Review: Forgiving My Father, Forgiving Myself

forgiving my father

Forgiving My Father, Forgiving MyselfRuth Graham with Cindy Lambert. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Through both personal narrative and biblical teaching, explores the power of forgiveness to bring freedom from bitterness, transforming our lives, and in at least some cases, our relationships.

Ruth Graham was leading a team into Angola Prison when she encountered Michael, on death row for murder, and yet at peace with God. Graham learns the amazing story of how the grandfather of the murderer’s victim had forgiven him and was praying for him. It led Ruth on a journey where forgiveness went from head knowledge to transformation in her life.

Ruth grew up in an extraordinary family. Her father was Billy Graham. Such a family carries its own stresses, that Ruth speaks about, never bitterly or cynically, but honestly. She made a series of bad choices in marriages, going through four divorces. Her mother’s advice was often less than helpful. She also began to see that she had a deep wound in her life from her father’s long absences. Despite her love for him, and his for her, she struggled with feelings of abandonment, and anger. Graham never excuses her own bad decisions, but weaves her journey of learning to forgive her father, forgive her self, and seek the forgiveness of others with biblical principles of how we forgive, and the tough issues of forgiving when forgiveness is not sought or rejected, when those we forgive are no longer around, and forgiving when the other person is not safe to be around.

She helps us see that forgiveness is neither fair nor easy, but that God has commanded it. She shows us that forgiveness is a process that does not depend on our feelings, but that God can help us to do something against which our feelings rebel. In forgiveness, bitter wounds become sacred wounds as we offer these to God and open our wounded places to Him. She teaches us how to ask forgiveness: “I did this. It was wrong. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me.”

Unlike Bryan Maier in Forgiveness and Justice (reviewed here) she believes that forgiveness can occur separately from repentance, reconciliation and restoration. Maier contends that forgiveness (which Graham might call reconciliation) can only occur when the offender confesses and repents from the wrong done. Maier contends that where there is no repentance, the proper response of the aggrieved is to take the grievance to God and trust God for justice

Graham would propose that forgiveness delivers us from bitterness, even in the absence of reconciliation, or when reconciliation is no longer safe or possible. Maier, I believe, would say that we take our anger to God as well as to pray, where it is possible, for the repentance of the offender, but not prematurely forgive.

I don’t believe Maier deals adequately with what one does when it is not possible to reconcile with an offender. At the same time, I think there is a point that Graham misses that was called to my attention in watching the documentary Emanuel on the deaths of nine people at the hands of Dylan Roof and participating on a panel with two black scholars who have studied the history and literature of violence against blacks. One of the remarkable things is how quickly a number of families forgive Roof, even though Roof never shows remorse (and other family and friends struggle to or refuse to forgive to this day). While we all recognized how these believers were shaped by biblical teaching, it was observed that it has often been the place of oppressed blacks to forgive, often accompanied by celebration that this has averted a more violent response. One scholar asked, “should not there be anger at the white supremacists and a system that produced Roof, at the history of violence in the forms of lynchings and church burnings against blacks?”

What I wonder is whether it is possible to forgive, as Christ forgave unrepentant enemies on the cross, and yet be angry, but not with bitterness, at the things which anger God, whether systemic racism, infidelity, sexual abuse, or morally corrupt leadership. There is an anger which is not hate, but which motivates advocacy, that does not relent in seeking justice. Sometimes, at least for some, forgiveness is a quick release from the hard feelings of grievance, or an escape from the hard work of seeking justice.

What I would say is that Graham does not minimize the challenge of forgiveness. She also offers a model of honestly facing her own need of forgiveness and what she hadn’t forgiven in others and herself. She helps us see the corrosive character of bitterness arising from an unforgiving heart and the grace God can give to forgive. Yet I think we also need teaching on forgiveness that teaches us how to know and live amazing grace while avoiding cheap grace, that does not heal personal or national wounds lightly.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Forgiveness and Justice

forgiveness and justice

Forgiveness and Justice, Bryan Maier. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017.:

Summary: Interacts with other models of forgiveness from a biblical perspective, proposing that healing through trust in the justice of God precedes forgiveness, which can only occur where there is sincere confession and repentance by the offender.

This book changed my thinking about forgiveness. Like many, I’d come to believe in the therapeutic value of “forgiveness” even when the offender has not confessed to wrong-doing and repented of it. I can think of situations where this counsel didn’t ring true. There had been great offense, and while individuals wanted to forgive, the refusal of the offender to acknowledge the wrong, and in some cases continued the wrongful behavior, leaving a deep sense of grievance that “forgiving” could not address.

