Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

Facing hard truth

June 06, 2013

Jacob and Esau Meet. Paul Gustave Doré, 1832-1883. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jacob and Esau Meet. Paul Gustave Doré, 1832-1883. (Wikimedia Commons)

Practicing reconciliation means facing the hard truth about what is broken. Most often what is broken is a relationship with someone we trusted or who trusted us. No doubt all of us can point to times we’ve been disappointed, betrayed, even violated by persons we trusted. Or we know that others have felt betrayed by us—whether close family members, church friends, professional colleagues, or persons in the broader community.

Core to our Christian faith is praying the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples. The part of the prayer we always stumble over goes like this: Forgive us our debts (or trespasses or sins) as we forgive our debtors (or those who trespass against us or those who sin against us). Stumbling over these words seems indicative (in a surreal way) of how we stumble around forgiveness. What role does forgiveness play for restoring trust after relationships are broken?

One reader of Practicing Reconciliation emailed me with questions related to forgiveness. Becky asked: Do you think it's possible to forgive when you're still in a lot of pain regarding the wrong that was done to you? Or do you think there needs to be some healing before we're really capable of forgiving fully? Don't we learn how to forgive by being forgiven? Do you think there is a relationship between a person's emotional health and their ability to forgive?

Becky’s questions show the way into the complexity of forgiveness. God forbid that we glibly slap on “forgiveness” like a band-aid used to treat a heart attack. Real life experiences illustrate the diverse ways forgiveness works its healing power. They become grist for theological reflection.

A couple glimpses of activated forgiveness in my life come to mind. Years ago, I felt betrayed by church friends. My husband and I were co-pastoring what had been a dwindling, deeply divided congregation. After our first year, the church was growing by leaps and bounds. A working unity had been forged. We were on the move. Only months into our second year, the unofficial “leader” of the congregation with a band of loyalists kicked into oppositional stonewalling. Overseer intervention proved ineffective. Decision-making paralysis set in. We finally decided resignation was the only healthy recourse to preserve our own mental health. For months afterward, I kept reaching out to those who had opposed our leadership. I so wanted to fix the break and regain a measure of shared understanding. I remember the moment when a dear friend said, “Sara, it’s time to let go. You’ve done all you can to achieve reconciliation. Release it into God’s hands.” As it dawned on me that he was right, I felt immense relief. To release the whole sad affair into God’s hands was to begin the journey into a forgiveness that I needed to extend to myself first, and then to those who, in my perspective, had violated me.

Another glimpse of activated forgiveness comes to mind. This time it involved a colleague whom I admired. His advocacy for women in leadership and his apparent loyalty to his wife all seemed to commend him as trustworthy. What an earthquake shock it was to learn that he had flagrantly violated the trust of his entire congregational and academic communities. No forgiveness seemed possible without holding him publicly accountable by telling the hard truth about his many sexual affairs. There was provision for him to do the personal work necessary to come to terms with his own duplicity but for most of us, given the nature of the wrongs he committed, the journey toward forgiveness couldn’t begin without the public truth telling.

Forgiveness is anything but a one-dimensional sugar coating to cover all ills. I’m grateful for those who voice questions that tease out its textured and tough loveliness. When the hard truths are named and owned within the grace-filled providence of God, we can begin to imagine what Paul spoke of when he said: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).


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I find this whole idea of forgiveness so difficult to comprehend even intellectually, much less spiritually or emotionally. Right now I'm wondering what are the prerequisites for forgiveness and are they always the same I recently read about a couple who chose to forgive a hit-and-run driver who was responsible for the death of their young son. As they told their story, It was because of their grief and pain that they decided to forgive this man. To choose to forgive as a way out of one's pain. For awhile, that idea boggled my mind and in some ways it still does. I asked myself if they were able to choose that route since desperate needs call for desperate measures or because they were more spiritually mature than I am. I'm guessing the answer is probably Yes to both. Right now I'm facing a situation where I'm experimenting with the idea of working on forgiveness as I work on my own healing. I'm giving myself time. I'm taking the perspective that both forgiveness and healing are a process that I can work toward at the same time. I'm hoping this pushes me forward on my spiritual path, but I don't know how I'll be able to tell. There's something about this that feels quite wholistic. When I consider the other person in this situation isn't exactly delighted about everything I've done, these conversations seem all the more important. Right now I feel hopeful, but it's important to me that he take responsibility for what he's done or at least continue to work at it. If not, I'm afraid I'm going to have problems forgiving. Sara, when your colleague violated the trust of his communities, you and others needed public truth telling That reminds me that what I need is for something to happen that means similar acts are less likely to be repeated. I don't think Jesus said anything about that. But the challenge that I have with forgiveness is knowing how to forgive in such a way that the part of me which has been harmed is also reaffirmed, validated, or strengthened. When the perpetrator takes responsibility and apologizes, I find that very helpful. When that doesn't happen, then I find it a real aid in forgiveness if the perpetrator is at least accountable to someone else so the act is less likely to happen. When I believe I've been wronged and no one else seems to care, then it's really hard for me to forgive. I could probably write all night and still not come up with a way to end this starting place to think about this.
Becky Schaller 11:19PM 07/21/13
Sara, I appreciate you tackling this subject in your blog. Forgiveness is a subject I find both fascinating and perplexing. Sometimes I think I’ve forgiven someone (or at least I think I’m able to not let something bother me) and then a few days later, I feel that hardness in my heart and I find out how wrong I was. I don’t even know how to write about it in a succinct way. Thanks for sharing your needs around this subject.
Becky Schaller 12:07AM 07/09/13

This blog is hosted by Sara Wenger Shenk. While Sara is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she writes as a practical theologian trying to make sense of everyday life—in light of God's reconciling mission in the world.

The views Sara shares here are not the voice of AMBS. As a woman, mother, author, educator, lover of God, Sara is a restless scout—searching out ways that lead toward God’s shalom. She doesn’t assert answers so much as pose questions, test assumptions, resist labels, play with possibilities, experiment with integration, practice wholeness. She hopes this blog will provide a spacious forum for thoughtful discernment around sometimes contentious issues.