The F Word: Forgiveness and it’s Imitations

forgivenessAn interview with David Augsburger

David is Professor of Pastoral Care at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. A well known author and speaker, he has written three books on the subject of forgiveness including his most recent entitled Helping People Forgive published by Westminster John Knox Press. It is written primarily for clergy and counselors. We interviewed him recently at his home in Claremont, California.

STEPS: We have been talking for several years about whether or not to do an issue of STEPS on forgiveness. It’s not a very easy topic to talk about and many of our readers have been hurt by all the ‘hurry up and forgive and forget’ stuff that you find in the Christian community. Maybe it would be easiest if we started off with a question about the asking for forgiveness side of things. Any advice about how to ask for forgiveness?

DAVID: Actually, I have a significant hesitation about ever encouraging people to ask for forgiveness. Requests of this kind can very easily contain a coercive element. When I ask you to give me forgiveness, how can you say ‘No’? You may not be able or ready to forgive yet. Asking can easily feel like demanding. It can become a kind of pious blackmail.

STEPS: So, we should forget about asking for forgiveness?

DAVID: The twelve steps have a much better, and more biblical, instinct about what is appropriate if we have injured someone. The focus is not on asking them for forgiveness but on making amends. If I have injured someone, it is not appropriate for me to ask them to give me something. What I need to do is to become entirely ready for God to change me and then to make amends for the wrongs I have done. The focus is not on asking for something but on demonstrating repentance. I can go to the one I have injured and say “I have wronged you. I recognize that. I deeply regret what I have done. I will live now in a different way. And I hope that someday forgiveness will be possible between us.” This takes the injury seriously and allows the injured person however long they need for the process of forgiveness to move to completion. It is very different from just requesting that the person I have harmed change how they feel about me.

STEPS: I watched a television news report recently that replayed a portion of Jimmy Swaggert’s very well-known, public request for forgiveness from some years ago. It was certainly sincere.

DAVID: Sure. But it’s a good example of the kind of pious blackmail I’m thinking about. It’s a strategy not limited to TV personalities, of course. When any of us requests forgiveness, how can the injured person say ‘no’? Especially if they are still in shock or disbelief about the injury. They don’t know what’s hit them yet, but they are already being asked to forgive. If they say ‘yes,’ will there not be hidden resentment? Won’t it later feel like the asking for and the giving of forgiveness skipped some critical steps that make authentic resolution of the injury almost impossible?

STEPS: What do you do if someone asks you for forgiveness and you are just not ready yet?

DAVID: Well, you can say something like, “I too want forgiveness to be real between us. Can we work on it until we know that we’ve experienced it together?” Last night on the news I listened as Los Angeles city councilman Hernandez asked for forgiveness from his family and the voters of Los Angeles in connection with his recent arrest for cocaine possession. But it is not clear yet whether the man has repented and is making a change in his life. In the absence of repentance, forgiveness can easily be just another a way to avoid what is real.

STEPS: I know you’re not going to say that we should also forget about giving forgiveness.

DAVID: Well, not exactly. But it’s certainly true that some of what passes for ‘giving forgiveness’ can really be very distorted and hurtful. I suppose one of the most common ways to abuse forgiveness is to grant forgiveness preemptively – without appropriate process. I think of the many Latin American countries who in recent years have granted impunity to perpetrators of human rights abuses and other atrocities. At first this may seem like a generous, gracious offer of forgiveness. But it leaves out so much! Contrast it with the South African process where there must be a frank admission of the truth of what was done wrong before forgiveness is possible. The act of granting impunity without a foundation in the truth and without appropriate process is not really forgiveness but a way of avoiding the truth. It is not productive in terms of justice and healing for the long term. This is just as true in interpersonal relationships as it is on the larger sociopolitical level.

STEPS: So, we can forgive too soon or we can leave out important steps in the process. Are there any times when it is appropriate to just forgive immediately, without conditions, without repentance?

DAVID: Yes. There are situations where it is appropriate to forgive even if there has been no process. If an injury happens as the result of an accident, where there is no intention to hurt or where there was limited ability or capacity to prevent the injury, then we are to forgive freely and generously. And, we are able to do so even if no forgiveness is requested and no repentance is demonstrated. When you recognize that the person who injured you is not really responsible for what happened, then you can give forgiveness freely. But this same kind free and generous forgiveness is not appropriate in cases where the injury was intentional. Here’s where I differ from a lot of folks about Christ’s words from the cross. The absolute freedom of that forgiveness has always stood in contradiction to his teaching in Matt. 18 and Luke 17 – where he clearly calls for repentance as a condition of forgiveness. I think he said ‘for they know not what they do’ because he recognized that they were not responsible for their actions. He confronts them with their blindness and expresses his willingness, but that does not mean that everyone at the foot of the cross was automatically forgiven for eternity independent of their commitment to repentance. One thief was forgiven, one wasn’t.

