A Heritage of Disdain

I probably shouldn’t pour this out here or now. After an all-day headache that’s devolving into a sore throat, I’m tired and miserable. I delivered the lesson at my church today anyway — like so many preachers at small churches, I have no backup plan for waking up sick.

It wasn’t an easy lesson, and with out-of-town guests, it wasn’t a completely easy audience.

Tonight I thought I’d relax and read a while in a 1918 book edited by my great-great grandfather Alfred Ellmore, “Sermons and Sayings,” including some of each by himself and many of his Restoration Movement contemporaries. Among the authors are names I have long heard regarded as spiritual giants.

And now I’m a little sick to my stomach andAlfred Ellmore, my Great-Great Grandfather depressed, too.

Since I’m not the student of the Restoration that many others are, I didn’t realize that its sectarianism went back this far, and obviously farther from the advanced stage of it evident among the authors. I thought that was a development of the 1950s or so; a mere 60 years ago rather than 100 or more.

The sermons and essays are eloquent beyond measure, from a time when erudition was actually valued and respected. Within them are often magnificent truths. And just as frequently, they contain lapses of logic and prejudices that go beyond the pale.

Even in written form, the arrogance of snide remarks about people of other faiths is too evident. In this style of expression, there is no giving an inch; no recognition of common faith in a common Lord or even just a sense of morality. The mode is always attack, belittle, condemn — the ABCs of confrontative evangelism.

How it can possibly endure today after a century of failing to persuade vast multitudes of people and turning away millions more escapes my imagination.


Except for the fact that I understand that judgment can be very enjoyable. it vaunts self by making light and less of others. It is so far removed from the winsome nature of Christ that it is no wonder that so many within the Restoration Movement (and, let’s be frank, other church fellowships too) have virtually negated the power of the humble gospel by proclaiming it with their words and denying it with their arrogance.

Those prejudices are among the causes of the flawed reasoning. Assumptions are made and conclusions drawn that now have the weight of more than a century of unquestioned acceptance — unquestioned, because to question them would draw the criticism and banishment of those who cling to them for dear life. The assumptions and conclusions (of men!) have been accorded the very same weight as scripture, and have been repeated so long and so forcefully and with such threat of reprisal — expressed or not — that the words of scripture are read to have taken on their meaning. Literally, it seems to have become impossible for some to see any difference between what scripture literally says and what they (and/or others before them) have concluded that it means.

How can such a perception be overcome? How can illogic-accepted-as-valid be defeated by logic? How can one explain the difference between what scripture says and what someone has said it means after it has been drilled in by repetition and religious culture and the Damoclean sword of threatened banishment from community? How can the satisfaction of “knowing” one is right lose ground to an humble, open uncertainty and reliance upon God’s grace?

After five generations of sectarianism’s enduring popularity?

I swing between the pendant alternatives of severing all connection with those who will not see or listen, and continuing to hold out an olive branch and a few disturbing questions — expressed in love — to those who still might.

And on nights like tonight, I just feel that the effort is largely lost.

Joining in the Dance

ScroogeThere is no telling how many times and ways that Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has been adapted for stage and screen. My favorite since seeing it — not long after its release in 1970 — is the film musical “Scrooge” starring Albert Finney.

I suppose I’ve watched it a couple dozen times over the many years, sometimes horribly edited down and reduced to the old 4×3 screen proportion for television.

Each time I see it, something about it becomes a little more treasured. The first time, it was the realization that Finney was a young actor playing Ebenezer throughout — in his twenties, in his thirties, and in his sixties/seventies — with a hunchback and wrinkled whomperjawed visage. Another viewing was the restrained performance of the Spirit of Christmas Present, an obviously mirthful Father Christmas-y fellow reduced to the task of reproving Scrooge by imitating his grumpiness. Still another viewing was the heartbreaking Leslie Bricusse song “You … you …” as old Ebenezer, split screen with his younger self, loses the love of his life.

This year, it was a single line. A moment when the glee of Fezziwig’s annual Christmas party for employees and friends is declined — his future fiancee Belle (in this version, Isabel, Fezziwig’s daughter) beckons him to join in the holiday gavotte, and he gravely holds up a hand and shakes his head. The Spirit of Christmas Past (Dame Edith Evans), watching the festivities from the barn loft with the old Scrooge, asks him point-blank: “Why didn’t you join in the dance?”

His very lame answer: “Because I couldn’t do it.” Lame, because …

Obviously right in front of them, Fezziwig himself was having difficulty keeping up with the younger folk, doing the best he could — and still having the red-faced, howling-laughing time of his life even as he fell down from his missteps.

But this year her question is haunting me as well.

I don’t dance.

Never mind the childhood prohibitions on dancing from my dedicated Church of Christ parents; the notes that kept me from having to take the mandatory lessons at school; the hesitant attendance at a high school prom as a favor to a good friend without a date.

I don’t dance because I’m not very coordinated, and I don’t feel confident at it, and … oh, any number of other excuses.

I tried once. I really did. Angi and I were at an event, and after sitting patiently through a few numbers, she stood up and held out her hand for me. I took it, apologizing all the way to the dance floor, and after embarrassing both of us thoroughly, she forgave me and let us retire back to the dinner table.

In the years after, I even thought about getting dancing lessons for myself as a gift for her. Yet I never did.

As you might have guessed, this post isn’t really about dancing. Except for the obvious metaphor that life itself is a dance, whether you can do it or not, and it beckons you to join in the movement and the laughter and the joy of it.

And I have not been dancing these last couple of years.

So this dear old among-the-favorites movie has provided me with yet another moment to ponder and treasure. It’s given me a resolution for next year, for the rest of my life, for movement and laughter and joy.

It’s time to join in the dance.

By Keith Brenton Posted in family

A Jesus Hermeneutic: Looking Again

greybibleI think I first read the term (and his definition of) “a Christ-centered hermeneutic” twenty years ago in Wineskins Magazine, penned by Rubel Shelly. (Vol. 2, No. 6; Jan.-Feb. 1994 – archive not back online yet)

Oh my word.

Twenty years ago.

At any rate, I’ve had time to think about it a bit in twenty years, and I still like the idea. A way of looking at the Bible as the story of God and man, pointing to the One who was both God and man: Jesus.

It is one of the few hermeneutics you will actually find in scripture.

It’s implied, of course, but it’s found in the gospel of John 5:39-40, where Jesus upbraids the Jewish leaders persecuting Him:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Unless I miss my guess, Jesus is telling them that if they don’t study the scriptures with the understanding that they speak of Him, they miss the point. They miss life … eternal life.

So I’ve been writing posts about A Jesus Hermeneutic for several years myself, now. Because I find it helpful. And I believe it to be a scriptural way of looking at scripture.

