Christine’s body language spoke a thousand words. She marched into my office with a scowl on her face and flung herself into an empty chair. I thought she was going to scream or break something. Instead, after a few deep groans, she began to sob. Time passed. Christine slowly began to divulge that her husband Peter had been having an affair for the past four months and that she had just learned about this.*
She was broken, furious and desolate and her pain was palpable. Anger, endless questions, and remorse surged through her. What made matters even worse was her take-home message from the previous week’s sermon: “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). She shouted, “How can I possibly forgive Peter when he’s done this to me, to our son?”
Good question! How should Christine respond to such news, such pain, and such demands? And how might a pastoral caregiver demonstrate genuine empathy for the hurting whilst simultaneously believing that forgiveness “ought to be focused on the reconciliation of brokenness, the restoration of communion – with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation?” (1) Questions like these defy trite or prescriptive responses, as every scenario is unique. Rather, thoughtful responses are required, especially as the ramifications of unprocessed wounds and not forgiving often increasingly damage people’s emotional, psychological, physical, relational, and spiritual well-being.
My initial response to Christine’s question was silence, pregnant with the impact of her plight. I then said, “I’m so sorry.” Remen argues that suffering is healed via “compassion, not expertise.” (2) Attitudes matter. By showing empathy, Christine hopefully registered that I was with her. Minutes later she plaintively asked, “Is there any hope for me, for my son?” And after a lengthy pause, she added, “Is there any hope for Peter and me?” I slowly replied, “I believe there is. God, community, and a process of forgiveness offer hope. But what you’ve experienced is huge and I imagine it feels like the odds are completely stacked against you at present.”
After Christine left my office, I determined to pray for her and her family regularly. One reason for this is that many hurting people are unable to pray for themselves. Payne offers another reason and writes that it is the presence of God that enables people to forgive. (3)
Nine days later, Christine returned. She looked lumpish and spent a considerable amount of time retelling her story. She also elaborated on the ongoing fallout from the affair: Peter had moved out of the family home, there were sleepless nights, and she was unable to concentrate at work.
Halfway through our session Christine asked me to tell her more about forgiveness. I began by stating what it is not. Forgiveness does not mean that offences ought to be denied. Peter had had an affair and the consequences are real. Rather, forgiveness acknowledges the reality and significance of people’s sins and wounds. Secondly, forgiveness does not require that Christine forgets that she has been injured. Forgetting offences is potentially dangerous, usually impossible, and sometimes wasteful. Having said that, forgiveness over time might assist Christine to remember Peter’s actions differently. Similarly, to forgive someone does not indicate that justice should be forsaken, although forgiveness may enable people to reconsider how justice might be outworked. Fourthly, trust is distinct from forgiveness. Forgiveness may be offered as a gift and/or discovered after it has occurred, but the rebuilding of trust requires time. Fifthly, forgiveness is different from reconciliation (even though reconciliation might be the optimum goal of forgiveness). That is to say, forgiveness may be extended by one party, whereas reconciliation requires the willingness of both parties. And finally, genuine forgiveness of deep wounds cannot be hurried. (It is noteworthy that speedy forgiveness may prevent learning opportunities, sully forgiveness’ reputation in the wider community, and foil persons from gaining the benefits that authentic forgiveness offers).
Christine seemed to be following, so I continued and offered her two definitions of forgiveness. Miroslav Volf explains that “Forgiveness is the boundary between exclusion and embrace.” (4) This definition highlights that offences, pain, and wounds exclude people from God, others, life, and themselves to varying degrees. It also reveals that genuine forgiveness can help persons to move beyond violations that exclude and create the possibility for people to embrace God, others, life, and themselves more fully. Thus, forgiveness can rightly be construed as an opportunity for life. The second definition is found in the bestselling book The Shack where God says to Mack, who is grieving the death of his daughter, “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.” (5)
Twelve days later, Christine and I met again. She seemed very tired. After she had brought me up-to-date with her ever-unfolding story she asked, “How does someone actually forgive?” I responded by stating that some individuals can seemingly cover over and/or let go of (smaller) offences (1 Peter 4: 8) and others can pray one-off effective forgiveness prayers. But when persons have been deeply wounded they usually need to work through a process of forgiveness such as the HEART forgiveness model. (6) The acronym HEART recognises Jesus’ call to forgive from the heart (Matthew 18: 35). It accentuates the importance of engaging with one’s thoughts and feelings in order to obtain authentic, lasting forgiveness from painful injuries. Eight weeks later, Christine asked me to guide her through the HEART forgiveness process and over six fortnightly meetings we processed the following:
Heed your wounds
This is no small matter. For Christine this involved naming Peter’s offences (he had had an affair and had broken his promise to be faithful). She also identified some of the current effects of his offence/s (their son was now living in two houses and Christine’s anger was “out of control”). Additionally, she considered the attitudes behind Peter’s actions (she deemed that he had “abandoned and betrayed everyone”). Christine did this difficult work by talking with me and by journaling about these points. In this way, she gave voice to her pain, feelings, and thoughts. She also validated her experience at literal, pragmatic, and affectual levels.