STEPS: So, even Jesus did not forgive unconditionally?

DAVID: Christians have not always agreed about this. If you read my colleague Lou Smedes’ books on forgiveness you will see an excellent example of a reformed doctrine of generous grace that forgives without question and that forgives in as nearly as unconditional a fashion as possible. Repentance, in this approach, is not a central feature or requirement. Calvin said that no one ever repents until they first experience the possibility of forgiveness – so forgiveness has a kind of logical priority over repentance which comes later. My own view is that forgiveness in the absence of repentance is almost meaningless. It may sound gracious and loving but usually the person who forgives prematurely, preemptively or unconditionally is trying to avoid the hard work of the forgiveness process. It’s saying “I don’t want to struggle. I can’t carry this any longer. I can’t face the burden.” This leads to a religiously sanctioned form of denial which allows the person to wash their hands of the circumstances. In this case my “I forgive you” may mean only “I refuse to look again at the injury you have caused.” In this kind of denial both the person who is injured and the person who is responsible for the injury are devalued. If you are a person of deep, deep worth and significance that I prize, loving you as I love myself, and so am I, then the injury invites us to talk about it. Not just to say “this doesn’t matter.”

STEPS: I can remember times when I’ve said “I forgive you” just to get people to leave me alone.

DAVID: Exactly. That’s not the kind of forgiveness Jesus speaks about. The goal of forgiveness is not to make the problem or the person go away. It is always to regain the brother or the sister – at whatever level is appropriate. It may be just a return to civil community or it may mean a return to intimate relationship but it always means more than just avoiding the pain of the injury.

STEPS: Tell me more about the fact that forgiveness doesn’t always mean a return to intimate relationship. What do you mean ?

DAVID: Forgiveness never returns us to things as they were – it is never just about restoration of a relationship to a former state. The relationship must change as the result the injury – otherwise the forgiveness is just a form of denial. Take the example of a father who has sexually abused his daughter. As an adult, the daughter confronts him and through a long process comes to forgive him. Suppose he then says “I want things to be like they used to be when I could have time alone with my grandchildren.” To return to the old relationship and to allow that privilege would be irresponsible and dangerous. To construct a new kind of relationship means that we must have time to know that he is fully and completely trustworthy. Towards the end of the long process of forgiveness, a responsible daughter will say “No, we will not return to how things used to be. I welcome you back into relationship with me and my family but things are not the same. You may see the grandchildren but only with me present at all times.” The father may say “See, you haven’t really forgiven me.” But forgiveness does not mean returning to business as usual but crafting a new relationship with a level of intimacy appropriate to our level of trust. To return to a civil relationship may be an enormous achievement in situations like this. A return to intimacy may never be possible or appropriate and it is certainly not required by forgiveness.

STEPS: There are a lot of things that mimic forgiveness, or that we confuse with forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the same as accepting what the person did. It is not pretending that what happened didn’t happen. It’s not about denial.

DAVID: No. And it’s not even necessarily about the complete eradication of resentment. I think Jim McClendon’s line where he says “resentment is God’s good gift that leads us to prize justice” is important in this context.

STEPS: Do you mean that even when you have fully forgiven someone there can remain an appropriate place for resentment?

DAVID: There is, of course, a malevolent kind of resentment that is destructive and distancing. There can, however, be a benign form of resentment that says “I despise actions that injure innocent parties. I will never approve of what took place. I will never excuse it. I reach out for relationship where ever possible but I will not give up my commitment to justice.”

STEPS: Talk to me about the role of memory in forgiveness – about the ‘forgive and forget’ stuff.

DAVID: I remember a pastor’s wife whose husband had a series of affairs with women in their congregation. In about our third session together, when the husband had finally emerged enough from the shame to be able to talk with her about the loathing he felt inside, he immediately said to her “Will you forgive me?” And she said “Oh no! No. I don’t want our relationship marked forever by my being in a position where I forgave you. Besides, I want to know what part both of us may have had in the blindness that allowed this to happen. I want to make sure we work through this. I never want you to think that I take what happened so lightly that I could forgive either you or me before we even really understand what happened.” I thought this was a good example of a stubbornly brilliant refusal to forget. Forgetting tends to be a kind of sweet, pious denial blended with memory fatigue. You grow tired of remembering and you long once more to have a mind that is free from the review of the injury.

STEPS: Memory can be just exhausting. Ruminating on an injury. . .

DAVID: That’s a good word in this context. Trying to forget is very like a grass eating animal that coughs the cud back up, chews it one more time, swallows it, but it’s not yet digestible, so it repeats the cycle. Memory can be like that – you cough up a memory. If the person or the injury is of no importance I suppose you could just spit it out. But if the person or the relationship is important then the process must go on until the meaning of the injury is ‘digestible’ somehow.