It isn’t going to be helpful in the study of all scripture. Song of Solomon, for instance, may not turn out to be a richer reading experience when viewed through that lens. In fact, I think some folks have gone way off course trying to do that. But then again, Song of Solomon is not going to prove valuable when studied through the lens of a CENI hermeneutic, either. It’s not a bunch of commands. Imposing them on your beloved will not necessarily improve your relationship with him/her.

And I think the CENI hermeneutic is flawed in some uses because of two flawed underlying assumptions that too often accompany it: about the purpose of scripture (that it is all-law, all-the-time, for-everyone, in-all-ages), and about God Himself (He gives us nearly-impossible laws because can’t wait for us to mess up so He can smite us).

So how do I study scripture with a Jesus hermeneutic? Usually, I ask two questions:

  • What does this scripture tell me about Jesus?
  • Therefore (if He is the Son of God), what does this scripture tell me about God and our relationship with Him?

Sometimes, if I’m brave enough, I ask two more:

  • How does that affect me?
  • What am I going to do about it?

Christianity Today just last year ran an interesting series of articles on the concept. Like any hermeneutic, a Jesus hermeneutic has its strengths and weaknesses; its opportunities and pitfalls; its useful applications and its off-target applications.

As I can’t really begin to aspire to the level of scholarship of the various authors, I will just say that I found the series helpful and challenging.

I’ll close this post with the questions that eventually go through the mind of anyone who ponders hermeneutics: Why do we have to have a hermeneutic? Why do we need to read scripture through a lens of any magnification or color tint? Why can’t we just read it for what it is?

Because we all do, whether we intend to or not. We read everything with some measure of expectation, preconception, opinion, or judgment — based on whatever exposure we’ve had to any part of it, from any source. We read it through the lens of perception.

An atheist reads scripture with the determination to discredit and disprove.

A believer reads scripture with the intention of finding and building faith.

A person who has no interest in it reads disinterestedly.

So we’d do well to consider the lenses with which we read, evaluate them in advance, choose wisely among them for the one or ones that are going to be helpful, illuminating, logical, consistent, appropriate, and as objective as we can stand for them to be.

Because I have a strong feeling that if we really could read scripture without any kind of subjective lens, the sheer power of the truth would overcome us and reduce us to whimpering puddles of humility.

I’ll let you know if I ever get there.

But then again … you’d probably see and hear it for yourself, and I wouldn’t have to.

Go Ahead and Say It

This will be one of the most difficult things I’ll try to write. The words and concepts aren’t hard to understand, but they are hard to express.

If you love someone, tell them.

If you think they’re awesome, a great friend, a treasured lover, a valued colleague, a dear family member, a beloved spouse … tell them how you feel.

You may get another chance if you don’t now. Or you may not.

There were things I wanted to tell my dad and things I wanted to tell my Angi and I thought there would be time.

We couldn’t have foreseen what befell Dad; in fact, we don’t even know for sure what took him. After EMTs revived him, we were glad for the chance to say some of the things we wanted to say to him, just on the chance that in his comatose state he might still hear and recover … or at least, hear.

We knew what was likely in store for Angi, though we prayed against it. We had some time to say some of those things while she could still hear and understand, though the cancer took her speech away fast and put her in a coma as well, soon after.

There will never be time enough to say all the things we want to say to our dearest ones when it’s time to go. My family and I were blessed to have the time we were given with the ones we love.

And it’s not like they don’t already know … even before the worst happens and the end comes. They do.

Still, you wish you could have said it again, one more time, a dozen times, a thousand times.

You can’t.

But you can say it now. You can tell them now, before the bad comes and the end looms close. You can tell them while they can hear and understand; while they can still know and recognize; while they can appreciate and reciprocate.

They might not return your love in the way you might wish.

They might reject it outright. Rudely, even cruelly.

But they might not.

Go ahead and say it.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Trust me about this:

Not saying it.

Swimming Exam

lifepreserverThere was a young man who took a swimming class in college, many years ago. The swimming coach was excellent and knew his course material and his students’ abilities. He gave them fair warning when it came time for the written final exam:

“Men: There is one question on the exam that you must get right, or I will flunk you. Even if you get all the other questions correct. Even if you excel at your skills and performance tests. One question. I will not tell you what it is. If you can’t tell what it is, you deserve to come back and retake the test until you get it right, and pass. So don’t leave until I have all the test papers and have checked that one answer on all of them.”

Every student but that one young man failed the exam.

The coach didn’t flinch about telling them they would all — but one — have to come back and retake the written final. 

“I won’t embarrass him by naming who won’t need to come back.”

And he recommended that they all get their heads together fast, because the semester was closing soon.

The key question was this: “How long do you keep applying artificial respiration to a rescued drowning victim?”

Students reasoned all kinds of answers, based on what they knew about anoxia and brain death and circulation of blood and body temperature.

But there was only one correct answer:

“Until the patient revives
or until help arrives.”

It’s an important question. A life is at stake. And as long as air is being breathed into lungs and blood is being pumped through veins and arteries, life is still possible. Recovery may still happen.

Those young men got to the singular question and its correct answer pretty quickly … which is another whole story about teamwork and reasoning and motivation.

But the lesson that this young man took away that day was this:

You. Do. Not. Give. Up. On. People.

Even if you’re breathing for them. Even if you’re pumping bood for them. Even if you’re thinking for them because they can no longer think for themselves; trying on their behalf because they can’t try anymore; loving life for them because they’re not capable or even conscious of it anymore; living for them when they’re no longer actually alive.








Because, one day, you just might be one of those people whom life itself has given up on.

And you will need someone who knows and cares enough not to give up on you.


IMG_2500It was time for a new set of flowers at Angi’s grave. I brought a yellow rose (her favorite) each for Matt, Laura and her mom, Harriette. The little white silk flowers are from me. They remind me of the baby’s breath in her wedding bouquet.

I’ll take back with me the sun-faded yellow roses Matt first placed there, the hydrangea (another of her favorites, and mine) that someone else brought, and the two bright purple blossoms (WCU purple!) that another kind soul added.

I don’t visit long there. It doesn’t feel like that’s where she is. When the kids and I were in Eureka Springs Saturday through yesterday, it felt more like she was there. I could see her smile in all our old favorite places.

Some of them are gone or going. Both Christmas stores are gone now, and the toy store where we used to take our children is going out of business. Things change. Things pass. But some never really change … like the feel of the town itself; the unique personalities of the residents; the heritage it tries to maintain.

I realized this weekend that I first visited Eureka Springs thirty years ago. Steam engines were still running on the railroad. The tourism boom was just beginning its resurgence. Bed and breakfast homes were opening like the flowers in the homes’ gardens come springtime.

