Saturday Q & A 01.04.20 – Forgiveness

Happy Saturday, everyone!  I hope you enjoyed reading about Paige and Jeremy earlier this week.  Today’s its time for Saturday Q&A!

My friend Beth sent this:

“I’ve been pondering the pardons provided by outgoing KY Governor Matt Bevin. I was shocked by some of the people he chose to pardon; after criticism started, I read he said he was a Christian and was forgiving those individuals. I wondered if I felt that these people did not deserve human forgiveness because of their crimes. I know none of us deserve forgiveness, and God does this anyway.  I wondered if you had any thoughts.”

Thanks, Beth.  Nothing like starting out with the deep stuff!

Matt Bevin

I have a ton of thoughts about a variety of issues related to these pardons.  For context, here’s a short video from CNN and another from FOX News (for balance sake) if you need to catch up on this story.  And here’s a longer article from The Guardian, if you are so inclined.  I’ll wait while you read it.

Are you back?  OK.  So . . . I obviously have concerns about the politics of all it.  When one pardons a murderer, who happens to be the brother of a major supporter and donor to your campaign, the optics aren’t good.  When one pardons 336 low-level drug offenders (not necessarily a bad idea) – but 95% of them are white . . . well, the optics aren’t good.

But, optics or not, the pardoning of Micah Schoettle, a convicted child rapist, is one of the most troubling of the large batch.  What’s infuriating, though, is Bevin’s rationale for why he set the guy loose.  Regarding the victims: “Both their hymens were intact. This is perhaps more specific than people would want, but trust me. If you have been repeatedly sexually violated as a small child by an adult, there are going to be repercussions of that physically and medically.”

Hey, (former) Gov . . . there’s gonna be repercussions; just do a google search on the effect of childhood sexual trauma and sit with those results for awhile.  However, most medical professionals with experience in this area dispute these assertions – and vehemently.  If we take Bevin’s comments at face value (and frankly, it’s pretty hard to do so), he’s ignorant at best.  I try to avoid political discussions as I find them counterproductive often, but this isn’t a political issue for me. As someone who works with people who have experienced significant trauma like the one this Schoettle is accused of perpetrating, this is a personal issue to me.  And I don’t like what’s happened one bit.

Beth’s question is specifically about the idea of forgiveness, though. While I could go on and on about the politics of these pardons, the issues of privilege at play, and the heartbreak and anger the families of these victims must feel, I will focus on the spiritual question posed.

First, I searched and searched to find any article where Bevin defended his actions by stating that he was a Christian and was demonstrating forgiveness to these folks.  While I don’t doubt that he would have said that – he’s made no secret of his Christian beliefs – I just couldn’t find a quote. So, we’re going to suppose that motivation as part of the question posed today, and I think that’s fair based on what we know about Bevin.

Beth said she struggled with her beliefs about whether or not the people pardoned deserved forgiveness due to the nature of their crimes.  I think it’s essential to make a distinction between forgiveness and accountability.  One can be forgiven without being let off the hook for the things they’ve done.  Criminal consequences are not the same as spiritual repercussions.  What our earthly justice system imposes really has very little to do with what happens eternally – because they serve two drastically different purposes.  Our prison system is deeply flawed and largely ineffective, but the goal is to rehabilitate or, at the very least, protect the public from dangerous individuals.

A Christian worldview, one that understands and embraces the teaching of Jesus Christ as well as the entire theme of the Bible, views God differently than a prison warden.  The study of the Christian God is textured and nuanced, of course, with examples of His wrath throughout the Bible.  The Bible is the story of God and His people and the reconciliation between the two. Through the spiritual (and physical) sacrifice of Jesus Christ through the crucifixion and His redemptively-powerful resurrection from the dead, we have escaped the consequences of our sinful choices.  Our spiritual crimes (sins) have been pardoned, but not without consequence. Jesus took the consequence for us so that we wouldn’t have to.  Beth’s right; none of us deserve God’s forgiveness – and it is available to all, no matter the spiritual crime committed.

