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The Expository Times

http://ext.sagepub.com Forgiveness: Making Some Connections Between Theology and Psychology, Preaching and Pastoral Practice
Reverend Andrew De Smet The Expository Times 2007; 119; 116 DOI: 10.1177/0014524607084863 The online version of this article can be found at: http://ext.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/119/3/116

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t 119 e x p o i t o r y t Volume h e Number 3sPages 116119 i m e s Copyright 2007 sAGe publications, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and singapore Doi: 10.1177/0014524607084863 http://ext.sagepub.com

Forgiveness: Making Some Connections Between Theology and Psychology, Preaching and Pastoral Practice Y
By reVereND ANDrew De smet Offa House, The Coventry Diocesan Retreat House and Conference Centre, Leamington Spa
This article explores forgiveness as a process, looking at and linking some of the psychological and theological features of that process. From this are drawn out some implications for pastoral care and preaching. KeyworDs Forgiveness, Process, Grief, Psychology, Theology, Divorce, Reconciliation

hristian forgiveness can be a strong witness to the transforming power of the Christian faith. the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed to this in his Christmas Day sermon in 2005 when he spoke about the forgiveness offered by Gee walker, the mother of the murdered Liverpool teenager Anthony walker, and the witchell family after the horrific attack on Abigail witchell.1 David Jardine describes, in the context of Northern ireland, how forgiveness releases that anger and bitterness and keeps the channels open between ourselves and God.2 Gods forgiveness of us, taught in his ministry and offered on the cross by Jesus Christ, is one of the central tenets of Christianity. the synoptic Gospels accounts of Jesus teaching place the practice of forgiveness as an obligation on Christians however, in most congregations, there will be someone who has been abused as a child, or someone who has been through a painful separation and divorce, for whom offering forgiveness can seem an impossibility. in the case of abuse, an unqualified offer of forgiveness can even collude with the abusive pattern of behaviour by allowing it to continue unchecked and unchallenged. some preaching and pastoral advice on forgiveness can be simplistic you have to forgive . . . leaving the victim feeling guilty for not being able to forgive, and so carrying a double burden.
report in the Church Times, 30/12/2005 (London), 2. D. Jardine, ssF, the Light shines in the Darkness and the Darkness has Never extinguished it, Franciscan Vol. 17, No. 3 (society of st Francis), 45.
1 2

yet Jesus and the Christian faith teach that we must seek to forgive: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. in the gospels, Jesus teaches an obligation to avoid judging and to forgive (Luke 6:37): Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. we are challenged to make our forgiveness unlimited: seventy times seven (matt 18:2135). however, there are qualifications to this; forgiveness within the Church community can be conditional (matt 18:1520). one possibility is to see forgiveness as a process; the obligation is to embark on the process, not to be at the end straight away! experience in pastoral work and counselling tells me that the injunction forgive and forget is unhelpful, unbiblical and unrealistic. often people, for example those who have suffered in a relationship or been hurt badly in divorce, are told to forgive too quickly. some are given the grace to forgive immediately, but even then there will still be a process of grieving to go through. As pastors we should be very circumspect about telling people to forgive. For trivial hurts, immediate forgiveness is possible, but for deeper injuries, forgiveness is part of a longer healing process and very often is not possible at the outset. Forgiveness is a process, and forgiving is often the end, not the beginning, of that process. this process is unique to each person but there are probably some common features. there is a parallel here with the grief process in which each persons experience is

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unique, but there are some well-documented common features and stages.3 increasingly there is a recognition that the stages of grief are not a neat linear process; rather people move backwards and forwards between them. in cases of separation or death, the grief process will be running in parallel with any move towards forgiveness and the two will be inextricably linked. For example, the anger it is natural to feel at some points in grieving will make forgiveness at that stage unrealistic. in comparison to the grief process, i suspect there is more variation in the process of forgiving, as there is a wider range of causes of hurt. Listed below are different forms of forgiveness, not all of which will apply in every case: Forgiveness by God Forgiveness of God: for example when the anger is with God Forgiveness of others Forgiveness by others Forgiveness of self: people often feel guilt or shame for what has happened Forgiveness in and by communities: for example for hurt caused and expectations disappointed the following are some features of the process of forgiveness: Truth: An acknowledgement of what has been done may be needed before forgiveness can occur: e.g. some admission of fault in a separation process,4 or an abused person going to the police and their allegation being taken seriously.5 Another example would be the south African truth and reconciliation Commission. this was set up as an alternative to either, on the one hand, a judicial trial of offenders which would have immediately become an adversarial legal saga, or, on the other hand, a blanket amnesty which would have let people off the hook and left a huge sense of injustice. the aim was reconciliation not punishment. there is a need for people to
i. Ainsworth-smith and p. speck, Letting Go (London: spCK, 1982); e. Kubler-ross, On Death and Dying (London: tavistock, 1973). 4 this is informed by conversations with members of a group compiling a pack on divorce and separation issues for the Anglican Diocese of Coventry. 5 this has been a repeated experience in counselling work with adults who have been sexually abused as children.