I’d like to retire there someday. I’m pretty sure I’ve got at least three or four more years of career work left in me, and it makes more economic sense to retire then than now. I really enjoyed cruising and walking the streets, looking at the houses for sale, getting a sense of the land and the market.

If it’s possible — as John Denver’s song phrases it — to go home to a place you’ve never been before, I think it will be one of the homes in Eureka Springs.

Somewhere I can plant real flowers in a garden.

Angi loved them so much.

By Keith Brenton Posted in family

A Nod to Cain’s Wife

So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. ~ Genesis 4:16-17

Where did Cain’s wife come from?

It’s a fair question, one that’s been asked and debated for a long, long time — even, as I understand it, figuring into the testimony of the Scopes “monkey” trial and a mention in the plotline of Carl Sagan’s Contact.

Genesis 1:1-2:3 tells an epic story of creation, culminating with the forming of mankind, male and female, and God resting on that note of triumph.

Genesis 2:4ff, I believe, backs up to the third day of creation, when God formed a first man, a specific man, Adam – with the purpose of caring for the plants and animals of a garden He had planted east of Eden. When Adam yearned for companionship, He formed Eve from Adam’s rib (containing his perfect DNA and all the potential for great diversity — a guess on my part, given the reported age of many of those early patriarchs).

The sad story of what happened next — well, I’ve blogged about that before, and I’ve explained there why I believe this part of the story takes place beginning at that third day: because scripture takes great care to explain the conditions present. Nothing is said about animals at that point, so in the days that come, they are added: birds and fish on the fourth day; creatures that crawl on the earth the fifth.

Then four days after Adam’s creation — on the sixth day — God created many more people, mankind, and told them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

But Adam and Eve had a specific task and calling: to make a choice between obeying and disobeying God. Possibly He created more people — “mankind,” as some versions of the Bible render the word — because that perfect DNA given Adam and Eve had been corrupted by the fruit of disobedience and the genes for death … and could no longer provide the diversity needed to sustain the species.

Mankind was given the task of reproduction, providing progeny.

And this is where I give a nod to Cain and his wife, who hailed from among the people of the land of Nod. Perhaps those people were some of the “mankind” God created.

Those who told the story generations later would likely have had the same distaste for incest that we do. (Think about the dishonorable context of the account of Lot and his daughters later in Genesis.) That — in addition to the possibility of DNA damaged by sin and its byproduct death — makes it unlikely that Cain’s wife would have been his sister; another child of Adam and Eve. (And peculiarly, no one ever asks where Seth procured a wife, though he had a son named Enosh. I’m betting he didn’t bear the child himself.)

Immediate scripture doesn’t say anything about another child of theirs beyond Seth — which doesn’t preclude the possibility that she was theirs, but still seems odd. Genesis 5:4 does says that they were parents of “sons and daughters,” but does not make a connection to the spouses of their named sons.

As a story, I find the entire Genesis account consistent within itself, rather than two separate inconsistent accounts. The inconsistency, I’m persuaded, is our misreading the timing and identity of the characters and their days of inception: Adam on the third day and possibly Eve soon after; mankind on the seventh.

I know that a good number of well-intentioned people have predicated the answer that Cain’s wife was his sister or near-kin from the conclusion that all people descended from Adam and Eve. But that is a conclusion, and not something that scripture specifically says. We are of one blood (the NIV inaccurately translates Acts 17:26 as saying “of one man”), but that does not necessarily imply a single common ancestral pair.

In fact, to draw upon the consistency of the story, it could be argued that the bloodlines of “mankind” were destroyed in the flood in which Noah — a descendant of Adam and Eve — and his family were saved. And it may be that the “sons of God” referred to in Genesis 6:4 refer to the descendants of that special Adamic bloodline.

Once again, I must post a disclaimer that third-day Adamic creation is a theory; it is speculation; it has its strong and weak points. But after years of pondering it, this possibility makes more sense than the others I have read to explain some of the difficulties in the creation narrative of the Bible, and continues to refute the criticisms that there inconsistencies which render its story invalid.

The Bible doesn’t fill in the details of everything we want to know. It does, however, often hint at answers that we can seek to discern and discuss, and grow spiritually by doing so.

A Short Post About Hell

I can’t really wade into a long, deep discussion about hell, because my theological hip boots don’t go high enough.

The Bible doesn’t say a lot about hell, and in it, Jesus says more than anybody else.

That’s kind of how I’d like to leave it. Hell isn’t for everybody, we can be sure, and it doesn’t seem to have been designed for any of us mortals – but rather for the devil and his angels: An eternal place of punishment for eternally rebellious beings. That doesn’t describe us mortals whatever amount of rebellion we display; among us, one day, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess and rebellion will end. And for those whose rebellion would not end any other way: destruction.

To date, the most persuasive item I’ve read about hell is Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes, and I understand that a more comprehensive edition has been released since the second edition that I read. Even so, it was more about hell than I wanted to read – and somehow, in high school, I struggled through Dante’s Inferno!

I tend to agree with his thinking, and did before I read his book, for I had already come to the same conclusion: Eternal punishment for temporal sin does not make sense as justice, human or divine. Scripture speaks of those who are rebellious as being destroyed, an adjective that in every other use in scripture implies a definite end.

For mortals, hell is a short though agonizing stop on the road to oblivion. It is nevermore in a nutshell. It is goodbye.

Going into the deep waters of that premise, Edward Fudge can employ a soteriological scuba suit, however — compared to my little yellow galoshes — and that suits me just fine.

Paraphrasing Karl Barth, I’ve often said that my theology rarely goes deeper than “Jesus loves me; this I know” … and it rarely needs to.

Which brings me to my point, since I said in the title that I’d try to be short.

I don’t like to think about hell. I don’t want it to ever become a motivator for my good behavior.

I want to go back to the childlike innocence that I had when (I can still remember) fighting back tears before the very first smack of a spanking or harsh word of reproval reached me because I knew I had disobeyed – and disappointed – someone I loved and respected.

I don’t want to even have to imagine looking up into the big eyes of the big God who loves and gives Himself for me – even to death on a cross – and knowing even for an instant that I’ve turned my back on that love and walked away; gone my own way instead of His; hurt people I love and whom He loves more.

I want that singular, hopefully microsecond of unfathomable regret to be hell enough for me, and forever enough for anyone.

So I’ll keep talking about what Jesus talked about, far more than hell or sin or failure or remorse: a Father in heaven who loves without ceasing and gives without measure and forgives without a second thought or the slightest capacity to hold a grudge.