This book helped me understand why. First of all, the author, basing his discussion in scripture, focuses on a more careful definition of forgiveness, which isn’t “letting go” or reframing the offense or having greater empathy. Fundamentally, he argues that forgiveness, as God forgives, is not about our feelings, but about the offender, and can only occur when the offender confesses to the wrong, and repents from it.

How then are we to deal with the deep feelings of anger, hurt, and grievance. Maier observes that we tend to make the decision that it is good to get rid of these, and he would say, “Not so fast.” If there has been real offense, and in many cases he deals with as a counselor, profound abuse, these may be warranted feelings that stem from a deep sense of wanting to be vindicated. We should not try to reframe these hurts. Maier argues that it is the God who is just who vindicates and that healing starts with trusting in the justice of God, that we need not seek vengeance, but trust God to deal with the offense. He argues that it is precisely this about which the imprecatory Psalms are concerned and encourages their use by counselees.

He also proposes that as we begin to trust in the God of justice we find healing, before we forgive, and that in fact this prepares us to forgive. For one thing, realizing that the offender faces God’s justice if they do not repent may in time move us to pray for that repentance. That in turn raises the important question of how will we respond if they do repent.

Part of this has to do with discerning genuine repentance, something we can never fully assess. He suggests several indicators: 1). No demands, even requests for forgiveness, 2) A willingness to assume responsibility, and 3) A willingness to pay off the debt over time, realizing that trust is not restored instantaneously.

All this also means that repentance does not necessitate an instantaneous response of forgiveness. While this may be desired, the person offended must truly be ready for this and the offender must not expect or demand this. Clients should not be pressured into premature forgiveness.

I appreciate the care Maier shows in handling of scripture as well as in recognizing the seriousness of offenses like abuse and sexual assault and the need for victims to legitimately protect themselves from further harm from offenders. Moreover, this book seems to me to give a better account of unresolved feelings of anger than the “let it go” school. It acknowledges the role of God in healing, and also the very real concern for justice that is sometimes minimized in forgiveness teaching. And it helpfully focuses on when and how real forgiveness of the other may take place in a way that reinforces healing for both parties rather than compounding the problems between them.

I would highly recommend this work for all pastoral and clinical counselors, and for anyone who is wrestling with having experienced deep wounds at the hands of another. You may have heard the Lord’s teaching of “forgive as I have forgiven you” and struggle to do this, particularly when the offender has made no attempt to acknowledge the wrong done. This book unpacks what biblical and not merely therapeutic forgiveness looks like and the ways of healing that prepare us to truly forgive.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: The Face of Forgiveness

The Face of Forgiveness

The Face of ForgivenessPhilip D. Jamieson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Explores the struggle of many in experiencing and granting forgiveness and what the author believes are inadequate understandings of the atonement that fail to deal with our shame as well as our guilt, and how in fact the work of Christ addresses both.

Philip Jamieson begins this book with a pastoral situation many of us have faced–someone sits across from us and confesses that they find themselves unable to forgive another person, because of the awful ways that person has offended. They want to observe Jesus words about “forgiving the trespasses of others” but they simply cannot.

What follows is an extended discussion of the nature of forgiveness. Jamieson considers the recent renewal of interest in forgiveness in modern psychology. There is much that is helpful, and even biblical, yet he believes, particularly in the separation of forgiveness from reconciliation, and the detachment of forgiveness from the work of Christ, these models of forgiveness fall short.

He also contends that part of our problem in people struggling both with being forgiven and extending forgiveness has to do with theories of the atonement that focus on sin’s guilt, to the exclusion of sin’s shame. Our downturned faces, and the inability to look into the faces of others contributes to this alienation both from God and others. Jamieson would not jettison the existing theories of the atonement but rather focuses on how it is that Christ both bears our shame and is victorious over it in the cross and the resurrection. This is the face of forgiveness, which he describes in this way:

“In his last act, high and lifted up, Jesus–the man who fully reveals God, now fully revealed–joins sinful humanity in our downward gaze. Jesus dies in the posture of shame, embracing the world’s shame. ‘It is finished.’ The face, once set like a flint (Isaiah 50:7) on his way to Jerusalem, to this very death (Lk 9:51), now stares, unblinkingly downcast, bearing humanity’s shame. He joins all of us: solidarity with the shamed. But again, this face is different. For this face in its downward gaze is not looking away from his neighbors; he is looking at them. The last act of the dying Savior is to fix his gaze upon those who are in need of salvation. Our forgiveness has already been pronounced (Lk 23:34) and now the dying God provides the means to accept it. Karl Barth notes there is no other face like Jesus. Jesus’ is the face that will not look away. Jesus is the face that sees all and still loves all. Jesus’ face alone is the one that has power to forgive and to give us the healing power to accept that forgiveness” (p. 114).

