Forgiveness is a two-sided coin we have all experienced. Whether the perceived wrong was purposeful, accidental, coincidental, or hypothetical, we can all claim the role of both victim and aggressor. I have no doubt that it wouldn’t take but nanoseconds to come up with situations we either have been, or are currently, tangled in the web of human attempts to even the playing field.
As a victim of a perceived wrong, we are typically looking for justice, acknowledgement, recompense, and validation of hurt experienced because of a wrongdoing.
As the perceived aggressor, many will justify, give excuse for, blame, or modify the intent of the harm caused. It’s no wonder why the legal system is a booming business.
Even professed Christians have a hard time forgiving or asking for forgiveness. There is good biological reason for this.
When it comes to experiencing strong emotions, we are essentially reacting from the fight or flight section of the brain- the limbic system. Jealousy, anger, and extreme grief/sadness conjure up a visceral need to act in order to protect ourselves in an attempt to relieve the discomfort these strong emotions project throughout the brain and body. Since the limbic system’s only known response is to fight, run away, or remain in place in an effort to be dismissed- forgiveness is not a natural go-to response. Operating from the limbic system is equivalent to how the brain functions after only a couple hours of a night’s rest, or after consuming too much alcohol. Considering this mentality, forgiveness becomes a long-shot without some form of override.
Our brains are hardwired to foresee and avoid perceived harm.
Humans possess and engage a strong aspiration to survive. Our brains are hardwired to foresee and avoid perceived harm. Here again, we find ourselves in fight or flight- the need to survive; although preemptively. When we perceive a threat or the potential of an action of revenge, we instinctively seek safety by putting protective factors in place. Forgiveness is seemingly counterintuitive to this pursuit. Because of these factors, and a palpable fear of continued or increased harm, we seek a sense of control by maintaining the wall of unforgiveness in a desperate attempt to preserve social and emotional stability.
Could it be that God intended us to deny our fight or flight response that guards our natural instinct to survive in order to show faith in an eternal interest of denying ourselves to follow him?
Luke 9:23-24 tells us, “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’”
God knows that we have a natural will to protect selfish interests. He put them there as insurance that we would do whatever is possible in our will to not only survive, but also to produce new life. However, this instinct becomes perverted when we continue to use it for the gain of pleasures and powers unique to this life- despite the consequences to those around us. Unlike other species, God created humans with an additional portion of brain (the frontal cortex), unlike other species, that allows us to override the instinct to survive alone. We as humans have been granted the ability to put others before ourselves- and more importantly, put eternal interest before the interest of this world alone.
When we are eternally provoked, we do not deny the immigrant seeking safety. When we are eternally provoked, we do not justify an excuse to attack a woman seeking an abortion by placing the value of her unborn child higher than the value of her wellbeing. When we are eternally provoked, we seek to comfort and encourage those who do not show or have the capacity to do this for others- let alone themselves. When we are eternally provoked, we do what we can to provide basic needs to those less fortunate- rather than seek a reason to deny basic human survival- “That person does not deserve a cent of my hard earned money…. he/she can’t keep a job because he/she is lazy, a drunk, an opportunist, has no work ethic.” When we are eternally provoked, we deny our judgment of others, because judging is what we do when we are only interested in protecting our survival instincts, and not providing in faith what is not ours to keep in the aspect of eternal interest. When we are eternally provoked, we refuse to believe that what we possess is a reward from God for us to preserve- as if somehow the possessions of this earth have anything to do with eternal reward.
The same deficit of eternal thinking is shown when we deny forgiveness. A lack of forgiveness only serves to cushion our need to survive, which makes sense when we lack faith in the eternal process. Without faith in an eternal goal bigger than ourselves, we believe that we must protect our emotional health and sense of security by refusing to forgive. Lack of forgiveness presents only a sense of control and protection against those who take advantage of our good will for their selfish nature. When we allow ourselves to be pitted against each other for survival, we are no longer eternally provoked and therefore lack faith.
The paradox of an unwillingness to forgive is that we actually allow ourselves to be captured by the very thing we refuse to forgive.
In an effort to guard our emotions from being accessible to the next disappointment, we also eliminate the ability to experience the fulfillment of showing compassion in response to authentic empathy. We literally shut out our ability to respond to another’s deep-seated need for forgiveness through empathy in a desperate attempt to protect what is not ours to claim in an eternal perspective. We show lack of forgiveness when we judge others, withhold compassion, refuse empathy, and generally deny the capacity of faith that provides us a direct relationship with the eternal God.
Is it possible that God granted humans the ability to override the mere ability to protect our own interests as a conduit to demonstrate faith so that we could have the opportunity to risk short-term comfort for long-term, eternal, reward? Without forgiveness, we deny our very gift of higher-level thinking and the opportunity to express authentic faith in preparation for purpose beyond any attainable rewards of this life. This perspective sheds interesting light on Luke 12:48b which reads, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.”
Romans 5:1 tells us,” Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” There is no room for survival mode in Paul’s thinking here. Faith requires us to tap into higher-order thinking of denying ourselves in the pursuit of the eternal. To be eternally provoked, we must be willing to trade the façade of security in this life for what God actually intends for us in an eternal place with Him.
We do not forgive to forget.
However, I have come to believe that the ability to forgive and respond with mercy is a God power he has chosen to share with us so we may grant it to others. I have often wondered why God gives us the capacity to forgive- and not only the capacity, but also the expectation to forgive- but does not grant us the gift to also forget. The beauty of God’s forgiveness is that it comes with the promise to wholly separate the sin from the sinner. Psalm 103:12 states, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions (sins) from us.” We are not expected to forget, but we are expected to separate the sin from the sinner…. no longer treating the aggressor in the same regard as the aggression. This may appear like the ability to forget- but by remembering, we obtain the fullness of the act of forgiveness.
As painful of an experience it is to remember the sting of an unjust or hurtful remark or act of another’s, regardless of our willingness to forgive them, I believe the memory of hurt serves a purpose. We remember so that we do not continue to return to experiences that remove us from an authentic relationship with our creator. We remember so that we can fully (to our utmost extent) recognize and comprehend the love God showed us when he sent his son to earth to serve as the ultimate sacrifice for our sin. We remember and pursue forgiveness so that God can and will forgive and completely separate us from our sinful actions. His forgiveness is the only way to no longer be captive to not only our own wrongdoings, but also the wrongs of others committed and accused against us.
In our capacity to forgive, we can wholly experience the empathy, compassion, and unconditional love that God shares and places on us- if we will accept it.
John 13:34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”