I’ll keep on describing the God who gives His Son, His Word, and His very own Spirit to help us understand how good He is … and how good it is to give until you are nearly emptied of self and filled with His nature and character.

I’ll go on talking about the God who runs to the returning prodigal, shoulders the cross, receives the nails and breathes His last surrender to what we desperately need the most.

And I will also go on talking about hell, hopefully to the same degree and in exactly the same way that the Savior did. Why?

There may indeed be people who are at least temporarily beyond the reach of love, and must first be drained empty of self by the evil that is sucking life out of the world around us.

There may be people who need to understand the ultimate consequence of evil and insist on having the reality of sinleadstodeath sinleadstodeath sinleadstodeath rubbed in their own eyes and faces by their own hands until they have seen enough hell on earth to want no atom of it in eternity.

There may even be some who, to their dying breath, would echo Milton’s consummately selfish motto for Satan: “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”

But I sure don’t want to be one of them.

Is This How We Want to be Known?

Many of us folks in churches of Christ are peculiar people.

RefuteYouThe problem is that, somewhere along our journey as a nondenominational nondenomination, too many of us have embraced the misapprehension that we are not only called to be a peculiar people — called out from among those “other” folks in the world — but that we are the One True Church That Has Everything Right and therefore The Only Ones Going to Heaven which means that Everyone Else is Going to Hell.

I guess that makes it incumbent upon so many of us to straighten out everyone who doesn’t see everything — and I mean everything — the way we do.

Considering the vigor with which we pursue that mission, you would think it was Christ’s Great Commission itself. Not so much to save the unsaved souls in this world, but to correct the souls in other churches who think they are already saved but are in fact mistaken on at least a point or two and therefore apostate and blasphemous and even more certainly bound for hell.

So the mission of many of us (whose church signs quote Romans 16:16 as if God had intended it to be the proprietary copyright-protected brand name of our group of believers) is not to salute, but to refute. We must refute everything that does not conform to the doctrines of our tradition.

All of which makes us about as attractive as Sheldon Cooper of television’s Big Bang Theory but without any of the personal charm.

May I just say this to the folks who have been so impressed with our peculiarly-misplaced mission: We’re an autonomous collective, like the peons of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We don’t have an overarching nationwide or multinational church structure. We don’t have imposed discipline for poor behavior. Each congregation does as it pleases, or hopefully, does as the good Lord pleases.

Therefore, I can’t apologize for the folks from churches of Christ who may have ambushed you in this way.

However, I can encourage you to forgive us and pray for us and hope that we will eventually perceive and wish to imitate the winsomeness of our Savior.

We’re not all that way. Some of us are not afraid to question the doctrines jackhammered into our heads and hearts from an early age and welded there by the terror of hellfire if we doubted. Some of us are willing to use logic that adheres to generally-accepted norms, and to imagine God and love and grace as more than Judge and correction and condemnation. Some of us are eager to see salvation as a gracious way of living Christ in this world as well as living with Him in the next. Some of us desire to be self-disciplined; to seek; to learn; to grasp; to embrace; to truly converse rather than just correct. Some of us believe that perfect love really does cast out fear.

Not all of us. The old ways die hard. And they feed our egoes. Some of us still want to get that better-than-thou rush. Some of us are convinced that the word “distinctive” is the most important word in scripture, even though it doesn’t appear there at all. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of browbeating and disciplining of others to maintain that level of certainty and arrogance, but it has persisted for many generations now in some pockets of our sometimes-fellowship, sometimes-similar-brand-name-only. Yet it can’t last forever.

Nothing that comes solely from the heart of man can.

I don’t think anyone can refute that.

I have lived in both camps. There are times — even now, while writing this — that the temptation is strong to leave the camp of the loving correctible and pitch a tent among the angry correctors. But I don’t dare.

There’s really no future in it.

And I still stand in need of correcting myself — frequently, privately, lovingly, and graciously. That’s how I’d prefer it.

But if it must also be firm and well-reasoned and communal and public, then so be it.

I know there will be those who will find this post ultimately offensive, hideously arrogant, and unforgivably divisive. Some of them will have written correctives more personally, more pointedly, naming those whom they judge and condemn without even once having made an effort to go to those folks singly or in twos or threes or even before the church before taking the matter before the whole world — first in printed publications and now digital ones. I refuse to do that. I believe Jesus shared the instructions of Matthew 18:15ff for good reasons. I do not believe that Paul failed to follow them, even if the details of that compliance are not recorded but assumed by scripture. So I do not believe those instructions are optional. Ever.

Let me make it clear: this post isn’t written to the people who will find it offensive, but to those whom they may have offended or condemned or turned completely away from Christ by an inaccurate and incomplete imitation of His just nature uncomplicated by His merciful nature.

I do hope they know this: that I love them anyway; that I want their efforts for God to be of a nature that He can bless them and make them fruitful; that I dearly desire for them to know Christ and the power of His resurrection: a sacrificial new life free of self and the shackles of man-made law and characterized instead by the freedom found in His Spirit to serve creatively and jofully. I wish that for everyone, including me.

Because I need to read and re-read; consider and re-consider my faith, and the way I practice it, and the Lord I seek to serve … more than anyone else.

I don’t think anyone can refute that, either.

The Wound That Wants to Be Whole

The following is the text of the keynote address to the Communication Ethics Praxis Conference at Azusa Pacific University, February 9, 2012, delivered by my late wife, Angela Laird Brenton. She received her initial diagnosis of possibly advanced stage pancreatic cancer almost a year to the day later.

I want to express thanks to Brooke Van Dam and the Conference committee for inviting me to visit Azusa Pacific University. I am honored and humbled to deliver the keynote address on the 25th anniversary of the David C. Bicker Communication Ethics conference and to follow in the footsteps of so many of my friends and esteemed peers. I’m eager to enjoy the day with you, and to learn from you.

Angela BrentonOn a bright sunny crisp autumn morning on Oct. 6, 2006 a 32-year old milkman named Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into a one-room school house in Amish Country, the West Nickel Mines Amish School. He ordered the teacher and a visiting parent and all the male students out of the schoolhouse and ordered ten little girls aged 7-13 to lie on the floor in front of the chalkboard. He tied their hands and feet.   He told them, “I’m angry at God and I need to punish some Christian girls to get even with him.” Then he proceeded systematically to shoot each of them in the head, starting with Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, who begged him to shoot her first, hoping to spare her friends. Besides Anna Mae, Naomi Rose Ebersole, aged 7, Marian Fisher, 13, Mary Liz Miller, 8, and her sister Lena Miller, 7, died that day. Two of the other girls suffered massive injuries that resulted in lifelong disabilities. Finally Roberts killed himself.