Jamieson then discusses three important practices, all communal, where we learn to live before Christ’s face, experiencing his forgiveness removing our shame and our guilt and enabling us to do this with those who have sinned against us. He calls for confession, for small groups where we talk honestly about issues of guilt and shame, and worship, where we confess together as a church in our worship of the Triune God.

Jamieson concludes the book with his answer to “Jane,” the parishioner asking about forgiveness, an answer rooted in the rich pastoral theology of this book. And that is what we are given in 157 pages of text. We are brought to reflect deeply on the consequences in the human psyche of the pretensions to god-hood of each of us, re-enacting the sin of the first couple. We explore the nature of shame, our penchant to run from God, and how this is addressed in the work of the cross. It isn’t just something we have to “get over” as people whose guilt is pardoned. Shame, too, has been borne.

What I most appreciate about this is that while it is a “pastoral theology of shame and redemption” it is rooted in good systematic and historical theology. I also appreciate how it is also rooted in the church and a theology of grace. Forgiveness is not presented as an individual effort to think better of ourselves and others but as a corporately supported reality that recognizes the continuing presence and power of Christ at work in his people gathered. While cognizant of psychology, this is the care of souls rooted in a fresh appreciation of the theology we preach, pray, and enact in worship each week. Refreshing!

The Cross and Our Enemies

christ-on-the-cross-1632.jpg!Blog

Christ on the cross, Diego Velazquez, 1632

“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.”   Luke 23:34, ESV

He was betrayed into the hands of his enemies by one he had allowed into his inner circle, one who, even at the last, he singled out for favor in offering bread. The religious teachers he had met over table fellowship and openly debated, indicted him in a twilight trial that made a mockery of even their idea of due process. A brutal Roman governor caved to political pressure, sentencing him to death. He was mocked, spit on, crowned with thorns, and brutally flagellated, where his back was turned into hamburger (Mel Gibson’s The Passion was no exaggeration of the brutality he endured). He was forced to carry a heavy cross piece to the place of his execution, weakened though he was. He was stripped of clothing, utterly humiliated. Nails were driven into wrists and ankles. What was brutal about crucifixion was that the way one hung made it difficult to breath. To get a good breath mean raising oneself against the spikes through one’s ankles and wrists.

Crucifixion was a political act to terrorize subject populations. Words alone struggle to capture the brutality of all that Jesus underwent. So many kinds of human evil from betrayal to cowardice, to cravenness, to banal delight in torment, to the executioner’s efficiency come together in the last twenty-four hours before the death on a Friday afternoon.

And then the prayer pleading for their forgiveness. We may wrap this up in our atonement theology that Christ died that all may have the possibility of forgiveness, which is utterly, and unbelievably true, as I read it. But to say these words in the midst of such agony, in the face of such brutality and mockery, injustice and betrayal, when to all appearances the people who put Jesus to death knew very well what they were doing, were utterly culpable for their acts–this staggers my imagination.

Yet isn’t this how it is with all the evil we and others do? We know what we are doing, and yet we don’t fully grasp what we are caught up in, whether it is the web of our own hidden motivations and fears, or the external natural and supernatural powers of evil into which our acts play.

Those who follow Christ believe the dying act of forgiveness indeed broke the power of evil, a power that exacts a punishment or a vengeance for every wrong. The Forgiving One in word and act takes punishment and vengeance upon himself and bears it to death.

Do we believe the word of forgiveness and “they know not what they do” for the ISIS bombers in Ankara and Brussels and their compatriots who even now are likely plotting further evil? Do we believe the word of forgiveness for those closer to home who may have deeply hurt us? Do we believe the word of forgiveness for ourselves, who in our most honest moments wish we could erase many deeds from the record of our lives, and perhaps have done more ill than we know?

The forgiveness of enemies is hard. None of this mitigates efforts to prevent someone from causing further harm. Nor is forgiveness the same as reconciliation which involves a truthful and genuine admission of wrongdoing. Forgiveness is hard because it means bearing the wrong done against me on myself and putting it away, dying to the option of obtaining either judgment or vengeance against the other. Forgiving ourselves is hard because it means giving up on either justifying ourselves, or trying to pay back what can’t be repaid, to undo what can’t be undone.

