The Role of Anger in True Forgiveness
Forgiving your Enemy
I frequently support people who have been deeply wronged, such as adult survivors of severe child abuse. Whenever any of them tell me they are angry, I rejoice and assure them that God himself is furious at what was done to them. Anyone suffering nearly as much cruelty as them who has not felt deep anger is most unlikely to be a saint but simply someone living too much in denial to have fully forgiven.
“To forgive is divine,” but we stray from being Godlike if we forget there are times when it is divine to be angry.
God’s “anger lasts only a moment,” (Scriptures) but he does get angry. In fact, “Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire . . .” (Nahum 1:6). The God of Truth does not live in denial (self-deception). He gets fully in touch with how deeply he has been offended and how totally unacceptable and disgusting sin is. “Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account,” (Hebrews 4:13). He whitewashes nothing. It is this relentless commitment to reality that makes his forgiveness authentic.
Forgiveness should not be confused with having no ill-feeling towards someone. If someone has cheated you out of a million dollars and you are totally unaware of it, then you might not feel the slightest trace of anger but you have not even begun to forgive him. Neither is it is enough to forgive this million dollar trickster for conning you out of five thousand dollars.
How can you forgive if you haven’t even reached first base and fully admitted to yourself the things that need forgiving?
Genuine forgiveness can never involve underrating the gravity of the wrongdoing. It is not forgiveness to try to make believe that, “What happened wasn’t really so bad.” Nor is it forgiveness to seek excuses for the offender’s actions. That would actually be side-stepping forgiveness – pretending there is no need for forgiveness.
If someone has committed a grave offence against you without it ever making your blood boil, I question whether you have as yet had the courage to come to grips with the reality of what happened.
Like a drowning man too scared to let go of a twig to grab his rescuer’s hand, we can fear anger so much that we cannot release the tight grip on our emotions long enough to get a decent grip on reality. Despite our best intentions to forgive, the mistaken fear that anger is unchristian can cause us to back off so far, so quickly after first sensing the slightest anger bubbling within us that we deny ourselves the opportunity to truly acknowledge the extent of the injury we have suffered. Sadly, this highly commendable desire to do the right thing could end up causing us to unknowingly short-circuit the entire forgiving process. We presume we have forgiven because we do not let ourselves feel anger, when deep within – so deep that most of the time we presume it isn’t there – unresolved pain and anger torment us year after year after year.
After years of slinking away whenever memory of the offense rises, there is nothing so liberating and empowering as seizing the courage to stare down the beast. Too often, however, we hide from admitting to ourselves the extent to which we have been sinned against because we fear that it is just too painful to face and/or that if we fully acknowledged how atrociously we have been treated, we could not find within us the power to forgive so great an offense. Nevertheless, if through faith in Christ you are in true spiritual union with him, the almighty, forgiving Lord is within you; the God of truth who says, “Be ye angry, and sin not” (Ephesians 4:26, KJV) and declares that all things work together for good because we are destined to be conformed to the likeness of his glorious Son, (Romans 8:28-30) – the one whose power to face reality and truly forgive knows no limit.
Full forgiveness is confessing (at least to yourself), “What you did to me was despicable and inexcusable. You are at fault and should be fully punished. But I, too, have stood guilty and without excuse before a holy God and in his flawless justice he did not let my sin go unpunished. Driven by unfathomable love, he chose to suffer in his own person the horrific consequences of my sin and the full agony of the punishment I deserve. So I celebrate the endless joy of my undeserved pardon by forgiving you as freely and fully as I have been forgiven.”
The words, of course, will be your own but they will include those elements.
Many people have fooled themselves into supposing they have forgiven when they have hardly even begun the process and are simply living in denial of the magnitude of the offence. They have conned themselves into presuming they have forgiven by confusing forgiveness with trying to pretend that the offence never happened or that it was more minor than it really was. That is no more forgiveness, however, than merely pretending that you have forgiven and it will bring no more healing than pretending that a cancerous lump does not exist.
Jessica Shaver discovered the transforming power of admitting to ourselves our true feelings. Her poem also brings into focus the reality that our suppressed anger is often directed towards the one Person who is truly without fault:
I told God I was angry, I thought He’d be surprised.
If forgiveness has no partnership with denying the reality of the offence, neither has it any partnership with denying the likelihood that the offender will re-offend. Just as forgiveness is not saying, “It wasn’t your fault, or “You couldn’t help it,” or “It wasn’t so bad,” neither is forgiveness saying, “I’m now so naïve as to believe that my decision to forgive you has suddenly made you incapable of doing wrong.” So forgiveness does not mean refusing to put in place loving, appropriate measures to help protect a person from the temptation of re-offending. In fact, since you know the person has a weakness in a particular area, you have an obligation to do whatever is appropriate to reduce his/her exposure to such temptations, as well as to protect other people from threats the person might pose.
I am not at all suggesting intentionally stirring up anger – and I am certainly not implying that it is good to remain there – but do not be horrified if you find yourself feeling anger. It might actually be a step forward on your healing adventure. Like feeling returning to a paralyzed limb, it might signal the end of emotional numbness. Or it might mean you are finally beginning an honest assessment of the magnitude of the offense, thus opening the way to full forgiveness with all its associated emotional and spiritual benefits.
For real forgiveness you cannot live in la-la land. It involves courageously grappling with reality. When you have fully forgiven, anger will turn to peace, but anger could be an essential stage of the journey. To completely stop yourself from ever feeling anger could have the unintended effect of stopping yourself from fully forgiving.
Christians & Raw Emotions: Hate & Anger at Injustice. Do offenders really get away with it?
The Path to Healing A brief and most helpful overview of the steps to full healing from the devastation of abuse
Overcoming Temptation Breaking free from the temptation to remain bitter
© 2011 Grantley Morris. May be freely copied in whole or in part provided: it is not altered; this entire paragraph is included; readers are not charged and it is not used in a webpage. Many more compassionate, inspiring, sometimes hilarious writings available free online at www.net-burst.net Freely you have received, freely give. For use outside these limits, consult the author.
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Forgiving your Enemy