In several suicide notes he left for family members, Roberts talked about two motives. He talked about having sexually assaulted two family members over 20 years ago and not being able to live with his guilt, although when family members were interviewed, they said the assault never happened. He also expressed bitterness, rage, and anger at God that had been building in him for nine years since his wife had given birth to their first child, a little girl that lived only 20 minutes.

In the midst of the shocking violence and loss, the Amish didn’t cast blame or demand vengeance. Forgiveness is so engrained as a value and a way of life that family members immediately reached out with grace and compassion to the killer’s family. They went to visit his wife and children to offer sympathy and to encourage them to stay in the community. They invited his family to funerals of their children. More Amish people than his own family turned out to his funeral to offer respect. A week later, his wife wrote an open letter to the community. It said, “Our family wants each of you to know that we are overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy you’ve extended to use. Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. The prayers, flowers, cards, and gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”

The Amish school shooting case has fascinated scholars, journalists, and theologians in the last five years because of its sharp contrast – Charles Roberts, the killer who was tormented by the inability to give or receive forgiveness contrasted with the Amish community with forgiveness woven tightly into their very identity and culture.

Critics were quick to criticize the Amish, arguing that it is not natural or healthy to forgive so quickly with such a staggering loss, or saying that such immediate grace trivialized the loss and undermined justice. However Donald Kraybill in his book Amish Grace wrote: “The Amish willingness to forego vengeance does not undo a tragedy or pardon the wrong, but constitutes the first step toward a more hopeful future.” In fact only a few weeks after the shooting, the Amish razed the old school building and built a new school in an undisclosed location, a school named, “New Hope.” I think few of us given a choice to leave in the grace-less and unforgiving world of Charles Roberts or the grace-drenched world of the Amish would choose unforgiveness, yet we often find ourselves wounded and trapped in a maze of bitterness, anger or guilt without a clear way out.

In fact, Thomas Kahane offers an excellent metaphor on forgiveness in his book Solving Tough Problems, a reflection on his years of international peacemaking from South Africa to Columbia. He had related an account of a particularly amazing session of confession and forgiveness to a colleague. He had been amazed by the ability of human beings to recover from unimaginable brutality after they had an opportunity to tell and hear the truth. His colleague commented that his experience reminded her of an incident with her husband. They had been boating on Lake Michigan when her husband fell from the boat and was sucked into the motor, causing a deep gash in his leg. They rushed him to a hospital, seeking help. The surgeon, upon examining the horrifying would counseled them, “This kind of wound is too serious and too prone to infection to stitch up. We can only keep it clean and sanitary. The wound wants to be whole, and eventually the sides will come together.”

This morning I’d like to explore the theory and praxis of forgiveness, the wound that wants to be whole. I would also make the rather audacious claim that forgiveness has more potential to affect our lives and our world than any other form of ethical communication.

Let’s first look at forgiveness through three frames, theology, building better worlds and pragmatism. Each vantage point offers a different perspective of what forgiveness is, our motivations for forgiveness, and how we can find the path toward making the wound whole.


The first frame is, of course, theology, our concept of God and how he relates to us. Forgiveness is an important construct of most world religions. Consider this statement from Hinduism: ‘What is there that forgiveness cannot achieve? What can a wicked person do to him who carries the sabre of forgiveness in his hand?” or this from the Bahai faith: “Love the creatures for the sake of God and not for themselves. . . Humanity is not perfect, but if you look toward God you will love them and be kind to them for the world of God is the world of perfect and complete mercy.”

The Judeo-Christian God is a God of compassion and mercy toward his people. Nehemiah 9 provides a long view of God’s relationship with Israel. Even when his people chose evil over good, were unfaithful to their God, and exhibited pride and a lack of gratitude, time and time again God refused to turn his back on them and rescued them from distress. Consider these passages; “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, “This is your God.” After years of evil when he allowed them to be captured by their enemies, he again heard their distress and “From heaven you heard them and in your great compassion, you gave them deliverers who rescued them from the hands of their enemies . . . and when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven and in your compassion, you delivered them time after time.”

Jesus took human form and came to earth as a bridge to reconcile the relationship between God and man that had been severed in the garden of Eden. Romans 5: 6-11 “You see at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. . . God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us . . . Not only this but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.’

Perhaps no story is so poignant in showing God’s love and forgiveness than the parable of the prodigal son. You all know the story. The younger son asks his father for his inheritance (which at the time was equivalent to telling his father he wished he were dead). He goes to a far country and blows everything having a high ol’ time. Pride keeps him from returning until he finally finds himself, a good Jewish boy feeding pigs and not making enough to keep from starving. He prepares his apology and with humility prepares to ask his father to hire him as a servant. While the son is still far away, his father sees him and runs in an undignified way to meet him. He doesn’t even let him get the apology out of his mouth. He falls on his dirty, disgusting, beautiful boy, hugs and kisses him and commands his servants to bring him clothes and a ring, to kill the fatted calf and to throw a party on his return.

What does this tell us about God?

1. He never gave up hope for his son’s return and stood waiting and watching for him every day.

2. He gave his son free will. He allowed him to leave. He waited for him to return.

3. He forgave before his son returned. He didn’t wait for an apology.

4. He forgave with joy and completely restored the relationship.

5. He reached out with forgiveness to the judgmental older son as well.

Brendon Manning in the Raggamuffin Gospel writes, “What a word of encouragement, consolation and comfort! We don’t have to sift our hearts and analyze our intentions before coming home. Abba just wants us to show up. We don’t have to be shredded with sorrow or crushed with contrition. We don’t have to be perfect or even very good before God will accept us. We don’t have to wallow in guilt, shame, remorse and self-condemnation. Even if we still nurse a secret nostalgia for the far country, Abba falls on our neck and kisses us. Even if we come back because we couldn’t make it on our own, God will welcome us. He will seek no explanations about our sudden appearance. He is glad we are there and wants to give us all we desire.”

When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray in Matthew 6, he sent a clear message about the relationship between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. Remember the passage in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” He follows the last stanza of the prayer with an admonition: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” I used to think that was the scariest verse in the Bible. Will God really withhold his forgiveness of us if we can’t forgive others in some divine quid pro quo? I’ve thought about that a lot, and that explanation doesn’t fit with God’s nature as revealed by his relationship with Israel, as revealed by his sending Jesus to reconcile the world to himself while we were still sinners, in the mad dash to welcome the prodigal son. God doesn’t need us to forgive or to be sinless for him to lavish his love and mercy on us. Because he made us, he knows that if we are not people of grace and forgiveness, it will be hard for us to accept and receive his forgiveness. And if we truly, deeply understand the depth of our sin and what we’ve been forgiven, it will be impossible not to have grace gush out from us and overflow to others.

