In theological circles, the subjects of confession and forgiveness have been studied for many years. But more recently, the secular world of counseling has awakened to the therapeutic use of forgiveness as a technique of treatment. Members of the mental-health community have been discovering the benefits of meaningful apology, forgiveness, and restoration. All too often, however, both secular and religious communities have made the same mistake of moving too quickly to the benefits of forgiveness.
THE DANGER OF SUPERFICIALITY
In the past, many secular counselors viewed the spiritual practice of apology and forgiveness as a simplistic and overlyreligious ritual that should be avoided in the process of helping people to deal realistically with their problems. Such practitioners believed that the act of forgiving others was really a psychological defense to deny anger. Many counselors believed that this defense kept underlying rage from ever being fully expressed or resolved.
In many ways, the secular community was right. The casual repentance and forgiveness that is often encouraged in religious circles is more likely to be a part of the problem than a part of the solution. What passes for forgiveness (or an apology) is too often marked by superficiality. Instead of honestly dealing with the roots of the problem and the resulting damage, the parties often use a shallow understanding of what the Bible says about forgiveness to smooth over their conflict.
THE DANGER OF DENIAL
There are at least six areas of denial that can occur when someone wrongly wounds another person or persons. The counselor or any other caregiver would do well to keep these areas in mind for two reasons:
• Denial can occur in the wrongdoer, the person or persons wronged, or both.
• Denial can undercut the sincerity and meaningfulness of either the apology or the forgiveness by trying to smooth over the reality of what happened.
If both parties are willingly seeking a genuine reconciliation, the wrongdoer and the person wronged could be brought together at an appropriate time in the healing process to address these issues in parallel. If only one party seeks to apologize or to forgive, each of these six areas of denial should still be addressed.
When God forgives, He addresses truth in each of the following:
1. Denial Of Reality. When a wrong has occurred, what actually happened? Like a news reporter, we should honestly and completely investigate the who, what, when, where, why, and how. When children are confronted with a wrong, all too quickly they try to get away with such excuses as, “It didn’t happen,” or “It didn’t happen that way,” even though it did! Sometimes even when we are the ones wronged, we don’t admit to ourselves that it has really happened. I’ve heard women explain their bruises or black eyes as an accident rather than admit their husband really did viciously attack them.
Forgiveness and apologies are not about brushing away the truth and pretending something didn’t happen. God’s Word commands each of us to “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor” (Eph. 4:25). Even when it reveals our guilt, the beginning point to restoration is truthfully admitting what actually occurred.
2. Denial Of Wrongdoing. Most, but certainly not all, acts that wound another physically, emotionally, or spiritually involve some attitude of the heart that says, “I matter and you don’t.” Jesus’ Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk. 6:31), establishes the moral principle that others do matter, just as we do.
Too often we are quick to say, “I did it because . . .” or “It wasn’t so bad,” when we don’t want to admit we are guilty of violating an ethical or moral standard—whether it’s a scriptural principle, a civil law, a personal agreement, or the innate sense of justice that God has written in our hearts. Honesty demands that the wrongdoer admit he or she did the wrong. The Bible tells us that God expects us to confess our sins to Him (1 Jn. 1:9). So a true confession demands that we admit it was a choice to do wrong, not something that couldn’t be helped. Personal responsibility is essential. Otherwise, continued repetition of the wrong is likely.
3. Denial Of Pain. When a wrong has been done, both the wrongdoer and the person wronged may try to minimize the hurt. “He’s just too sensitive,” “That didn’t hurt that bad,” or some personal insult such as, “You big baby!” are often ways of denying the physical or emotional pain that the wounded person is really experiencing.
People get really good at denying their pain when they are children because they are often told by adults to stop crying and grow up. Physical damage can often heal fairly quickly, but people can be broken inside for a lifetime. They may not even admit it to themselves, but they may have anxiety or depression because of a broken bond of trust, a poor model of authority when they were young, divisiveness in an organization, or any of many other ways that people can become both externally and internally wounded.
In the end, one thing is clear—the pain we are seeking to ignore is undeniably real.
