For most of my life, I have thought of forgiveness as a kind of restart button, an offering of a blank slate and a new beginning. An essential tenet of our faith is the fact that God forgives freely and completely, removing our past sins from us as far “as the east is from the west.” Once sins are forgiven, they are immeasurably far away, out of sight and gone.
As I have worked through my own journey into better relationships, I have found, as explained in an earlier post, that human forgiveness is not so cut and dry. Our hearts are not so unified with our will, and so we struggle to do what we wish to do, forgive once and for all, letting the wrong done head east. The human process seems to be one of continual forgiveness, or at least continual attempts at it.
But there is a further complication. There are times when wrongs done or secrets revealed demonstrate that the relationship between two people must end. I’m sure many of us can think of someone we cannot allow back in intimate relationship with us. In these cases, how can you know you’ve forgiven someone when things can never be the same as they were? If the relationship in question shouldn’t be repaired, what does it mean to forgive? In other words, what is forgiveness without reconciliation?
I think for a long time I would have believed it impossible. After all, it doesn’t seem like you’ve forgiven someone if your relationship cannot return to normal or even improve. And here again I find that I cannot look to God for my example, since he is always able to seek complete reconciliation with those who wrong him. He is invulnerable and so does not need to consider his own safety in relationship. I’m not saying we can’t hurt him, but we cannot injure or harm him in any way, and so he is free to infinitely extend himself in love and relationship.
I, on the other hand, am easy to abuse. My heart is weak and suffers deeply when wronged. I have learned that it is quite possible for other people to hurt me in a way that destroys my effectiveness in life, relationship, and even prayer. It has taken a long time for me to understand my responsibility towards my own self-protection, partially because “self-protective” does not seem to be a particularly Biblical attribute.
I once had a very wise friend (a psychologist by trade) tell me that the kind of person described in the beginning of Matthew 5 is, by nature, distinctly vulnerable. He said that someone who was particularly beatitudinous (new word!) would be easy to harm and even destroy. Just read for yourself,
Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungry, merciful, pure, peacemaking, and persecuted. This is the sort of person Jesus calls blessed. For a long time I assumed, unconsciously, that this might be the same as taken advantage of, abused, lied to, beaten, uncared for, and cast aside. I don’t think so anymore.
Reconciliation with a person who would continue to hurt or abuse (whether consciously or simply because the personalities and lives in question are so opposed to each other) has the power to deeply damage relationship with God and everyone else. It is quite possible to become so broken or angry that any inroads the Spirit was making into your heart are damned, and, for it’s own protection, the heart does its best to turn back to stone. The more I have dealt with, and felt the weight of, this question in my own heart, the more I am convinced that God’s desire for us to have open, loving souls—the kind of souls that are capable of real forgiveness—requires a measure of self-protection. We cannot allow the qualities of the beatitudes in us to be destroyed.
I had a professor who believed that the image of God in humanity was our relational capacity. Though I am reluctant to agree that that is all it is, I think it reflects the undeniable fact that relationships of all sorts are more spiritually powerful than I had realized. In my experience, the power of bad relationships can be strong enough to permeate the rest and destroy any good that was attempting to grow. Which means, in turn, that reconciliation with the wrong person can actually rob you of your ability to forgive as it eats away at the Spirit's work, the beginning of the beautiful qualities Jesus prizes.
It is hard for me to tell if this post is a bit out on a limb and unrelatable. This has been a deeply personal aspect of my life, and therefore harder to philosophize about than most of the things I write about here. I am also aware that most people (thank God) don’t ever feel as vulnerable or beaten down as I once was, and so don’t have to wonder so much about the role of forgiveness, reconciliation, and discerning self-protection. But I am not really that good at abstracting and can only write what I know. And this, in my journey so far, is what I know.