Go back to Charles Roberts, who deliberately murdered five little girls because he felt he couldn’t be forgiven by God, and thus couldn’t forgive God. When we can’t accept grace and feel forgiven, it is hard for us to forgive others.

Max Lucado writes In the Grip of Grace “To believe we are totally and eternally debt-free is seldom easy. Even if we’ve stood before the throne and heard it from the King himself, we still doubt. As a result, many are forgiven only a little, not because the grace of the king is limited, but because the faith of the sinner is small. God is willing to forgive all. He’s willing to wipe the slate completely clean. He guides us to a pool of mercy and invites us to bathe. Some plunge in, but others just touch the surface. They leave feeling unforgiven.”

To summarize forgiveness from a Christian theological perspective, we changed into people of grace by being reconciled with God through forgiveness of all of our sins through Christ. Because God showed compassion and mercy to us even though we were completely unworthy, we overflow with love and compassion for others, even when they are unworthy. We are never more Christlike than when we are able to forgive and restore relationships with others, reflecting the glory of God.

Building Better Worlds

A second perspective through which to think of forgiveness is the theory of social constructivism. Barnett Pearce, my dear friend and a former keynote speaker at this conference, who passed from this life only a few months ago, wrote a wonderful book, “Making Social Worlds.” He explained the ways in which we create the character of our relationships, organizations, and societies by the ways in which we individually and collectively communicate with one another. If in our communication with our children we engage in blaming, criticizing, and threatening speech acts we will create selves and relationships that are threatened, insecure and disaffirming. Especially in turning points in conversations and relationships, the quality of our communication will determine the path that relationship will take. Most of us would acknowledge that we have developed a toxic nature of public dialogue with little space for respectful discussion of areas in which we disagree. How could we develop communication skills and commitments that create a different social world in which to deliberate public policy and priorities? Russel Eans wrote in an Op Ed in the Pennsylvania Tribune Democrat shortly after the Amish school shootings, “I wonder if the Amish are not giving a message to America at a time when we are so polarized and gripped by an ethos of violence . . . I wonder if we as a nation did not miss the mark after September 11. What if instead of vengeance we had spoken of grace and forgiveness? I believe now that such a response would have done more to ‘shock and awe’ our enemies more than all the bombs and cruise missiles dropped on Iraq and Afghanistan.” Whether you agree with Ean’s conclusions or not, his point is well made that our communication response, whether on the personal or international level is consequential. We could project forward in considering where our current communication patterns are leading us, or could think backward when we are in a hostile social world about what communication patterns led us to this place, and how changing our communication patterns could shape a new social world. The work of Barnett’s life was discovering, teaching and modeling the forms of dialogue, listening and affirmation that led to understanding and respect among people of different races, different moral convictions, and different ideologies.

Forgiveness is a form of communication that builds more positive affirming social worlds. Gary Hawk wrote eloquently, “When we forgive one another we uphold the possibility of defining ourselves not simply in relation to an opponent across the table, an enemy across a line, or a violator of our trust, but in relation to something far more creative. When we forgive, we create conditions in which it is possible to learn from one another rather than defend ourselves against each other. When we forgive, we affirm that the world is much larger than the injury that consumes us. The closed door opens and we step out onto a stage where it is possible to associate with one another in ways less constricted by old memories. In this light we subjugate the memory of past harm to the hope of a new future.”

A particular form of building better social worlds is the African concept of ubuntu. Desmond Tutu in his beautiful book No Future without Forgiveness about the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa describes “ubuntu.” “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When you have ubuntu you are hospitable, you’re generous and friendly and caring and compassionate.   It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. A person with ubuntu . . .know(s) that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are. To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. .”

He describes how ubuntu is involved in the most controversial aspect of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa – that fact that oppressors guilty of unspeakable atrocities in south African would receive complete amnesty for their crimes if they told the complete truth about their crimes before tribunals organized to hear the stories from oppressors and victims. He speaks of restorative justice in the spirit of ubuntu in which the central purpose is healing breaches, rehabilitating both the victim and the oppressor, who should be encouraged to be part of the community he or she has injured.

The amnesty given to perpetrators was so complete that victims had no recourse to sue or press charges, as long as the offenders told the complete truth about their offenses. Tutu explained, “This is indeed a very high price to ask the victims to pay. That happens to have been the price those who negotiated our relatively peaceful transition from repression to democracy believed the nation had to ask of victims. But to compute the price properly, we should compare the high level of stability that we enjoy with the turmoil and upheaval that have so sadly characterized similar radical change in other countries.”

I was struck by the contrast between Tutu’s description of the sacrifice that victims made in South Africa with the account I heard of the aftermath of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland when I took a group of students there a couple of years ago. We had the opportunity to interact with Anne Carr, a remarkable Catholic woman who had spent her life in Northern Ireland. She had lost dear friends and family members to the violence. She was a member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which was instrumental in the negotiated peace settlement. One of the students asked Anne about how the victims were working toward forgiveness and she replied that she felt the burden of forgiveness should be on those who committed violence, not on the victims. Brian Lennon in his book Peace Comes Dropping Slow explains this perspective: “Why should the victims of violence make some move toward reconciliation if the perpetrators do not? This makes the victims doubly burdened by the perpetrators’ crimes.” I was struck by their language casting forgiveness as a burden for victims, rather than as the way that Tutu described forgiveness in South Africa as an opportunity for healing breaches and restoring community.

Tutu writes: “ We have survived the ordeal and we are realizing that we can transcend the conflicts of the past, we can hold hands as we realize our common humanity . . . The generosity of spirit will be full to overflowing when it meets a like generosity. Forgiveness will follow confession and healing will happen, and so contribute to national unity and reconciliation. And no one in South Africa could ever again be able to say, “I did not know,” and hope to be believed.

To wrap up the second perspective on forgiveness, the ways in which we communicate create social worlds, both at the personal and international level. We can create relationships and organizations that are open, affirming, and hopeful by communicating in ways that are open, affirming and hopeful. We can also do the reverse, creating cycles that are hostile, cynical and closed. Communication plays a key role in building better social worlds – the world of the Amish rather than the hopeless and angry world of Charles Roberts. The principle of ubuntu offers a particular approach toward building an open interdependent society through seeing forgiveness as enlightened self interest. In forgiveness we seek restorative justice in which both the victim and offender are healed and restored to community, ending cycles of revenge and retribution.


