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The Scandal Of Forgiveness

The Scandal Of Forgiveness

by Philip Yancey

Learn More | Meet Philip Yancey
Chapter 1


My friend Mark lives in a middle-class suburban home with his wife and two teenage children. One day he was discussing with his wife whether it was time to put their aging cat to sleep. Something she said struck a nerve, and before he knew it, he was yelling at her. Feeling threatened by his angry outburst, she reached for their landline phone and dialed 911. Mark quickly grabbed the phone from her and unplugged it. Still smoldering, he stalked out of the room, believing the incident was over—until a short time later, when the doorbell rang.

Wearing only boxer shorts and a T-shirt, Mark opened the front door to find two uniformed officers. The 911 call center had detected the aborted call and alerted local police to a possible emergency. Mark tried to explain that everything was fine, that a disagreement had just gotten a little heated, but the police informed him they had a strict protocol for handling potential domestic violence situations. With curious neighbors looking on, they handcuffed Mark and escorted him in his underwear to their squad car. He spent that night in jail until his father bailed him out the next morning.

My friend, humiliated, was sentenced to a fourteen-week course in anger management. He found himself in a room with repeat offenders who had expressed their anger with fists, not just words. “Your first assignment is to write an apology to the person you hurt,” said the woman conducting the course. Mark took the pen and paper she offered and returned to his seat, only to look around and see that he was the only one who had agreed. The other men glared at him.

When Mark finished writing the apology, the leader thanked him and reduced his sentence. Even then, none of the others followed his lead. “No f-ing way!” one guy said, and the others nodded their approval.

It has taken Mark months to regain his wife’s trust. He told me this story, which he was recounting to all his close friends, as part of that effort, for the very reason that it exposed his anger problem. “My first instinct was to dismiss what happened as a ridiculous overreaction to a normal marital dispute. But then I saw how badly I had hurt my wife. If I don’t face the ugly truth about myself, and sincerely make amends, I may never earn her forgiveness, which I need desperately in order to put my family back together.”

What he said next has stayed with me: “I don’t know which is harder: for me to apologize or my wife to forgive.” Both acts go against all our self-protective instincts. On the one hand, if we’ve done a wrong, we tend to rationalize away our mistake, blaming the other party, or stress, or a hundred possible psychological reasons that may have led us to act the way we did. On the other hand, if we’re the wronged party, we want to nurse our wounds, harbor resentment, and insist on some kind of restitution.

A conflict like Mark’s links the two parties with a force almost the opposite of love, one that pulls them apart rather than together. On both sides of the standoff, a thick wall of self-protection goes up. Yet, as if to add insult to injury, only the forgiving party, the wronged one, has the ability to dismantle that wall. Mark could write an apology every day of the year, but his wife alone holds the key to restoration.

“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea,” writes C. S. Lewis1 in Mere Christianity—“Until they have something to forgive.”

In truth, we all have something to forgive, for human beings will let you down. Parents who make mistakes in rearing you, friends who grow distant, a spouse who irritates and confounds you, church members who judge you—no one loves perfectly, and no one satisfies the need for acceptance that we all long for. Every lasting relationship includes times of disappointment, and sometimes betrayal.

Others may let us down, but the bitterness that results is something we cultivate in ourselves. Forgiveness represents the only remedy. In the pages that follow you’ll encounter stories of forgiveness done well, and forgiveness resisted at any cost. Stores of those who passed the grace test, and those who failed. The stakes are high, for rancor can pass down through generations, promoting enmity within families and even between nations.

In a cruel irony, a refusal to forgive works its negative energy most powerfully in the wronged party. Archbishop Desmond Tutu2, a master of forgiveness, describes the process:
To forgive is not just to be altruistic; in my view it is the best form of self-interest. The process of forgiving does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. When I talk of forgiveness I mean the ability to let go of the right to revenge and to slip the chains of rage that bind you to the person who harmed you. When you forgive you are free of the hatred and anger that locks you in a state of victimhood. If you can find it in yourself to forgive, you can move on, and you may even help the perpetrator to become a better person.