STEPS: One thing that makes the whole topic of forgiveness particularly difficult for Christians is the extraordinary pressure we feel about it. I was always taught that I needed to forgive right now. I’m afraid that if I don’t forgive right now, the problem with the relationship will be my bitterness rather than the injury that I have experienced. I will somehow be to blame because I’m ‘holding on’ to grievances.

DAVID: We’re held hostage by a misinterpretation of the lines just following the Lord’s Prayer. “If you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive yours”. Somehow when we read this text, no matter what our understanding of grace, we believe in the absolute necessity of our forgiving if we are to be graced ourselves. What happens is that ‘forgiving’ becomes a work that I must do to earn my own release. I understand Jesus’ teaching here to be something very different. Jesus recognizes that the stubbornly unforgiving heart closes itself to both giving and receiving – and he urges us to have a heart open to forgiveness. But taking time to work through the injury to regain the brother or sister, as Jesus teaches elsewhere, is what it looks like to take forgiveness seriously. It is not an unforgiving attitude to insist on the integrity of the process. We do not close our hearts to forgiveness when we commit to the process of forgiveness. Quite to the contrary, if we forgive prematurely out of a sense of obligation then we have closed our hearts to the possibility of true forgiveness and reconciliation.

STEPS: Premature forgiveness can seem so much more appealing than all the hard work that forgiveness requires. Sometimes you just want to get it over with.

DAVID: Quick forgiveness leaps from about step 2.5 down to step 12. It skips all the hard work. Most of us would love to do that. Why do steps three, four, five and six particularly, when you can jump to the end? Another way to talk theologically about this is to say that we want resurrection without the cross. The cross is just too troubling. One of my teachers used to say that therapy is akin to worship. When one is counseling the proper attitude is a sense of profound reverence for what God is doing in this person’s life. I took him a tape of a counseling session once. I was so pleased with this session because I thought that it marked a dramatic breakthrough in the life of the client. And I said “now I understand what you mean that therapy is akin to worship.” And he said, “Oh no you don’t. Last week when the person was struggling so intensely with their depression and could not find a way through, God was at work in that struggle just as wonderfully as here in the breakthrough. Only when you appreciate God’s presence in the struggle do you have any right to talk about God’s presence in the breakthrough.” I was gently chastened and I’ve never forgotten it.

STEPS: It seems like when we look closely at forgiveness we find ourselves talking about healing. It’s about going through the whole process of healing if you are the injured party. Or if you are the perpetrator of the injury it’s going to mean going through a similar process of transformation.

DAVID: In our culture what we’ve done is split off forgiveness from reconciliation. We think of forgiveness as an attitudinal or emotional process and of reconciliation as something that may or may not be a consequence. In the biblical metaphor forgiveness, reconciliation and healing are not divisible. You can’t split them apart.

STEP: In the recovery community as a whole there are many people who simply reject forgiveness as an legitimate goal. I suppose entitling this issue of STEPS “The F Word” suggests we have a lot of ambivalence about it ourselves. We’ve talked about how it can be distorted, but what is it that makes it an important goal in the first place?

DAVID: Well, in fairness to the critics of forgiveness, it is important to emphasize that forgiveness can be so distorted as to be part of the problem. Where there is cyclic abuse in a relationship, for example, forgiveness is usually a major contributing factor. The spouse forgives and then they go through the honeymoon stage and then there’s the brooding and accumulation of rage and then there’s the violence and then the placating (I’m so sorry and it’ll never happen again) and then more forgiveness. In this cycle, forgiveness is the heart of the pathology. The same kind of cycle is common in any relationship which is affected by addiction. So forgiveness can be aiding, abetting and enabling. Forgiveness is the central function of the enabler. So, it’s understandable that people would reject this kind of forgiveness – it is part of the problem.

STEPS: So, if you’re only familiar with that kind of forgiveness – the kind that’s part of the dynamics of abuse – it doesn’t help to be told ‘you should forgive.’ That kind of forgiveness is what got us into the trouble we’re in now. We need a whole new way of thinking about, feeling about, and doing forgiveness.