Our human brains have a tough time accepting that.

There are earthly consequences for our crimes. Some of them are obvious, like going to jail for stealing.  They might be less severe, like getting sick after overeating.  Sometimes they’re long term, like gaining weight for your gluttony. Others are the emotional pain we might feel if we make choices that are outside of God’s desire.  The feeling of guilt is an earthly consequence, but one that should motivate us to make good choices.  Many of the worldly effects for our mistakes are hurt we cause other people.  That hurt often leads us to the very human desire to see others get hurt, too.  We want things to be fair.  Even steven.  Humanity brings with it a strong sense of justice.

Forgiveness often feels counterintuitive to human instinct.

I’ve worked with a lot of people who have been wronged in a variety of ways.  Husbands or wives who’ve been cheated on, children who’ve been abused, victims of violent crimes – they have given me the honor of hearing their stories and walking with them during their journey to healing.  As a result, I’ve observed a few things about forgiveness.

“Boundaries” is an excellent must-read for anyone who struggles with setting limits

You can’t reasonably forgive someone who is actively hurting you in the same way they always have.  I have had many clients in chronically abusive relationships who then beat themselves up for their inability to successfully forgive the person who was hurting them.  It could be a spouse or a parent, who’s cutting comments and abusive actions were highly detrimental to the person’s self-image and well being.

My assertion is that it’s impossible to forgive someone for the same hurtful action(s).  Therefore, it’s essential to set boundaries.  This may take many forms; at its most severe, the person hurting you may need to be banished from your life forever. This idea might be more “meta” than I thought.  What if its impossible to forgive someone who’s chronically hurting you, even if you have set a hardcore elimination boundary?  What if the long-term consequences of trauma count as “ongoing hurt?”  Maybe it’s impossible to forgive someone while you continue to suffer the effects of the hurt.

Telling someone they need to forgive someone who’s wronged them can be unusually cruel and insensitive.  As a result, it may be almost impossible to move into a place of forgiveness for some people.  That’s a startling reality that all healers and helpers must acknowledge.

Many Christians cite Colossians 3:13 as a mandate to forgiveness.  But I like this writer’s explanation of the passage because he thinks the verse is a broader statement on how we are to live successfully in relationships with people who get on our nerves. Using this passage out of context as a weapon against someone who is struggling to let go of their pain is inappropriate and a little mean. It seems to be “off message” of the entire letter written to the Colossians, who Paul was encouraging them to live as Christ-like as possible.

Other religious belief systems also talk about – and embrace – the idea of forgiveness, by the way.  Here’s an interesting article that goes into depth about various world views and doctrines and how they handle the topic.

Healing requires time and distance from the pain, the ability to reconceptualize the hurt, acceptance of our inability to change the past, and embracing our ability to have a future.  Forgiveness will be part of that process, but it might not happen for decades.

Forgiving someone doesn’t excuse their behavior.  Most bad behavior can be explained.  Most of it should not be excused.  If it’s true that “hurt people hurt people, then we can usually understand why someone behaves the way they do, but that in no way gets them off the hook for it.  In fact, forgiving someone isn’t about letting people off the hook; it’s moving from our hook to God’s hook.

Forgiveness isn’t for the other person.  There’s strength in being able to move forward and leaving pain in our past.  When we no longer allow the things that hurt us to negatively affect us, those things lose their power.  Therefore, forgiving someone for how they’ve wronged us might benefit them (if you’re choosing to remain in a relationship with them). Still, the bulk of the benefit is for the forgiver.

Well, that was more than I expected for the first Q&A post, for sure.  But I had a lot of fun writing it.  I’d love to answer your questions or respond to any feedback you have. Send any comments or questions you have to me by email here or via the form below.

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Kirk Sheppard is a blogger, focusing on finding clarity through topics like spirituality, mental health, and wellness in 2020.  Subscribe to his blog, so you don’t miss a single post!