be allowed to tell their stories and be heard and acknowledged.6 in separation and divorce, this too can be an important pastoral role: being there to hear the story. there is a Christ-centred dimension to all this as Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). part of the truth is expressed through emotions. on the way towards forgiveness, a wide range of emotions including anger, despair, shame, guilt and feelings of powerlessness may be uncovered. pastoral work and therapy provide safe places for getting in touch with these emotions, naming and exploring them. these are also places for people to tell their story and to be heard and acknowledged. the experience of a safe holding relationship with clear boundaries and no manipulation can be in itself a healing experience, and this can gradually facilitate the process of learning to trust. Carl rogers core conditions for therapy: empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence,7 are important here as the qualities of such a pastoral relationship. this all links to the theological virtue of love: love which is non-coercive and brings freedom. As well as guilt, shame is a common experience among those whose marriages have broken down or those who have been abused in some way. Guilt is a sense of blameworthiness; it may be met by forgiveness. shame, however, is a more general sense of unworthiness or worthlessness and needs to be met by acceptance.8 pastoral relationships and church communities can offer healing by being places where people are accepted and valued. Grieving for what has been lost is very likely to be part of the moving-on process. recovering an ability to make choices, and therefore power, can be important, particularly for the party who did not initiate the separation/divorce. exercising choice gives back power and starts to open up a future beyond grieving. Power: to be a victim, for example, of sexual abuse or rape, to be bereaved or to have ones spouse
6 D. tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (London: random house, 1999), 11ff. 7 the Necessary and sufficient Conditions of therapeutic personality Change (1957), in h. Kirschenbaum, and V. L. henderson (eds.), The Carl Rogers Reader (London: Constable, 1990), 21935. 8 F. watts, shame, sin and Guilt, in A. mcFadyen and m. sarot (eds.), Forgiveness and Truth (edinburgh: t&t Clark, 2001), 53ff.

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abandon one, will produce feelings of powerlessness. part of the process of healing and moving towards forgiveness is to recover the ability to make choices, and to find power. Forgiveness freely offered involves making a choice and there is a power in this. the victim is robbed of this choice if they are compelled to offer forgiveness, and such an obligation to forgive can itself feel abusive, repeating the feelings around the original hurt or abuse. Repentance by the offender or by both parties is also part of the process. in scripture, forgiveness is linked to repentance, e.g. John the Baptist in mark 1:15: the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Gospel. in Luke 17:3 we are told if there is repentance you must forgive. however, in John 8:111 the call to repentance follows forgiveness; the sequence is not as clear cut as is sometimes claimed. repentance and forgiveness are signs of the Kingdom (mark 1:15 and the Lords prayer). David Jardine speaks of the importance of saying sorry and shares his own experience in Northern ireland of saying sorry to Catholics he addressed as a member of the protestant community. 9 in pastoral work a turning point for someone whose spouse died through hospital incompetence was arrived at only some years later when a settlement was reached in which the health authority acknowledged fault. the compensation payment, although welcome, was less important than that acknowledgment. in separation and divorce, fault is sometimes quite clear, at other times much less so, with the result that what there is to repent of may be difficult to discern, making repentance possible only later in the process. in cases of abuse, repentance by the offender is not always necessary before forgiveness can occur, but in such cases the forgiveness can go un-received or feel incomplete. however, an unrepentant abuser may well continue abusing, and so is not in a position to be forgiven and should not be allowed to carry on perpetrating the abuse. how do we discern whether repentance is genuine or lasting? to give the extreme case, those who sexually abuse children usually act in a compulsive way. part of the compulsive cycle of abuse is a point where there is guilt, fear, shame and a genuine sense of repentance; however this does not last and the