DAVID: Maybe one way to get at this is to talk about the true nature of an authentic apology. It’s important to distinguish between a true apology and either an appeasement or what I call an account. An appeasement is when I suck up to you and put myself down. I might say: “It was rotten of me, I am terrible.” I grovel at your feet until you say “you’ve groveled enough now, you can stand up again, it’s OK.” In this process of appeasement I suck you into forgiving me because my talking so badly about myself makes you feel badly about the relationship or badly for me. Afterward the person who was tricked into forgiving by the appeasement finds themselves feeling resentment because there was no justice to it. A similar avoidance happens when I give an account rather than an apology. An account is an explanation of why I did what I did. It is a story that is designed to minimize my responsibility by explaining all the reasons for my behavior. An account avoids authentic repentance and immediately leaps to justification in hopes of exonerating myself. The person who accepts this kind of pseudo-apology finds themselves later bereft of any authentic connection with the person who is responsible for the injury. A true apology, by contract, involves simply saying “I deeply regret what I did. I was wrong. I am sorry. I will not act that way in the future. If there’s any explanation to be offered of why I acted the way I did, it can wait for some other conversation. For now I apologize.” It is very common for gifted people to use their education to find clever ways to slip an account into an apology. It’s amazing the ways we find to make an account sound like an apology. But you can almost always see what’s real by looking at the recipient. They consciously or unconsciously will know when the self-justification begins. I sometimes suggest that a person who is giving an account say a simple phrase like “I am deeply sorry for what happened. I am responsible.” Almost invariably they will add on an additional phrase that attempts to exonerate themselves in some major respect. For me, the important thing is that when I have hurt another person, I want to say “some day I will want to talk about all the dynamics and complications and reasons, but just now what is important to me is to tell you I am deeply sorry.”

STEPS: Does the appropriate response change if what we receive is an account or an appeasement rather than an apology?

DAVID: Sure. If the person has offered you an appeasement, you can say “Come. Lets’ talk about what really took place between us without either of us competing as to who was most at fault.” Maybe you can help them move to the level of a true apology. But when a person is offering only an account they are probably not going to be available. The most you can often do is to grieve.

STEPS: That’s a really common situation faced by people in recovery. There has been an injury and the person responsible for the injury is either dead, emotionally unavailable, or they don’t acknowledge the injury. What can you do when that happens?

DAVID: I’ve tried to coin a word for this. Instead of for-giveness, I talk about for-grieving. I think that when the person responsible for the injury is completely detached, emotionally dead, or physically dead, to talk about forgiveness is a kind of nonsense. There is no emotional transaction possible, no authentic recognition or repentance, so the only transformation possible is a kind of internal release – not a transformation in the relationship. I think what we really do in circumstances like this is to grieve. I call it for-grieving.

STEPS: Most people will be familiar with the idea that grief is a process. Are the stages of for-grieving similar to the stages of grief?

DAVID: Absolutely. There’s the shock of the injury. The numbness. Then there is a process of allowing ourselves to gradually move into anger which turns outward and guilt that turns inward. Then gradually the anger dissipates and we move into a kind of acceptance stage. At the bottom of the process lies what I still like to call Gethsemane. That’s where you feel the injury so deeply that you can only pray “let this pass from me,” and then you realize it isn’t going to go away and so you pray “if not, God help me find what is your will.” It is only at this point in the process that we can turn it over to a power greater than ourselves, start to let go and move towards acceptance.

STEPS: I want to talk about the notion of forgiving ourselves. Like many people in recovery I have a hard time with this. When we realize that we have harmed ourselves as well as others, we are both the one who needs to receive forgiveness and the one who needs to give forgiveness. It gets very complicated and confusing.

DAVID: There’s a splitting inside in that process. Forgiving ourselves is a bridging or healing of that split between the condemning self and the condemned self, between the judging self and the judged self. Using the word forgiveness for this healing is confusing and maybe that’s why it makes it so difficult. How can you be both judge and judged? How can I ever be sure that I have truly repented? That’s why I think Deitrich Bonhoeffer was so helpful when he suggested that rather than trying to forgive ourselves we should find a trustworthy person that we can meet, as he says, ‘under the cross,’ and experience the humiliation of our sin and allow the person to embody the judge side and to speak the word of forgiveness to us. He suggests that the reason we find ourselves ‘forgiving’ ourselves over and over again is because it is virtually impossible for us to be both judged and judge. I need my sister or brother to embody the judge side of things for me.

STEPS: Another complicated kind of forgiveness is when the person responsible for the injury is not another person at all but an institution. Is the process of forgiveness quite different when there is an organization involved? How do you forgive a church or a ministry?

DAVID: Forgiving institutions. Well. We can’t live without institutions but we must recognize that institutions live to protect themselves. Survival is one of their major motivations. And members of institutions will make decisions in order to survive that independently they wouldn’t think of doing, but as an institution they simply must for the sake of self preservation. So, in one sense all institutions and organizations are unforgivable because they do things that violate others. They are principalities and powers. But they can be transformed. That’s the hope of the reign of God – that institutions can be called to accountability and that they can practice repentance. For example, Luther said absolutely heinous things and unforgivable things about the Jews. Last year the Lutheran church recognized that, distanced themselves from that particular part of Lutheran teaching, and expressed an apology. The Pope cooperated with Nazism during World War II. At last the Roman Catholic church three years ago came to recognize it’s need for repentance about that. There’s something to be said for giving a sincere apology rather than giving an account. Institutions can do that. Unfortunately they usually only do it when they think they are going to survive better by having done it.