A final perspective through which to view forgiveness is pragmatism. In this view, we seek to find forgiveness as an internal process because it is the only route toward our internal healing. William H. Walton coined the apt phrase, “To carry a grudge is like being stung to death by one bee.” Lewis Smedes writes, ‘To forgive is to set the prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Research has shown that unresolved anger and bitterness have serious physical and emotional consequences. My husband Keith and I saw this firsthand as we worked with a divorce recovery group a few years ago. Everyone healed in different ways and in different time frames. However one young woman had been so devastated by her husband’s leaving her for another woman that her anger and rage was as fresh five years after the divorce as if it had happened yesterday. The effects on her were tragic. She gained a huge amount of weight. Her daughters, 8 and 12 at the time of the divorce were repelled by the venom in her home. Her older daughter got married at 17 and moved 2000 miles away. Her younger daughter chose to live with her father at age 16, another blow and betrayal for our dear friend. I’m happy to say that she finally found a way to forgive and move on with her life, but after such a cost. Today, she is a happy and serene woman who works with inner city youth. She’s re-established her relationship with her daughters and now dotes on grandchildren. All the time when our sweet sister was literally eating herself alive with her anger and bitterness, her ex-husband was going on blithely with his life, unaffected by her desire to strike back at him.

Not only could we look at the pragmatic effects of forgiveness in our own lives, but forgiveness can also have a dramatic effect on those we forgive, especially when someone is weighted down and paralyzed by guilt. I have the opportunity to teach once a semester in a prison program which prepares inmates for their ultimate release from prison. Various teachers spend an evening talking about skills and perspectives the men will need to lead a successful life in the outside world. I teach about interpersonal conflict and forgiveness. I’ll never forget one middle-aged man named Louis sitting on the front row. As we began talking about forgiveness, he started to weep so loudly that everyone in the room could hear. Now, this is a tough place, a maximum security prison where many of the inmates have been convicted of murder, assaults, rape, or other violent crimes. Men don’t let themselves be vulnerable to the others too often. Yet, here was Louis, weeping like a child. When he could speak, he simply said, “I killed a family’s only son. I took their seed. I’m so sorry. I’ve written them a dozen letters begging them to forgive me. But they’ll never be able to.   Why should they? I don’t know how I’m going to be able to live with this for all my life.” Think of the new beginning and hope that forgiveness would have given Louis.

At times extravagant gestures of forgiveness have impact far beyond the two parties. In the era just before the end of apartheid an idealistic young American named Amy Biehl went to South Africa to join in the movement to enfranchise blacks in the political process. As she was leaving a meeting one night, her path crossed an angry mob of young black males, and she was brutally murdered. Her family flew to South Africa to be at the trial of one of young men accused of her murder. They shocked the whole country when instead of demanding vengeance, they begged for mercy for the young man. They said to do any less would dishonor the memory of their daughter who gave her life because she wanted a future for young men exactly like the one charged in her death. The picture of the Biehls embracing the mother of the man accused of their daughter’s murder inspired a nation with the hope of reconciliation.

There are times when our forgiveness means nothing at all to the person who harmed or hurt us. Perhaps they are unaware they have hurt us, or maybe they don’t care. Maybe they have developed rationalizations or excuses for their action. Whether our forgiveness means a thing to the other party, forgiveness ALWAYS benefits us. John McArthur wrote: “Forgiveness unleashes joy. It brings peace. It washes the slate clean. It sets all the highest values of love in motion.” Hannah More adds: “Forgiveness is the economy of the heart . . . forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, and the waste of spirit.” Forgiveness in this pragmatic sense heals us, allows us to let go of past hurts and move forward to a more hopeful future.

These three perspectives of forgiveness are obviously intertwined to some degree. If we are people of faith who believe our forgiveness flows through us from God, we probably also feel a strong commitment to create better social worlds and feel that God asks us to forgive primarily because it benefits us. Yet there are also differences. Not all people who believe restorative justice and the potential of forgiveness to restore community have a religious basis for their conviction. And not all Christians would agree that in forgiveness we may seek restorative justice, absolving offenders from the consequences of their action in order to heal them and restore them to the community. Some who write about the pragmatic benefits of forgiveness as an internal process do not necessarily believe that forgiveness leads to interpersonal forgiveness or reconciliation, while reconciliation is at the heart of a theological model.

Defining Forgiveness

So with these frames in mind, let me try to define forgiveness and talk about how we work toward forgiveness. Definitions of forgiveness vary based on which of the three perspective you adopt. Enright and his colleagues offer a definition very much aligned with a theological frame: “forgiveness involves the casting off of deserved punishments, the abandonment of negative reactions, the imparting of love toward the other person, a self sacrificial nature, the potential restoration of the relationship, and positive benefits to the forgetter.” Whereas Lewis Smedes offers a simple definition that fits the pragmatic frame: “forgiveness is the art of healing inner wounds inflicted by other people’s wrongs.” Waldron and Kelly in their book Communicating Forgiveness offer one of the more comprehensive definitions that might fit any of the perspectives: “Forgiveness is a relational process whereby harmful conduct is acknowledged by one or both partners; the harmed partner extends undeserved mercy to the perceived transgressor; one or both parties experience transformation from negative to positive psychological states; and the meaning of the relationship is renegotiated with the possibility of reconciliation.”

Several questions emerge when we consider the nature of forgiveness:

1) Is it an intrapersonal or interpersonal process? Do we have to tell the other person we forgive them or can we just come to an inner state of acceptance and peace? The answer to this question varies based on the paradigm you adopt. David Augsberger, a theologian at Fuller Seminary calls “internal forgiveness” an artifact of our self-absorbed society and argues that true forgiveness is always a dyadic process with the goal of restoring the relationship and healing for both parties. Since our forgiveness for others flow out of gratitude for our forgiveness from God, we practice the ministry of reconciliation just as Jesus restored the relationship between God and man. From the perspective of ubuntu, in which we are all connected and mutually responsible for each other’s well being, it would be hard to maintain an internal peace in the face of our neighbor’s torment who pleads to be released from his guilt. Forgiveness can only occur when both are healed and restored to community with one another.

However, Lewis Smedes who operates more from a pragmatic perspective states that forgiveness is always an internal process, while reconciliation must be negotiated interpersonally after forgiveness. We need not wait for repentance or a request to forgive before we forgive someone. He says requiring another person to ask for forgiveness is like being in a prison with the keys in your own hand, but waiting for your tormentor to give you permission to unlock the door. Yet the restoration of the relationship must depend on the offended party perceiving genuine repentance and a commitment to a different relationship in the future. There are times when we need to forgive people even though we have no way of communicating our forgiveness to them – finally reaching forgiveness for a parent who is dead, or forgiving a friend who we no longer have contact with. In cases of violent crime like rape, can we really expect a victim to seek out and express forgiveness for her attacker even when she achieves an internal state of peace and acceptance about the event?

