In one of his popular hits from the 1980’s as a solo singer after an acrimonious split from his band (The Eagles), singer Don Henley mused about forgiveness being “the heart of the matter” in terms of coming to terms with other people and achieving reconciliation even if the former warmth and love of the past could not be restored because of offenses. This is a situation that is all too common and all too easy for us to relate to in our own lives and in witnessing the lives of others. We may feel deeply and be unable to express those feelings in a way that helps to encourage and support others. We may express well but have our expressions of love and concern and respect me misread and misinterpreted, sometimes in deeply tragic and unfortunate ways. We may think we are doing well in a particular situation when in fact we may not be doing well at all but may be greatly deceived because we are working from inaccurate information or perspectives, not knowing the real thoughts or feelings of others or taking them sufficiently into consideration.
Today, while I was reading a book , I came across a particularly excellent quotation from C.S. Lewis: “Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all of its horror, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the one who has done it.” This is, as might be noted, not an easy matter. In seeking to examine this quote, as well as the end result of forgiveness (reconciliation), let us seek to examine it in all of its seriousness, taking the most serious of sins as our template for how to deal with such matters. I apologize in advance that this blog entry is going to deal with very unpleasant matters, and those who read it should be aware of it accordingly.
First, let us begin with a bit of personal context. When I speak of the need for and difficulty of forgiveness, I do not speak as an ivory tower intellectual engaged in high-level conversation that is devoid of real-life experience and application. For me, the most serious application of this principle of mercy and forgiveness spoken of here by C.S. Lewis has sprung from deep within my own life. Within the first three years of my life I was repeatedly and savagely raped by an adult male relative, in ways that have caused a large amount of damage and had a huge and disastrous effect on many areas of my life, having a complicated effect on nearly every aspect of my existence, in serious and unpredictable ways. I do not remember who raped me (nor would it necessarily be helpful to know), nor do I know if it was simply one relative or if there were others involved. What I do know is that I view forgiveness with regards to that level of severity of sin. I do not say that I am perfect about forgiveness, for that would be incorrect, but rather that my wrestling with the forgiveness of my incestuous rapist relatives for that most horrible of sins has greatly colored the way I view the sins of others and the way in which I try to understand where others are coming from and their own concerns and sensitivities and brokenness in the course of my own life and own interactions with others. If I am not perfect, I hope I am at least more compassionate and understanding as a result of my own suffering than I would otherwise be.
The goal of forgiveness is reconciliation. For a survivor of rape (and sexual abuse in general), reconciliation is not an easy or straightforward matter. We can often feel great anger at God for not having protected us from harm, especially when we were completely incapable of protecting or defending ourselves, as an infant and toddler, for example. We may feel angry at ourselves, for having failed to do the impossible, as well as for the many and often frustrating repercussions of such a horrible evil, in the way in which it robs us of our optimism, of our innocence, of our dignity, of our safety, of our ability to sleep peacefully at night or develop loving and intimate relationships with others, of our self-worth, and of a host of other qualities we cherish and wish to possess but are denied. We will almost certainly feel angry at those who assaulted us, completely unable to comprehend how an adult could ever view an innocent little baby as being a sexual object. We may also feel angry at others who, upon understanding or even suspecting our own past in such a way could assume that we would ever want to inflict that evil and that horror on someone else simply because we have suffered it ourselves.
How does one become reconciled in such a difficult situation? First, let us say that reconciliation does not mean putting ourselves or our loved ones in harm’s way. It does not mean that we allow ourselves to be victimized or allow others to be victimized by someone who speaks words of apology and kindness but has not changed their behavior or faced up to the wickedness of their thoughts and deeds. What it does mean is that we no longer hold any sort of grudges or anger in our hearts. It means that we have given the matter to God, that we have come to terms with the reality of evil in this world that we may have to suffer simply for being in the wrong place or the wrong situation at the wrong time, where even without fault we may suffer horribly and largely (or totally) blamelessly. We also have to come to terms with the fact that as a result of our own damages we may have hurt others seriously without having any malicious intention to do so, simply because acting out our own wounds we unthinkingly wound others and spread the damage around. We have to forgive ourselves as well as others, and become reconciled to the darkness in our own hearts as well as the darkness in the hearts of others, praying that God be merciful to others even as we seek mercy for our own sins and offenses. When we are reconciled with others, we will love others (and, when it comes to those who have wounded us, perhaps even pity them, knowing the brokenness that led them to sin against us), even if we sometimes must love them from afar to protect ourselves and others.
