sharkWhat do you do with an Unfair Hurt?

We had an interfaith conversation the other night about betrayal.

An Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, a Ramakrishna Vedanta Hindu Nun and I were each given the same case study and we were asked to explain how we as the leaders of different faith communities would counsel the person who had been betrayed.  What is the spiritual wisdom that our respective faith traditions have to offer a person who has been deeply wounded by another person?  Since the presentations last week, our good friend in faith, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger has reformatted his remarks into an article that can be found at

This was the case study on which all of our remarks were based –

A member of your community, Jane, has shared some of her personal emotional struggles with a colleague and friend. Only when she loses her job does she discover that her friend has betrayed her by informing their boss that she is under the care of a psychiatrist.  How would you advise her?   

And this is what I said –

jawsBetrayal is what the late Lewis Smedes, the theologian and ethicist, called “a deep hurt” (Forgive and Forget – Harper & Row – 1984 – pp. 5, 13).   When somebody who is close to you, somebody you “belong to,” somebody you were counting on to be your friend, somebody you trusted to be loyal, somebody you believed would keep your secrets (23) treats you as a stranger, or worse, as an enemy, then you have been betrayed and only forgiveness can heal that wound.

We suffer lesser injuries all the time that we manage with strategies for coping that are less than forgiveness.  We can navigate the ups and downs of our relationships with a good sense of humor, a modicum of understanding, the ability to excuse ignorance, immaturity and insensitivity, a willingness to be patient with flawed people, the conscious cultivation of tolerance, and the deliberate development of some thick skin.  Not everything is a federal offense.  But some things are; betrayal for instance.  And when you have been betrayed as Jane was in in our case study this evening – a deep, unfair, and personal kind of injury – then Christian wisdom says that forgiveness is your only real remedy.

glassForgiveness profoundly shapes a Christian’s consciousness.   When G.K. Chesterton was asked why he went to church, he answered: “To get my sins forgiven.”  This experience of forgiveness is at the center of what it means to be a Christian.  In my particular branch of the Christian family, we gather at the Lord’s Table every Sunday morning to break bread and pour a cup of wine in remembrance of the Gospel truth that Jesus Christ died for our sins (I Corinthians 15:3; 11:17-34).  And it’s this experience of being forgiven ourselves that creates the expectation in us as Christians that we must in turn be forgiving.

As Christians we pray this expectation in the Lord’s Prayer – “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  It’s one of the Beatitudes that define us as followers of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).  It’s a familiar theme of the parables of Jesus (Matthew 18:24-35) and it is a standard part of the core content of the moral exhortation that follows the exposition of the Gospel in the epistles of the New Testament. “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted,” Paul told the Ephesians, “forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (4:32).

As you might expect, these teachings create a profound sense of “ought” in most Christians.   As a Christian, Jane would know both morally and spiritually what she needed to do in her situation; she needed to forgive her colleague and friend.  But even though Jane had been deeply formed by the experience of forgiveness and fully instructed in the obligation to be forgiving as a Christian, Jane would probably nevertheless resist.  She’s been wounded after all, and deeply, and forgiveness feels and sounds counterintuitive when you’re bleeding. Fight or flight would be Jane’s lizard brain’s best counsel, and no doubt, Jane would be tempted.

I’m quite sure that part of Jane would desperately want to get even, she would want the person who hurt her to hurt just as much if not more than she has been hurt.  I know this because I have felt like this too.  Satisfying scenarios of the people who hurt us getting their comeuppance play out vividly in our imaginations, but rarely – and mercifully so – take actual form in our lives.  We are much more inclined to just want it all to go away.  Jane will be sorely tempted to stuff the whole episode, to stuff the relationship, stuff the emotions, stuff the injury, stuff the memory; just pretend as if nothing happened and that she’s perfectly fine.  But either way it’s controlling her, her fantasies of revenge or her futile efforts to try to manage her hurt by pretending; Jane is being consumed by her pain; it’s with her every waking moment; it’s controlling her.