Gary Hawk illustrates the relationship between intrapersonal and interpersonal processes of forgiveness with this tree diagram:

The base of the tree trunk represents the offense. The small branches from the base of the trunk represent early decisions to withhold forgiveness. The left hand large branch is a route toward internal forgiveness and healing, letting go of the offense and focusing on the future rather than the past. The right hand large branch involves negotiating forgiveness interpersonally with the party who harmed us. In some relationships, we may move immediately in one direction or the other. Yet, you will note at the top of the tree, sometimes the branches which grew separately become intertwined again in the top branches. Sometimes long after we have achieved an internal state of forgiveness, we may be motivated to reach out to the other person to try to restore the relationship, such as a child who was abandoned by a parent who never desired a relationship, but at some point when the parent is ill or when the child has children of his own place greater value on restoring some type of relationship with the estranged parent.

2. A second related question about forgiveness is whether forgiveness always involves reconciliation. The answer from a theological or ubuntu perspective would usually be yes. Once in a class when I had expressed the perspective that we can genuinely forgive another person without feeling it is wise or safe to continue a relationship with him or her, one of my students challenged, “How would we feel if God had taken that perspective with us, and told us that he forgives us but doesn’t want to have anything more to do with us?” Ubuntu sees the purpose of forgiveness as healing breaches and restoring both the offender and the victim to a cooperative community.

3. A third important question is the relationship between justice and forgiveness. Some would argue that expecting parties who have been enslaved, tortured, and oppressed to forgive without first restoring justice is placing all the burden of forgiveness on the oppressed party. This is the perspective taken by some in Northern Ireland. It is also deeply embedded in Jewish law and religious practice. If I have offended or injured a party, before I can ask for forgiveness¸ I must demonstrate repentance and make restitution. Once I have done so, the party I have offended is obligated to forgive. Dag Hammarskjold, the former United Nations leader, took a different perspective. He stated, “Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who forgives you out of love takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness therefore always entails a sacrifice.”   Sara Paddison offered the additional thought, “Sincere forgiveness isn’t colored with expectations that the other party apologize or change. Don’t worry about whether they finally understand what they have done. Love them and release them. Life feeds back truth to people in its own way and time.” It is a difficult issue, but when we withhold forgiveness until the scales of justice are somehow balanced, the scales are never perfectly balanced, and the person who suffers the most from the forgiveness delayed is the victim who continues to live with bitterness, anger and vengeful feelings.

A final question that often emerges about forgiveness is whether it involves forgetting and absolving the offender of consequences. From a theological perspective, this is what God offers us when He forgives. Yet as humans, it is difficult for us completely to forget an offense. At times, it may be wise to remember to avoid being a victim again.   While we may not be able to forget, when we forgive, we don’t “wallow’ in an offense any more, or to make it a focus of our attention. We may not have control over legal or natural consequences of an action, but we remove consequences that are under our direct control. If we forgive, we don’t continue to remind, keep score and punish the person we have forgiven. To do so undermines any future for the relationship.

Healing Through Truth

With an understanding of forgiveness, how do we do it? How do we heal the wound that wants to be whole? Gary Hawk discusses four “strands” of forgiveness. The first is truth. We cannot forgive until both parties have told the truth and faced the truth. That is why truth was the prerequisite for reconciliation in South Africa¸ and why truth was so important that victims were willing to give up legal recourse in exchange for truth. I’m presently working with an Institute for Race and Ethnicity facilitating inter-racial dialogues in communities long divided and stunted by years of segregation and oppression. The wounds cannot be healed until they are opened and the infection of years of denial and silence cleansed. Only when we have had a chance to tell our stories and hear the stories of others can we hope to build a stronger community built on acknowledgement of the painful truth of the past.

Healing Through Restraint

Hawk says that a second strand of forgiveness is restraint. We must suppress our natural instinct for vengeance – for the other person to experience hurt in the way that we have been hurt, to try to achieve some justice on our own.

Healing Through Empathy

A third very important strand is empathy. We must see our abuser or betrayer as a fellow human being rather than as a monster. Smedes tells a touching story in his book of a survivor of a concentration camp during World War II. She was tormented by a brutal guard who leered at her, continually, threatening to rape or abuse her. Her hatred became so intense for him that she feared it would totally consume her, so she sought day by day to find a way to see the humanity of the guard. She said she finally saw small indications of his better nature, a smile as he talked to a fellow guard, a brief touch on the head of a child, and that was enough for her to feel empathy and realize that he was as much a victim as she of the cruel concentration camp.

Healing With Commitment

Finally is the strand of commitment. Especially when we move from forgiveness to reconciliation or toward trying to integrate our enemy back as a valued member of a community, we must express our full commitment to the relationship. Ken Sande in his book the Peacemaker says that we make several commitments when we promise to forgive:   a commitment that I will no longer dwell on this offense, bring it up against you, or let it interfere with our relationship.

There is no formula or time frame that works for every individual in working toward the difficult process of forgiveness. A friend of mine was brutally raped. She worked with a Christian therapist who helped her understand that she could never heal emotionally from the attack until she could forgive. She told him she didn’t feel she could ever forgive. He asked her if she could pray to God for her attacker. Again, she said she couldn’t honestly pray to God on his behalf. So finally he asked her just to pray to God that he would open her heart to mercy, and slowly over time as she prayed, God opened her heart to that request. Then she began to pray that God would change her rapist’s heart. Eventually she came to peace and forgiveness.

I have come to see forgiveness not just as a command of God, but as a gift of God. Ken Sande writes: Above all remember that true forgiveness depends on God’s grace. If you are trying to forgive others on your own, you are in for a long and frustrating battle. But if you continually ask for and rely on God’s strength, you can forgive even the most painful offenses.” We can see the offense and struggle to forgive not as a burden, but as stewardship and an opportunity to glorify God.

I’ll end with a final quote from Gary Hawk that offers the most beautiful description of the grace that God offers in healing our wounds that longs to be whole:

“Even though people may labor toward forgiveness through numerous internal states and stages, it is the experience of many people that one morning, we wake up and discover that what was done to us is no longer the focus of our daily attention. Like a river thawing in the middle of the night, we find that the hardness of our self-protection is falling away. Though we have knocked on a certain door a thousand times without gaining entrance, one morning it is suddenly and simply open. Though all of our best energies have been tied in the knot of memory, one day we discover that the knot has slipped out of the rope. Suddenly we are free of this constriction and the rope may be used to bind things together. This is the experience of transcendence. At times it comes to us more as an inexplicable gift than the result of a series of steps of our determined labor.”

In the end, only the Great Healer can knit together the wound that wants to be whole.