Reconciliation and Forgiveness

the future of forgiveness

A bunch of thoughts about forgiveness collided in my head over the weekend.

Let me share them with you — then you tell me whether you’ve glimpsed the creation of a whole new (highly unstable) element or something more like a five car pile-up:

  1. Forgiveness has a future. That is, forgiveness only makes sense in so far as it prepares the ground for the restoration of a wider moral and relational order in which life can flourish. This was the basic thesis of a lecture I attended late last week, ‘Forgiveness: Narrative and Lyrical’ by Kevin Hart — and it was what sparked off my chain of thought.
  2. Forgiveness provides a foretaste of the future. A strong case can be made for seeing the Lord’s Prayer as all about the future that Jesus’ resurrection secures. So it’s significant that the only present human activity it mentions is forgiving (as something inseparable from being forgiven).
  3. And yet the future holds more than forgiveness. Hence, Christians are called to engage in a variety of activities anticipating creation’s ultimate future. As we pursue things like justice, beauty, and responsible stewardship of God’s world, we’re not so much building the kingdom as establishing bridgeheads of the proper final ordering of things to the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit.
  4. But I’m less sure about how forgiveness relates to these other aspects of the new creation. How does Point 2 fit with Point 3? Whenever I talk about Point 3 with people, some get excited while others greet it with a degree of scepticism. This usually bubbles up in cautious questions about how the pursuit of justice or stewardship of creation (or whatever) should be prioritised with respect to evangelism — ie. announcing God’s forgiveness and urging people to be reconciled with God.

Not very concrete, I know. At least not yet.

But do please share your thoughts with me…

grace without guilt … when you’re hurting (ii)

The grand arc of Paul’s thought in Ephesians 1-3 brings us to this point: the church is an oasis of healing and reconciliation in the vast desert of hurt (suffered and inflicted).

At least, that’s what it’s meant to be.

But if your experience is anything like mine, this can seem like a mouth-watering mirage.

The everyday experience of Christian community can be anything but peaceful. For it groans under the strains of our competing desires — to win, to be right, to be recognised, to be comfortable and secure.

How can we enter into the reality Paul describes when the wounds are still raw? When the insults are still ringing in our ears? When we’re struggling to trust … again?

Here are two simple strategies that have helped me take small but significant steps:

1. Treat conflict as an opportunity to understand not blame, judge or condemn

Because we belong to Jesus, we don’t need to go all out to win. And we don’t need to get frustrated or crushed when we don’t (appear to) win.

Instead of getting frustrated we can get fascinated and seek to discover what happened — in a spirit not of fault-finding but of working out how we got to this point so we can increase our chances of not ending up here again.

Hence, it can be helpful to talk about the different contribution different people may have made (rather than simply who’s to blame).

2. Distinguish between feeling hurt and being hurt

It’s all too easy to read motive into actions or words that hurt. When we’re hurting it’s hard not to assume the worst and put the worst construction on what’s been said or done.

So it’s at least worth pausing before we draw too direct a line from our experience to the other person’s intentions.

If we want to work with the grain of God’s grace, we need to verbally and mentally train ourselves for this.

“I” statements are the classic way to do this. E.g., “I felt humiliated when you said…”

They let us take ownership of our feelings, while giving space for the other person to identify the gap between intention and outcome.

This is good practice even if the other person did intend to hurt us. At the very least, it can slow things down enough to explore what happened.

grace without guilt … when you’re hurting (i)

Hurting others and feeling hurt are often tangled up with each other.

On the one hand, when we hurt others that can leave us feeling hurt ourselves. On the other hand, our own hurt can lead us to lash out and hurt others.

I don’t imagine it’d be too hard to produce a typology of hurt:

The more desperately you’re seeking comfort, the more you’ll suffer when you’re stressed and the more likely you’ll be to inflict hurt on others by outsourcing or defaulting on anything that might stress you out.

If it’s approval that drives you, then you’ll hurt when you’re rejected and hurt others — either by walling yourself off against them if you don’t get approval or smothering them if you do.

If your hunger for control is insatiable, then it’s uncertainty that will hurt you most — just as it’s blame and condemnation that you’ll direct at others who seem to challenge your control.

And if you’re out for power then humiliation (or perceived humiliation) will cut you deepest, while others will probably feel used by you.

What can we say in the face of such an overwhelming variety of ways to be hurt and oppressed or to hurt and oppress others?

Well, if Ephesians 3.1-13 is anything to go by, we can say two things on the basis of the good news of God’s grace in Jesus:

  1. There is comfort for the oppressed.
  2. And there is hope for the oppressor.

The good news of God’s grace in Jesus — what Paul calls ‘the mystery’ that ‘has now been revealed … by the Spirit’ — effects the long-awaited victory over the powers that bind and enslave human life, and that produce hurt and hostility between people.

This is why, in Paul’s thought, the church is such a big deal.

For the church is where God’s wisdom is triumphantly displayed — where it’s brandished aloft like a trophy.

For Paul, the church is the place where hurt gets healed (most astoundingly in the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles).

Oh, that it might be true of our churches!

[To be continued…]