Admittedly, this question may have caught you off guard. But let’s walk into it. Forgiveness is beautiful. It makes for a great theme in movies or novels. Forgiveness is central to the gospel. We all need forgiveness and long to know that our faults will not define us.
But it’s worth asking, what part of forgiveness is beautiful? The answer is, the last part. The early and middle parts of forgiveness are heinous. They are the parts of the movie or novel that cause us to cringe.
The beginning of the forgiveness process is the offense. The offense is unnecessary, unexpected, hurtful, and sinful (or else it could just be excused, rather than forgiven). This part of forgiveness—when we are the one offended—is awful. We would prefer if this part of forgiveness could be fast forwarded.
The middle part of forgiveness is taxing and strenuous. It involves confronting the wrong, explaining the hurt, determining whether future trust is warranted, navigating social fallout, and healing from the ways the offense damaged our life. This is tedious and painful. Often there is not cooperation. People compete over which narrative really explains what happened. That’s disorienting. If we get stuck in the disorientation, then we’re portrayed at the one being bad (i.e., unforgiving). That’s infuriating.
Who Is Rushing Us?
All this forces us to ask the question, who is rushing us to the final, beautiful stage of forgiveness? Who is compelling us to think resolution has to be the stage we are in right now? The answer is, it depends. There are at least four possible answers.
1. We can rush ourselves.
The offense hurt and fatigued us. We don’t come to the process of forgiveness at full strength. We want this chapter of our life to be over. It is not uncommon to look in the mirror and chide, “Why can’t you just move on?” We fear our pain over being hurt makes us a bad Christian, so we skip past the hard work of forgiving with the simpler words, “That’s okay.” Things don’t get resolved, but at least we can move on.
2. We can feel rushed by those around us.
When friend A and friend B are at odds, then friends C, D, and E feel awkward. They didn’t do anything wrong, but their world is still disrupted. They may be reticent to take sides, especially if they don’t know everything that went down. But until friends A and B are restored, they feel trapped. Sometimes they say things that directly rush us towards forgiving. Other times, our compassion for these other friends as innocent bystanders makes us feel rushed.
3. We can feel rushed by the person who hurt us.
Sometimes the person who hurt us assumes that because God commanded us to forgive, that God also commissioned them to be the timekeeper. When someone demands to be forgiven, that is a good indication that this a relationship where it is not wise to restore trust. But other times it’s not this manipulative. The person who hurt may not be directly rushing us, but their extreme remorse makes us feel like anything other than immediate restoration is torture. In this case, the rushed suffocation we feel likely reveals we are too central to this person’s life. They have no rest in God’s forgiveness, so they are leaning fully into our forgiveness.
4. We can feel rushed by God.
If we don’t easily and quickly forgive, are we saying that the person who hurt us is a worse sinner than we are? Are we downplaying how much we needed to be forgiven and what it cost Jesus? These kinds of questions leave us feeling like, as soon as we get past the shock phase of being hurt, God switches teams. Our perception is that initially God has compassion for our pain, but he quickly becomes more concerned about our struggle to forgive than he is about the offense that prompted our need to forgive.
Even asking these questions means we agree about the beauty of forgiveness. We wouldn’t feel rushed if we didn’t think the end result was good. We wouldn’t think God was on the side of forgiveness if forgiveness was bad. We want restored relationships. We want to be mentally and emotionally free to focus on whatever good things God has called us to do. We want to see the fruit of the gospel in our relationships.
The Messy Middle
The journey of forgiveness is one where almost everyone agrees on the beginning and end—the offense was bad, and forgiveness is good. But we get lost in the middle. We don’t like being confused, so we oversimplify the middle. When we’re not sure what to do “next” but we are sure what needs to happen at the end, we skip ahead and say, “Just forgive.”
There is much that could be said about navigating the messy middle of forgiveness; that could truly be whole book unto itself. But we can make a great deal of progress towards un-rushing forgiveness if we simply pause to acknowledge the middle of the journey is messy.
Think of it this way. Just because you have a good map (i.e., the Bible), a clear starting point (i.e., the offense), and an agreed upon destination (i.e., forgiveness) doesn’t mean the journey will be easy or will not involve delays. Anyone who has taken a road trip knows this.
As tempting as it would be to try to untie the messy knot of forgiveness, the possibilities for what that resolution should look like are too multi-faceted for a blog length article. But if we give ourselves permission to slow down, to feel less rushed in the messy middle, we will be much more effective at untangling the knots and resolving the real challenges that exist. When we feel less rushed emotionally, we can think more clearly and respond more wisely.
Anyone who has tried to complete a late project with a boss or professor standing over their shoulder knows how this stifles the quality of their work. In the same way, we will only be able to do the messy work of forgiveness with a clearer mind and emotions if we remove the rushed sense of God, friends, or our own sense of duty tapping their foot impatiently for this process to be over. Rest in the patient grace of God as you move forward, albeit slowly, along this journey.