Explore why people may have wounded you
An advantage of wounded individuals like Christine engaging with this optional step is that their explorations may uncover information that elicits understanding or empathy within them for their violators. These feelings, in turn, may serve as springboards to help them forgive. As Christine talked about the factors that may have prompted Peter to have the affair, it dawned on her that she might have been somewhat complicit to his actions. This shocked her. She grasped that she had “spent the previous three years working crazy hours and despite Peter’s pleading,” she had given him and their son minimal quality time. Fortunately, this sobering insight did not tempt her to excuse Peter’s offence/s. If it had, if she had denied that he had injured her, she would have had nothing to process via forgiveness and she would have excluded herself (and others) from the potential benefits of forgiveness.
Acknowledge key Christian traditions that inform your understanding of forgiveness
(A) Next, I encouraged Christine to connect with meaningful Christian practices that help her to unite with the triune God, in whom Christian forgiveness is embedded. (7) For Christine, this involved taking communion with others frequently, receiving regular prayer, attending worship services, and pondering how God’s unfolding story of love has many different scenes. This latter point filled Christine with hope that her story was not completely ruined or finished. (B) Unsurprisingly, some people react sinfully to being wounded; others fathom that they may have contributed to their violators offences. In such instances, it is important to seek forgiveness from God. Accordingly, Christine asked God to forgive her for ignoring Peter, abandoning her family by focusing exclusively on her work, and for “dumping her rage” on her son. (C) The next optional step of forgiving oneself is particularly difficult for some people. Christine struggled to extend any grace or love towards herself at this point. However, as she fathomed that self-forgiveness can be a means of receiving God’s forgiveness and that she was gaining new insights and changing (she had begun to spend more time with her son), her ability to forgive herself grew. (D) Christine then explored the concept of intrapersonal forgiveness, which takes place within a person’s own heart and mind. This kind of forgiveness may entail working through the points outlined above and/or praying prayers of forgiveness. By this point of her forgiveness journey, Christine felt less antagonistic towards Peter and, encouragingly, she ventured to pray for him. (E) If Christine had felt that she needed to forgive Peter overtly, which she did not at this point, I would have helped her to prepare to meet with him. This would have involved discussing such points as her attitude, what she might say, and the location of their proposed meeting.
Review any questions and dilemmas you have
It is quite common for people to encounter challenges on their forgiveness journeys. For example, Christine had to learn how to negotiate with Peter around the care of their son, cope with her fluctuating feelings, and communicate with “nosey church members.” Challenges of this nature need to be faced in order to ensure that one’s forgiveness is not thwarted.
Target future forgiveness goals
Effective forgiveness journeys from deep wounds are rarely entirely finished by working through forgiveness models in a short time. Thus it is generally prudent to set goals to maintain and further one’s forgiveness. For Christine, this entailed trying to demonstrate love towards Peter once per fortnight in a tangible manner, scheduling monthly meetings with me, and joining a support group. Choices like these engender hope, as they involve love, God, accountability, and fellowship.
Like most journeys, the future for Christine, Peter, and their son is uncertain. Peter is no longer seeing the other woman, but he has told Christine that he sees no future for them as a couple. Christine and Peter’s son is purportedly faring well and his parents have found a counsellor for him should he need to see one in the future. Christine reports that she is “prospering.” She says that she is open to God, Peter, her son, and life “like never before.” Given the state that Christine was in when we first met six months earlier, her transformation points to the miraculous power of forgiveness. I surmise that if I had tried to push Christine to forgive Peter during our first meeting, the gift and hope of forgiveness for Christine (and those associated with her) would have been frustrated. Yes, God calls us to forgive but when people have been deeply hurt, forgiveness needs to be contextualised in order for deep healing and lasting positive impact to ensue.
*This is a fictitious case but sadly entirely plausible.
Story: Dr Phil Halstead
Dr Phil Halstead is a lecturer in applied theology at Carey Baptist College and works in pastoral care and counselling at St Paul’s Church, Symonds Street. He has published the internationally recognised Forgiveness Matters course.
1. Gregory Jones. 1995. Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis. Grand Rapids. Eerdmans.
2. Rachel Naomi Remen. 1996. Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal. New York. Riverhead Books.
3. Leanne Payne. 1991. Restoring the Christian Soul: Overcoming Barriers to Completion in Christ through Healing Prayer. Grand Rapids. Baker Books.
4. Miroslav Volf. 1996. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville. Abingdon Press.
5. W. Paul Young. 2007. The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity. Newbury Park, CA. Windblown Media.
6. See Philip John Halstead. The Forgiveness Matters Course: A Theologically and Psychologically Integrated Approach to Help Churchgoing Adults Process Their Parental Wounds. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health 14.2 (2012): 85-110.
7. L. Gregory Jones. 1995. Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis. Grand Rapids. Eerdmans.
1. Do you have areas of deep hurt where forgiveness is a struggle? What can you take from this article?
2. If you are involved in pastoral care, which of the points here will be helpful?
3. We have three more articles about forgiveness. Check out Tārore and her Book, The Bad Thing and My Brother. Another thought-provoking read is Ding Dong the Wicked Witch Is Dead! A Pastor’s Response to the Death of His Childhood Abuser.
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Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.