The lifeline that Jane’s faith as a Christian throws to her as she flounders in this seething pool of hurt and hate is forgiveness, but in order for her to grab hold of it Jane is first going to have to overcome some very real objections.

  • First of all, Jane is going to have to deal with the mistaken notion that forgiveness will require her to somehow forget all about the very real injury that she has sustained; to act as if it didn’t happen, or worse, to act as if it didn’t matter. The general impression is that Christian forgiveness is soft.  It’s the way of a marshmallowy God who is sweet and sentimental, a God who winks at evil and tousles the hair of sinners saying, “There, there, don’t you worry about a thing, everything’s just fine.”   The cross at the center of Christianity will forever contradict such a distortion of Gospel forgiveness.   The cross stands as an eternal witness to the fact that forgiveness takes sin seriously.   God’s decision to forgive us means that He doesn’t wait for us who have wounded Him by the rebellion of our sin to make the first move.  Forgiveness means that God Himself takes the initiative to remove the obstacle and repair the breach that we have created by our malignant choices.  And for Jane to forgive the person who has betrayed her, she is going to have to make the same kind of decision.  She is going to have to stop fantasizing about vengeance or pretending that everything’s just fine, and make the first move herself in imitation of her experience of what God in Jesus Christ has done in order to promote the healing of the wound that she has sustained.

I really like Catherine Marshall’s concept of forgiveness as she develops it in her book Something More (37-39).  She suggests that forgiveness is releasing another person from our own personal judgment.  Taking our personal judgment off a person doesn’t mean that we agree with what he has said or done.  It simply means that we will not act as his judge.  You will not pronounce a guilty verdict on him… To keep another person under your personal judgment is to play God with him.  The Word says, “’It is mine to repay; I will avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).  And because He’s going to repay, I don’t have to.   (Jerry Cook – Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness – Regal 1979 – p. 20)

  • Second, Jane is going to have to come to the realization that she needs to do this irrespective of what the colleague and friend who hurt her says or does.  Of course, this is so much easier to do when there’s been some acknowledgement of the damage that’s been done by the person who has hurt us, and some expression of regret.  But even if they don’t, or won’t, we who are Christians still need to take our judgment off of the person who has hurt us because not to do so is to do even more damage to ourselves.   We finally forgive for the sake of ourselves and our own spiritual well-being.  Lewis Smedes put it well when he wrote –

Your memory is a replay of your hurt – a videotape in your soul that plays unending reruns of your old rendezvous with pain.  You cannot switch it off… (and) you are lashed  again each time your memory spins the tape. Is this fair to yourself – this wretched justice of not forgiving?  You could not be more unfair to yourself. The only way to heal the pain that will not heal itself is to forgive the person who hurt you.  Forgiving stops the reruns of pain… When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free, [and] you discover that the real prisoner was yourself. (133)

  • And third, Jane is going to have to be honest about the fact that as a flawed human being herself, that the forgiveness she extends in this situation is the same kind of forgiveness that she is eventually going to need to have extended to herself as well.  When somebody hurts us it’s easy for us to think of ourselves exclusively as innocent victims of other people’s cruelty.  But the truth of the matter is that we are as wounding as we are wounded. Clearly we are hurt by the cruel things that other people say about us and by the frequently stupid, typically selfish and sometimes brutal things that they do to us, but we do our own share of hurting as well by the cruel things that we say and by the frequently stupid, typically selfish and sometimes brutal things that we do.  It’s not “us” and “them,” it’s just “us.”  As Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it – “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  When we are hurtful we know that it’s not the only, or even the deepest truth about us.  And when someone hurts us we’ve got to be just as clear about the fact that it’s not the only or the deepest truth that we know about them either.