In order to be reconciled with others we must make all allowances for the sin that others have committed. For example, being a student of the melancholy history of my own family, I have to make certain allowances for the way in which my family committed and dealt with the abuse I suffered as a little one. For one, knowing of the generations of rape and sexual abuse in my family has made me feel very aware that many of the broken relationships suffered by my relatives have their origin in the fact that broken people end up living broken lives and often end up unintentionally helping to break others as well. I know that I myself feel horrible any time my own brokenness, incurred through no fault of my own, nonetheless has repercussions on the well-being and happiness of others around me. If I could take all of the evil that I have suffered and let it torment only myself without having to rob others of any pleasant feelings or warmth and friendliness towards myself and others, or pleasant nights of sleep, or feelings of safety, I would happily take all of that unhappiness and suffering upon myself and leave others free of any consequences of my own life. Unfortunately, that is not the way that life works. Nevertheless, since I wish for others to make allowances for me given my own savage and abusive childhood, I too must make allowances for those who take the truth and twist it to accuse me of horrible evils that I never conceived of committing, or who use my candor and openness to verbally abuse me to my face or to others, knowing that they too act in such a way because of their own damages as well as my own blunders and folly.
Nevertheless, even after we work hard to understand where others are coming from and put the most charitable interpretation on their motives for behaving in a wicked fashion, we must honestly and openly come to terms with both the immensity of the evils that have been committed against us as well as the fact that those sins, however immense, can be forgiven through the mercy and grace we can receive through Jesus Christ. We can either be agents of God’s grace and justice, recognizing the horror of the evils that are so rampant in our world without in any way diminishing the severity of those evils and their damaging effects even as we show love and compassion and understanding for those who have committed those evils against us. In order to be reconciled to God, to others, and even to ourselves, we must be able to stare the darkest of evils in the face, to commit ourselves not to doing unto others as others have done unto us, while showing the same gracious forgiveness and compassion to evildoers that God has shown to us. For we who desire to be justified in the eyes of God must be reconciled to the reality of the evil that we are judged for in the eyes of God and other people. We must be aware of the immensity of what God has forgiven us for, as well as the immensity of what God has done for those of us who thanks to His mercy have not fallen into the same evil that we have suffered ourselves, not because we necessarily so righteous within ourselves, but because God had mercy on us in preventing us from doing such harm to ourselves and to others.
Indeed, forgiveness and mercy and reconciliation are at the heart of the matter. As we are human beings, possessed of our own individual blind spots and follies and weaknesses and proclivities to some sin or another, we cannot have relationships with God and with each other without a spirit of both repentance for our own sins and faults as well as mercy on the faults and sins of others. As we all offend others and are offended ourselves, no relationships can endure unless we can battle the evil within ourselves even as we graciously pardon the evil of others, knowing that we too are in need of pardon and mercy ourselves. It is our compassion and mercy towards others that allows the room for trust to be built and rebuilt with others, to allow others the time and space to prove themselves (and for us to prove ourselves) trustworthy and redeemed by our fruits and by our godly behavior, and that does not hold grudges against others even as it recognizes danger and areas of concern and acts on those in a thoughtful and reasonable and appropriate way.
It is an easy matter to love those who love us, who are kind to us, are generous to us, are understanding of us, and whose love and kindness and generosity and understanding we recognize. We, however, who count ourselves as Christians must not be content to love others who have done good to us, but rather we must love others as Jesus Christ loves us. This is a considerably more difficult matter, seeing as it requires us to love those who hate us, who insult us, who abuse us, who persecute us, and even those who have raped us. We must see them as damaged people, must see their deeds as unspeakably evil, but we must love them nonetheless as beings created in the image of God, however far from that noble image they have fallen through their own behavior. This love does not excuse their sin, rather it places the sin in its proper context and loves the sinner even as it passionately hates the sin and passionately desires that the sin be repented of and overcome, whether that sin is found in ourselves or in others. I write often of the problem of rape or sexual abuse  because it is one I know well from personal experience. Others, of course, write about what they know. I know that I have much further progress to go in loving people and in feeling loved by others as I would want. Yet I hope that as God works through me that I may be a fit representative and ambassador of His ways, able to show the love and grace towards others that God has shown towards me despite my own unworthiness, and having a tender and loving heart that is slow to anger and quick to pardon and forgive without in any way diminishing the evils that we must face and overcome in this world.
 See, for example: