Strange Mercy

"... and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

Location: Mid-Atlantic Sprawl, United States

I'm a former idealist turned 'defensive pessimist' who has concluded, after living on two coasts, two continents, and an island, that most of us spend our lives as prey, economically and psychologically. Awareness is the key to understanding this; but once we understand it, we may transcend it, choosing, when we can, to be neither prey nor predator.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Unilateral Forgiveness and "Cheap Grace"

The concept of forgiveness is difficult to understand and even more difficult to implement. This is especially true of unilateral forgiveness.

Christians in particular often seem pressured to extend unilateral forgiveness in situations where it may be premature to do so. This is done not for their own sake, and not for the sake of the individual being forgiven, but in order to avoid discomfiting others. [The unspoken message is: Hurry up and get it over with, already, so that everyone else can forget about it, avoid dealing with it, duck the ethical issues involved in considering whether or not wrong has been done, to whom, by whom, and what should be done about it, if so. ]

The exhortation to 'judge not' is often applied here, inappropriately, as is the exhortation to 'wifely submission'. There are also usually pronouncements regarding the holding of grudges and the unhealthiness of failing to forgive others.

There is some truth in this. A condemning, judgmental posture does not express the loving nature of God; people who are unable to move beyond resentment and anger are at greater risk of high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, even some forms of cancer. However, people who move into premature forgiveness and, as a result, live in denial, are also at risk: of ulcers, of cancer, of premature death. It is a fact that codependents often die years before their partners; the combined burdens of bearing the abuse and denying it are ultimately - and often fatally - exhausting.

There is nothing loving about expecting a beaten wife or raped child to ignore the harm done to them, physically and emotionally, for the sake of preserving a phony peace with their assailant. On the contrary: this demands that the injured party collude in injuring themselves further, set their own value as nothing, and the value of their abuser as infinite. There is nothing of God in that. It is a cruel travesty.

The difficulty is that not all instances of abuse and transgression are so extreme, so obvious. Many types of abuse are covert and exist as patterns of behavior over time - an ongoing refusal to treat the other party as an equal, with respect; a constant demand to have one's own way, without consideration for the others involved; a public posture of 'goodness and light' while in private, certain family members or associates are scapegoated, lied about, or otherwise treated savagely. The damage done by this type of abuse is extreme, has lasting effects, and is much more difficult to trace back to a single dramatic incident.

Pressure to forgive unilaterally, for the sake of peace at any price, comes not from a spiritually advanced position, but from a spiritually and psychologically lazy one. It involves a large degree of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed 'cheap grace', and there are no better words than his to describe it.

"Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like a cheapjack's wares.  The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut-rate prices.  Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits.  Grace without price; grace without cost!  And the essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.  Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite.  What would grace be, if it were not cheap? ...

... Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, (it is) baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

We are often pressured not to distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation. The admonition to forgive seventy times seven is frequently distorted into pressure to enable, to set no boundaries, to not merely tolerate the intolerable, but to actively reward it. To take upon oneself all of the consequences of the other's behavior, while they remain free to abuse us - and others - without constraint.

If it is unhealthy to forgive in such circumstances, where does the concept of unilateral forgiveness fit into healthy spirituality, and how can it ever be practiced authentically?

Here is the key: in order to be able to forgive unilaterally, two things are necessary.

First, the person who is extending forgiveness must experience genuine healing. This can be sought and obtained unilaterally, regardless of whether the abuser ever admits to being abusive, or ever makes amends.

Healing is absolutely essential, if unilateral forgiveness is to be real. Nancy Richards, in her book "Heal and Forgive: Forgiveness in the Face of Abuse", makes it clear that forgiveness is a process, not merely an event. It requires emotional and psychological healing, which in turn require validation [this injury is real], acceptance of the injured party's anger, and the opportunity to come to terms with the grief associated with any injury or loss. God is here for this; God is present in this; God's love is extended to us infinitely, in this.

Second, if at all possible, the person extending forgiveness must take reasonable steps to shield themselves from further abuse by the party being forgiven.

This protection is definitely necessary. To forgive unilaterally in the face of repeated, unrepented abuse is almost beyond human capability, and to demand this of any person is to condemn them to despair. Such situations may exist for wartime survivors, political prisoners [the Apostle Paul, Watchman Nee, Bonhoeffer himself, and Betsie and Corrie ten Boom come to mind] - these are people who are literally caged with and by their abusers. But in these situations there are generally abusive systems behind the abusive individuals involved. It is possible, then, to regard the system as the ultimate source of the abuse, and to forgive the individuals who implement it, in the sense that 'they know not what they do'.

For battered spouses or children, who are economically imprisoned, it is harder to see an abusive system standing behind the individual inflicting their pain. In such cases, premature unilateral forgiveness may have the effect of making the person more vulnerable to damage, even to death; battered women who leave and then return to their batterers are not infrequently killed by them, eventually. A refusal to forgive, a refusal to deny, may in such cases be the lifeline people need to escape their abusive situations.Once free, they may then begin the process of healing; once healed, they may reasonably be approached about forgiving those who harmed them and never made amends. Here again, the presence and power of God may be called upon, and found; both in developing a means of escape, and in the healing that must follow.

God, though loving, is neither an enabler nor a fool. He has communicated to us some fundamental standards of decent behavior, and He does expect us to make some effort to adhere to them if we claim to serve and worship Him; not only our spiritual health, but our emotional and physical health, depend on this.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the truthful nature of your post brings me peaceful feelings of validation and hope and that is rare to find. Thank you for that.

September 9, 2007 at 9:46 AM  
Blogger Stormchild said...

You are so very welcome. I'm glad my thoughts have helped. I pray that you will find ever greater validation and peace, from multiple sources, as your journey unfolds.

September 9, 2007 at 7:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this so much I have printed it out to keep in my Bible. Thank you. Kate

February 14, 2008 at 9:46 AM  

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