The grace we desperately need ourselves is the grace that we are then asked to extend to others as Christians, and so to help Jane move toward forgiving the person who betrayed her, as her pastor I would try to root and ground Jane in the foundational experience of her Christian life, how she has been forgiven by God in Jesus Christ, for that is the source and the force of her capacity to eventually be forgiving herself.

As Louis Every put it, when a Christian prays “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we are not negotiating a deal or striking a bargain.   It does not mean: “Lord, see how [well] I forgive, therefore forgive me yourself.”   [Instead] we must understand it to mean: “Please forgive me, Lord, and then we’ll know how to forgive like that.”  (We Dare To Say Our Father – Image Books – 1975 – p. 96)


I am deeply indebted to the late Lewis Smedes, a professor of ethics and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, in my thinking about forgiveness.  For many years I, like most Christians, knew the “what” and the “why” of forgiveness but not the “how.”   It was his writings on the topic that first introduced me to the “dance steps” of forgiveness that I have ever since applied to my own wounds and that I have offered to other wounded people in my ministry.  If you hear his voice in what I have said here about forgiveness it’s because it was his voice that taught me everything I know about the actual process of being forgiven and forgiving, and if what I have said here sends you to his writings to learn more, then my role as a “finger that points to his moon” has been accomplished.

Where I was directly challenged after this presentation was at the point of Fr. Louis Evely’s interpretation of the “trespasses/trespassers ~ debts/debtors” clause in the Lord’s Prayer.  The petition as it stands, my questioner observed, on the face of things reads like it is in fact a bargain.  It sounds like a summary demand for mercy from God based on one’s successful performance of mercy.  “So what made Louis Evely think that this was not the case?” my questioner wanted to know.  And while I don’t actually know what Fr. Evely would say, my hunch was and is that he would have reasoned from context.

The person who prays this prayer is a “disciple,” a follower of Jesus.  This is not a prayer that is being prayed by a person in order to become a Christian — to experience God’s forgiveness for the very first time.  This is a prayer that is being prayed by a person who is already a Christian — someone who is living in that forgiveness moment by moment.   The Gospel of Grace in the Sermon on the Mount is what the Beatitudes describe, especially “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 53) and “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).  These are not things that a person has to do, they are descriptions of who a person already is.  And the person who is like this is “hollow” to use the wonderful language of Fr. William Breault, S.J. –

A cup must be empty before it can be filled. If it is already full, it can’t be filled again except by emptying it out. In order to fill anything, there must be a hollowed-out space. Otherwise it can’t receive.  This is especially true of God’s word. In order to receive it, we must be hollowed out. We must be capable of receiving it, emptied of the false self and its endless demands. When Christ came, there was no room in the inn. It was full. The inn is a symbol of the heart. God’s word, Christ, can take root only in a hollow.

This hollow” is what God’s unmerited grace in Christ fills, and it is the experience of this filling that is the foundation on which the Lord’s Prayer is then built.   It’s why I can address God as “Father” in the first place (John 1:12-13).

My obligation and capacity as a Christian to extend forgiveness to others is rooted and grounded in this prior experience of already having been forgiven by Jesus Christ.  And since I am not, nor do I show much promise for becoming a “sinner emeritus” in the foreseeable future, my ongoing Christian life will continue to be shaped by the very same experience of forgiveness in which it first began (I John 1:5-2:2).  And this means that the petition in the Lord’s Prayer that asks God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” is just a link well down the line in the chain of grace that goes all the way back to the “unmoved mover” beginning point of the Christian life –

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.   But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

What I said to my questioner last week was that the pattern of I John 4:19 – “We love because He first loved us” – holds true for most things Christian. “We give because God first gave Himself to us in Jesus Christ.” “We sacrifice because God in Christ first sacrificed Himself for us.” “We serve because God first served us in Christ.”  “We seek because God in Christ first sought us.”  “We believe because God in Christ first believed in us.”    And, “we forgive because God in Jesus Christ has forgiven us.”  DBS+


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