4. Denial Of Anger. Religious people often use this defense as a means of maintaining their own sense of moral superiority. “I’m not angry” is often a way to hide the vengeful rage that is harbored inside the person who is wronged. “You shouldn’t be so angry!” is a not-so-subtle way of blaming the victim.
Anger is a God-given emotion that can energize us to confront wrongdoers and seek justice. As creatures made in His image, we all have a reflection of His emotional character within us. This includes anger. Paul’s admonition “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath” (Rom. 12:19) assumes that we feel an urge to do just that. He later wrote, “In your anger do not sin” (Eph. 4:26).
We must all face the reality that when we are wronged, we have a longing to see the other person hurt to at least the same degree that we experienced our own pain. The truth is, however, we all need and deserve God’s anger and correction. The person who wounded us is certainly deserving of punishment. But we must remember that in our stead, God’s wrath was redirected toward the Innocent One, the Lord Jesus Christ, in His death on the cross.
Although we can rightly be angry, it is not our job as believers to seek vengeance (Rom. 12:19).
5. Denial Of Mutual Humanity. In our rage toward a person who hurt us, or in our contempt of ourselves when we were the wrongdoer, there is often the assumption that someone in the conflict is all good and the other is all bad.
Author and counselor Lewis Smedes states that the first step in forgiving another person is rediscovering the humanity of the one who hurt us. This is not in any way minimizing or justifying the wrong done or the personal responsibility of the wrongdoer. Nor does it diminish the justice of getting what we deserve. It does, however, reveal the universal dependence we all have on the mercy of God as well as the mercy of one another. None of us can honestly claim to be completely innocent all the time.
This understanding of our common human frailty can help us practice empathy—the act of putting ourselves in the place of the other person. Empathy is essential for not only the healing of the person who did the wrong but also for the person who was wronged.
Christian researcher and counselor Everett Worthington teaches that this empathy is the most essential part of forgiveness—and the hardest. It is the willingness to look at the act of someone who has done something terrible to you, and see it from that person’s point of view. It reminds us that we are likewise capable of mistreating others—and sometimes do. We all need God’s (and one another’s) forgiveness of our “debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12).
6. Denial Of The Potential For Further Abuse. “Forgive and forget” is an attempt to create the false illusion that once forgiveness is offered, everything is instantly okay and should immediately go back to the way it was. This only fosters continued destructive behavior patterns on the part of both the wrongdoer and the one wronged.
In Hebrews 12:4-11, we read of the Lord’s discipline of the one He loves (v.6). This is distinct from God’s wrath and punishment. In healthy restoration, the focus is not on past wrongs but on future change. It brings life, not death.
In 1 Samuel 19, there is an interesting example of how David avoided future abuse by King Saul. David had been anointed to be the next king by the prophet Samuel, but he had not yet been crowned. Saul, the current king, called David to his palace, saying that he wanted David to soothe him with the harp. But Saul’s real desire was to slay David out of jealousy because the people were praising David more highly than they were their king. David did not stay around to accept this abuse. Instead, he escaped from Saul’s men who had been commanded to seize him.
At that moment in time, Saul continued to have the divine authority of kingship, but David did not submit to this potential wrongful and dangerous abuse. Yet, neither did he act out of revenge. He repeatedly walked away from opportunities to kill Saul and his men (1 Sam. 24:5-7; 26:9).
David’s self-preservation by fleeing in the face of real danger, while at the same time refusing to yield to the urge to retaliate, could be a model for dealing with abusive people in our own relationships. David clearly saw the implications of raising his hand against God’s anointed, yet he refused to allow Saul to continue with his destructive behavior.
Deep and profound change would have been required of Saul before any reconciliation could have been considered. But he eventually died without ever sincerely repenting of his wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, each of these areas of denial carries with it two things: (1) the inability of correcting wrong behavior, and (2) the probability of prolonging the acts of wrongdoing. Denial may appear to be the path out of pain, but it is not. It is a road blanketed in fog and confusion.
When we are wronged, we must find a better way— a way that begins to put our feet on the road to healing and restoration.