abuser pushes away the guilt and continues in the compulsive cycle of fantasizing, targeting, grooming victims and offending.10 A major part of forgiveness is letting go, with the result that the victim is no longer psychologically held or dominated by what has happened and is able to move on. this again parallels the later part of the grieving process where letting go and moving on make the grief bearable. Forgiveness involves overcoming vindictive resentment. this can happen without, or before, repentance by the perpetrator. Jesus says on the cross, Father forgive them they know not what they do. Forgiveness involves letting go of the desire for revenge. however, justice can be part of forgiveness, and working for that justice can be part of the process, for example seeking a just divorce settlement or bringing an offender to prosecution. in counselling, a pivotal moment for a person who had been abused as a child was when the offender was cautioned by the police and the balance of power reversed. Outcomes to forgiveness: in Christian circles reconciliation is often equated with forgiveness; however, reconciliation is only one outcome of forgiveness;11 other outcomes can be moving on, for example after divorce, going separate ways but without the burden of bitterness. Another outcome is an accommodation, for example a divorced couple working together to co-ordinate the bringing up of their children. Different people have different abilities to forgive; we have different genetic predispositions. psychological object relations12 and Attachment theories point to the importance of early infant development when we are wholly dependant on our parents, and where affection is given by parents but also withdrawn or withheld for one reason or another. if parenting is good enough, then we can learn to forgive our mothers and fathers for the hurt they inevitably cause us. this links to the ability
10 this refers to training given by Derek Green of the Lucy Faithful Foundation, as well as case studies by, and conversations with, Dr elizabeth penlington, the former Child protection officer for the Anglican Diocese of Coventry. 11 D. Van Desen hunsinger, Forgiving Abusive parents in A. mcFadyen and m. sarot (eds.), Forgiveness and Truth: Explorations in Contemporary Theology (edinburgh: t&t Clark, 2001), 96. 12 see Van Desen hunsinger (78ff), for details of the implications of object relations theory.

Jardine, the Light shines in the Darkness, 4ff.

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to trust. this early infantile learning to forgive has implications for our emotional and spiritual development later, including our ability to forgive. so, some people, because of their inherent make-up or early experience, will find it much harder to forgive than others. God, of course, can graciously surprise, but nevertheless that awareness that people for good reason differ in their capacity and readiness to forgive is important, both in pastoral work and preaching. Forgiveness, Healing and Kingdom: the process of forgiveness contributes to another process, that of psychological healing, through letting go of self-destructive emotions, discovering choice and personal power and recovery of self-esteem and a sense of Gods love. Forgiveness restores a right relationship with God and forgiveness, healing, truth and reconciliation, freedom and justice are all signs of the kingdom, see for example Luke 4:1820. the ministry inaugurated in this passage is a Jubilee ministry of release,13 and part of this new Kingdom order is release from sins. the ultimate source of forgiveness is God, e.g. Luke 23:34: Father forgive . . . in romans 3:23, paul says: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. sin is a universal condition, and forgiveness by God a universal need. For paul and his followers, human forgiveness mirrors divine forgiveness. ephesians 4:32 reads: Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. human forgiveness is to mirror Gods forgiveness . . . forgive each other: just as the Lord has forgiven you, you must forgive (Col 3:13). however the thrust of this article is that the ideal is, for most people, the end-point of a process of forgiveness rather than the beginning: in other words we take rather longer to get there than God! it is pastorally dangerous to try and short-circuit that process. walter wink14 sees forgiveness as part of the assertive non-violent resistance to the powers that
13 J. B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: CUp, 1995), 78. 14 w. wink, The Powers That Be (New york: Doubleday, 1998), particularly pages 90 and 110ff.

control and enslave, so that forgiveness is one way of breaking the spirals of violence endemic in our culture and that of Jesus day. Green15 also sees forgiveness as part of an altered pattern of living the Lukan Lords prayer: And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us (Luke 14:4). he sees debt as part of the pattern of patronal relationships dominant at that time, and the petition as a movement from the patron-client relationship, based on obligation, to a relationship of kin, based on giving freely. this again reflects a shift in power relationships from being controlled to freedom. Another both theological and pastoral question is who is entitled to forgive? Anthony priddis16 cites the example of a convicted child abuser joining a house group. the group decide to forgive him. priddis argues they are wrong to do so as none of them has been affected by what the abuser did. it is for those affected to forgive. (that does not preclude them from accepting the new member.) Forgiveness can come only from the person who has been wronged. you can only forgive what has been done to you. so, in a divorce, different parties involved will have different things to forgive. God does, however, forgive harm inflicted on others and it may be argued that is because God is affected by everything that happens in his creation.17 in conclusion, forgiveness is the end of a costly process, linked to grieving and coming to terms with rejection and it is also a process of healing of hurt. An awareness of this process can help counter unrealistic expectations of quick or cheap forgiveness. the Christian commitment is, with Gods grace, to embark on that journey. preaching should avoid seeking to trivialize or short-circuit that process, whilst recognizing the centrality of forgiveness in a new pattern of relationships that characterize the Kingdom of God.
Green, Gospel of Luke, 115 Bishop Anthony priddis, Child Abuse and Christian Forgiveness in the Coventry Diocesan Diamond Newsletter (July/Aug 2003). 17 see J. moltmann, The Crucified God (London: sCm press, 1974).
15 16

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