On a BBC program first broadcast in 2013, I heard a dramatic account of the process Tutu describes. It told the story of Natascha Kampusch, a ten-year-old Austrian girl who was abducted on the way to school by a man in his mid-thirties. He locked her in a dark, dungeon-like room underneath his garage, where he kept her for eight years. After a while he would let her out to cook for him and do household chores, always under close guard, before locking her in the concrete room each night. At times he beat her so badly that she could hardly walk. He also raped her.

When Natascha finally escaped to a neighbor’s house, as an eighteen-year-old, she weighed about the same (105 pounds) as when she entered. Despite the horrific ordeal, she came to a place of forgiveness. As she explained on the program, “I felt I had to forgive him. Only by doing so could I push it away from myself. If I hadn’t been able to forgive him then these feelings of frustration and anger would have continued to eat away at me and would have lived on—this entire experience would have continued to live on inside me. It is as if he would have won in the end if I had let that get to me. I didn’t want hate to poison me because hate always backfires, it comes back on yourself.”

With her typical bluntness, the author Anne Lamott says, “Not forgiving3 is like taking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” She elaborates, “Forgiveness means4 it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person.”

Forgiveness is hard enough when the wounding party apologizes, as my friend Mark did, but in Natascha’s case her captor showed no sign of repentance. Rather, he killed himself by jumping in front of a train when he learned that police were on his trail. Yet Natascha still felt the need to forgive him as a way of setting herself free from the horrors of the past. Should someone be forgiven who has not asked for it or admitted the need? Christians have the stunning example of Jesus who, in his first words from the cross, said “Father, forgive them5, for they do not know what they are doing.” By any reasonable standard of fairness, such a statement is absurd. Crude soldiers were mocking an innocent man even as they drove nails through his wrists and feet and gambled for his clothes. Forgive such people? That scene more than any other exposes the illogic of grace, the motivating force behind forgiveness.

“You have heard6 that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ Jesus had told his followers, reiterating the common rule of human conduct. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .” No doubt such words produced shocked and puzzled expressions on the faces of his listeners, and immediately Jesus gave the reason behind his strange command: “that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

As God’s image-bearers, we are charged with the task of showing the world what God is like. I cannot imagine a more effective way of doing so than following Jesus’ example. We who deserve God’s wrath receive God’s love; we who deserve God’s punishment receive God’s forgiveness. And if we mirror that pattern in our human relationships, we reveal to the world the likeness of God. The theologian N. T. Wright7 makes the intriguing observation that because of the forgiveness brought about by Jesus’ reconciling work, “God will not only release the world from its burden of guilt but will also, so to speak, release himself from the burden of always having to be angry with a world gone wrong.”

Using vivid metaphors, the Old Testament spells out the scope of God’s forgiveness. God removes our offenses from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). With an ability unavailable to mere humans, God blots them out “and remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25). “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist,” God declares (Isaiah 44:22). The prophet Micah depicts God treading our misdeeds underfoot and hurling them into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19).

We are not God, and have not the capacity to blot out memory. By an act of will, I can forgive, but I can’t so easily forget, even when I want to. At this very moment I could compile a list of people who have hurt me, disappointed me, betrayed me. Even after I have gone through the steps of forgiveness, I can still summon up the painful memories and recall them like old wounds. Memories lurk in my brain, and when they surface I must bring them before God and ask for a measure of supernatural grace. For us humans, forgiveness does not erase the past. Rather, it opens up a new future by blocking the past from poisoning that future. Forgiveness means accepting that the past cannot be changed while trusting God for a better future.

I think of Mark, free at last to pursue a loving marriage. And Natascha, free to carve out a new life. I think of Jesus’ disciple Peter, a traitor, now chosen by Jesus to “feed my sheep8.” I think of Saul of Tarsus, formerly a bounty hunter of Christians, now free to become the greatest missionary of all time.

We should have no illusions about forgiveness, for it may be the most demanding act in human relationships, the hardest thing we ever do. But for anyone who lives and loves imperfectly—in other words, for all of us—forgiveness offers an alternative to an endless cycle of resentment and revenge. It alone can set us free.

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