Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Forgiveness Potato

A student recently shared how another person had recently hurt him, both physically and emotionally. I allowed him to vent, then asked if he was willing to have a conversation and pursue peace with this hurtful person. He wondered aloud if there was a point, if the other person was beyond forgiving.

When we are hurt by someone else, our initial reaction is typically one of two responses, summarized nicely by the phrase "fight or flight." We will put up our defenses, let our anger boil, and fight back in a way that damages the person who hurt us. Or we will slink away, nursing our wounds and allowing past insecurities and fears to gain further strongholds in our hearts.

I imagine this interaction like a game of hot potato. You know, the childhood game where you throw someone an object and they try to pass it off as quickly as possible. You're pretending it's a hot potato, one that would burn your hands if you held on to it long enough.

In the experience of being hurt by another--being tossed a painful "hot potato"--we can choose to chuck it right back at them, with the hopes that it'll hurt them more than it hurt us. Yet this action often sparks a destructive back-and-forth melee that can last for weeks, months, or even a lifetime. They say something hurtful. You say something hurtful back. A cycle of revenge has now begun, and everyone walks away wounded.

Or we can hold on to the hot potato, carrying it around as a painful weight on our shoulders. Eventually it cools, but not before it causes deep pains that leave scars and memories of the hurt inflicted upon us. Sometimes potato after potato is piled into our hands all at once, fostering an agony that is beyond our ability to bear.

There is a third option: forgiveness.

However, our typical version of forgiveness all-too-often looks like the second option. We hold on to the potato, saying aloud that we forgive the other person, all while their hurtful words and actions burn us even more. What is the point of forgiveness if it continues to wound? It feels almost unjust to choose to forgive, especially if the perpetrator is unrepentant. There is this tension between vengeance and justice, and forgiveness lies somewhere in the center. Theologian Miroslav Volf brings up tough questions about forgiveness in his book Exclusion and Embrace:
How do we find the strength to forgive, however? Should we try to persuade ourselves that forgiveness is invariably good for mental and spiritual health where vindictiveness is bad? Should we tell ourselves that, given the nature of our world, it is wiser to forgive than to fall prey to the spiral of revenge? Even if valid, will these arguments get at such a powerful emotion as the desire for revenge? More significantly, do they take sufficient note of the fact that the desire for revenge, far from being just an irrational passion of a sick or maladjusted psyche, flows "from a need to restore 'something missing'--a sense of physical and emotional integrity that is shattered by violence?"
So what can be done? How can we forgive when it doesn't seem to satisfy? Volf continues:
More than just the passive suffering of an innocent person, the passion of Christ is the agony of a tortured soul and wrecked body offered as a prayer for the forgiveness of the torturers. No doubt, such prayer adds to the agony of the passion. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw clearly, forgiveness itself is a form of suffering; when I forgive I have not only suffered a violation but also suppressed the rightful claims of strict restitutive justice. Under the foot of the cross we learn, however, that in a world of irreversible deeds and partisan judgments redemption from the passive victimization cannot happen without the active suffering of forgiveness.
This third option of forgiveness requires a giving up of the potato, handing it off to the crucified One who exclaimed, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." Instead of passively holding on to the pain and suffering, we hand our suffering to Christ and allow Him to suffer with and for us. He is the One who can forgive when we cannot, the grace-filled Son who invites sinners into a relational dance with the Trinity itself.

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