not allowing evil to have the last word. Forgiveness starts with either the victim, the perpetrator, or both recognizing that real harm was done by the perpetrator. Evil was done and that needs to be acknowledged.
This is why forgiveness isn’t just “letting someone off the hook” as we so often use the phrase. Actually I think often what people want in forgiveness is to forget that the “hook” is there at all and pretend like everything is ok. Unfortunately i have experienced a few hooks in my hand. Taking care of the issue is a very painful event. Forgetting the hook is there doesn’t solve the problem. Since there is a barb in the hook you have to push the hook forward through the skin. You can’t pull it back out because the barb will continue to catch your flesh as you pull it backward. So you push the point all the way through the skin and then cut the barb off so you can remove the hook. Removing the hook hurts like “a big dog”, but it is the only way that you’ll ever be free. That’s what true forgiveness does, it frees both the victim and the perpetrator from the evil that has been done and that only happens when the evil is “pushed” into the light. And boy does that hurt.
I think this is where we, as those needing forgiveness, often struggle. We fail to realize or don’t want to realize that an initial part of receiving forgiveness involves acknowledging the harm and evil of what we have done. We don’t want to actually confront what we have done as evil. We just want to be able to ignore it and have it forgotten. That’s not forgiveness though.
Forgiveness is removing the power of sin and part of that is done by acknowledging the action for what it was … evil. For the perpetrator this might sound like , “when I broke our family apart that was evil.” “When I hurt you that was evil.” For the victim it might sound like “what you did to our family is evil.” Those are powerful confessions that actually begin the process of freeing both the victim and the perpetrator from the evil that was done. That’s not a passive. That’s not being a doormat.
Yesterday we were given a good example of this during the sentencing hearing of Larry Nassar. Rachael Denhollander’s statement during the sentencing hearing part of Larry Nassar’s trial is a powerful example of calling evil what it is as a part of forgiveness. Her statement can be found here. I want to quote part of it:
In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.Throughout this process, I have clung to a quote by C.S. Lewis, where he says, my argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.
Every now and then as a pastor and chaplain I talk with people who think forgiveness means pretending that their evil act didn’t happen. “I just want things to go back to the way they were.” But they can’t because, to use the hook analogy again, pretending the hook is gone doesn’t actually remove the hook. Such pretending doesn’t defeat the evil. Forgiveness does defeat evil by acknowledging what our actions were, selfish, hurtful, evil. Still for both the victim and the perpetrator it hurts like a big dog.