For Christ followers, forgiveness has been done before us, for us, and in us. And the Christ who died and rose wants to forgive through us. The scriptures tell us that we have a choice between living in a forgiveness world and a world of vengeance and punishment. The world we choose for our enemies is the world we choose for ourselves as well. I know the choice isn’t easy. Perhaps all we can do at times is acknowledge the challenge and ask to be helped to begin on the road to forgiveness, and even to the love of our enemies. A former colleague of mine just posted an article that included this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer that may help us take the first step on the road:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Perhaps there is no better day than today to begin praying that prayer.

The Strange Act of Forgiveness

The passing of Nelson Mandela and memorials remembering his life have caused me to reflect upon the strange act of forgiveness. Why strange? Mandela is a case in point–oppressed and imprisoned because he advocated a better life for black Africans–the last thing you might expect such a one to do upon gaining power would be to create a process of forgiveness and reconciliation for a nation torn apart by apartheid. What would have been expected, and was feared, would be a paroxysm of violence avenging the violence of apartheid.  Miraculously, South Africa escaped the brutal civil wars that have torn apart so many of our countries. All because of the strange act of forgiveness.

What makes forgiveness so hard is that it is necessary when we have been truly, and sometimes deeply, hurt by another. Oftentimes, the only compensating satisfaction is to try the offender in our minds, to exact judgment upon them at least mentally, and to dream of that judgment being applied upon them. Sometimes, the hurt begins to so distort us that we dream of the hurt we would do if we have the opportunity, or even act out those dream in acts of verbal or physical violence. As the old saying goes, “revenge is a dish best served cold.” To live in this place is to become cold, become hard, become cruel–and yet we often feel ourselves incapable of escaping going down this path.

Forgiveness, it seems, begins with deciding to forgo this judgment and revenge “loop” we keep replaying in our minds. That’s what Mandela did in leading South Africa. It didn’t mean pretending that all the evils of apartheid never existed. It meant saying, “this happened and we will not give you what you deserve.” It meant, through creating truth and reconciliation commissions that wrongs could be acknowledged, forgiveness extended, and the fabric of relationships healed. It did mean deciding to turn away from the path of revenge, of wreaking some form of psychic or physical punishment on the other. It didn’t mean everything was suddenly wonderful. It did mean the possibility of a new beginning.

So often I hear protests against God’s allowance of so much evil in the world. Yet I wonder if it could be the case that God could remove evil without removing us. Paul Little, a former leader in the organization I work with once remarked, “if God were to wipe out all the evil in the world at midnight tonight, who of us would be around at 12:01?” And truthfully, in my most honest moments, I recognize that I am capable of, and at times have dreamed and perhaps done evil, that at very least is monstrous in the eyes of God, even if I keep up good appearances.

The wonder for me, that we celebrate in the season of Advent and Christmas is the coming of One through whom God extended forgiveness to the world. Given what we have done to the beautiful world God made and to our fellow human beings as well as other creatures, that’s not what we deserve. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Forgiveness is never deserved. It is a costly gift. It is a strange act indeed. What a gift to the world it is when people like Mandela choose to act so strangely!

Review: The Weight of Glory

The Weight of Glory
The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a gem, or rather a necklace of nine gems. The book consists of nine messages given by C.S. Lewis during the World War Two period. In addition to the title essay, it includes one of my all-time favorites, “Learning in War-Time”, which argues the intrinsic value of academic work for those called to this task, even when other things (like war) seem far more pressing.

The other essays included are:

“Why I’m Not a Pacifist” giving Lewis’s arguments for engagement in armed conflict.

“Transposition” dealing with reductionistic explanations of spiritual phenomena.

“Is Theology Poetry?” in which he upbraids his hosts for the vagueness of this question, which might be understood as theology being equated with the kind of “truth” gleaned from poetry.

“The Inner Ring” which explores the temptation of wanting to be on the inside of groups only to find there is nothing particularly compelling in such a place–that the most interesting groups are comprised simply of friends who share a genuine interest.

“Membership”, exploring the degeneration of this term from a Christian understanding of being “members” of each other to simply being part of some collective enterprise.

“On Forgiveness” is a pithy address with the challenge to forgive as we are forgiven and some piercing insights into how often our efforts to seek forgiveness are really efforts to excuse our bad behavior.

“A Slip of the Tongue” rounds out this collection and explores the ways we try to hedge our bets with God, to reserve some part of our life and ourselves from his direction.

What a gift to have these sparkling gems strung together into this collection. Anyone who loves C. S. Lewis or wants to get a taste of his writing and thought might find this lesser known collection a great place to begin!

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