Forgiveness and Containment (2008)

Why we need to forgive

In a perfect world there would be no need for forgiveness. Everyone would be patient with everyone else, no one would think too highly of themselves, and everyone would look out for the good of others. But that’s not the way the world is! No relationship exists long without tensions. No community continues long without conflicts. No human interaction occurs without the possibility of pain, injury, suffering, and alienation. The hurts are always there. Misunderstandings inevitably happen. There is invariably trouble. Without forgiveness, community is only possible where people are superficial.

Forgiveness is never easy. But when we do not deal with broken relationships, we fall prey to anger and bitterness. The resentment we carry has often been planted by years of hurt and disappointment, and the roots are often deep. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger” (Mere Christianity, p. 104).

In the short run, it might be far easier for us to simply “forget” rather than forgive. However, the mind is rarely so accommodating. It is very difficult for us to forget experiences and the feelings that go with them. If we make a practice of sweeping hurt under the rug, one day we will undoubtedly trip over the bump. In the long run, we need deep and penetrating acts of forgiveness to be free.

When Jesus taught the disciples about forgiving, Peter posed a question. He pushes his mind to the limits of what he thinks is imaginable, “Should I forgive seven times?” Jesus’ quick reply is mind boggling, “No, seventy times seven!” That’s 490 times!

Jesus is teaching about the everyday reality of most humans. He really gets it about us. He knows that the release we experience when we forgive is vital to our growth and health. He also knows that it is far from easy in our current condition. So when you or I attempt to forgive someone who has hurt us, we are likely to succeed in fits and starts at best. I may forgive my friend today and find that thoughts of the harm/injustice flood me again tomorrow morning, so I need to do so again and then by noon, perhaps again by dinner and then three months later.

Sometimes our pain seems like a monster that will not die. We visualize ourselves dropping a huge bundle (the sin against us or the offense we feel) into the deepest part of the ocean and imagine that we have rid ourselves of it at last. Weeks, perhaps years later, it all comes back like a Creature from the Black Lagoon. We find that we have not really forgiven that other person. Where can we expect to find the fortitude for such efforts? We must turn to God not to ourselves. We do well to remember that we are forgiven first, deeply, completely, without regard for our deserving. God forgives us and so from this truth, we forgive others…and forgive…and forgive.

Here’s the hidden invitation – God wants to enlarge us in the struggle to forgive as we have been forgiven. When Jesus asks for 490 to Peter’s 7, He is saying, “Keep doing it until your heart and mind move toward love and reconciliation by instinct.” And “Don’t think you’re failing at this forgiving thing if you have to repeat it – a LOT!” We all have to repeat it a lot.

What forgiveness is not

At first glance, it does seem like the Lord’s teaching is extreme – wouldn’t all this forgiving be cooperating with an abuser? It could be, actually. When there is continuous boundary crossing that moves in a cycle of abuse, we need to examine our situation and gather as much discernment as we can get. If you’re in an abusive relationship, please seek help. Circle Counseling therapists are ready to assist.

David Augsburger, a pastoral psychologist, wrote a popular books in the 80’s called Caring Enough to Forgive/Caring Enough Not to Forgive. He lists five reasons we should not forgive;

  • When “forgiveness” puts you one-up, on top, in a superior place, as the benefactor, the generous one, the giver of freedom and dignity (p.8).

  • When “forgiveness” is one-way, calling one person to accept the difference, absorb the pain, adjust to injustice…That’s not forgiveness, it’s loving submission (p.24).

  • When “forgiveness” distorts feelings by denying that there was hurt, disconnecting from feelings of pain, squelching the emotions that rise, pretending that all is forgiven, forgotten, foregone (p.38).

  • When “forgiveness” denies anger, acts as if it never happened, smiles as though it never hurt, fakes as though it’s all forgotten (p.52).

  • When “forgiveness” ends the openness of a relationship, leaves people cautious, twice-shy, safely concealed, afraid to risk free open spontaneous living… That’s private alienation. It’s individual estrangement (p.66).

How to forgive

What we want to do is get to reconciliation. So we need to pay attention to how we can recover from covenant-breaking and pay attention to how the covenant breakers can get back into an experience of our love.

There is, in some sense, a “forgiveness” that is a matter of leaving open the possibility of reconciliation, an unconditional loving, a general grace with which we can relate to someone with whom we are not reconciled yet. This forgiveness is “reconciliation waiting to happen.” We need a repentant and willing partner to experience reconciliation. Sometimes the partner we need cannot receive our forgiveness, so forgiving from our side is the best we can do. God’s grace to us in Jesus is like that, and we extend others that grace.

But true complete forgiveness longs for reconciliation and living in restored relationships. Ev Worthington’s R-E-A-C-H model is one way to describe the completed process of forgiveness:

  • Recall the hurt. We have to realize wrongdoing has occurred. Most of the time, we need to resist placing all the blame for a covenant break on one person in a relationship and recognize to what degree we have each participated in the wrongdoing. While we are doing that, it is better to focus on the action that is wrong, on the person’s behavior, not on the person himself/herself, on their character or motives. It is important to fully name the hurt or we can’t emotionally move forward in the process. We have to take the time to know our injury.

  • Empathize. Let’s find our love and reaffirm it. We need to change the way we think about those who have hurt us, not demonizing them as evildoers, but recognizing their worth and value in God’s eyes. We must act in love toward them with this view in mind.

  • Altruistic gift. Let’s release what binds. We need to overcome two obstacles: resentment (holding onto the past) and suspicion (holding back the future). Overcoming resentment means we stop blaming others, demanding the impossible, and fantasizing about what could have been. Overcoming suspicion means we stop demanding the other person guarantees they will not fail us again. Forgiveness is given as it has been given to us.

  • Commit. Then we can respond to the call from Jesus to do something new in repentance and forgiveness. Before we can forgive, we must recognize that a wrong has occurred, that both parties have acknowledged it and have dealt with it responsibly. “Whatever” and “No problem” don’t really cut it. It is important to make a distinction between love and forgiveness. “When repentance is overlooked, ignored, bypassed, or postponed, the appropriate response is love, not forgiveness” (Augsburger, 68).

  • Hold on. It may take some time to rediscover community. It is in a community that our practice of forgiveness is modeled, nurtured, reinforced. We will always be tempted to call it quits before reaching true forgiveness and reconciliation. The church (or some other group of caring people) can hold us accountable and help us follow through.

Which comes first: repentance or forgiveness? Is it possible to forgive people who have not acknowledged their wrong and committed themselves to change? In the general, impersonal sense, when we can’t have reconciliation, yes, it is possible to extend that kind of love. That’s like Jesus saying, “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”

But since the goal of forgiveness is reconciliation — bringing back together a relationship that has been torn apart, if there is no repentance there is no forgiveness in the best sense of the word. When Jesus forgave his killers; it was in hope for their repentance.

However, we can — and must — act in love toward those who have offended us. We must love before the other person repents, and even if the other never repents. This is unconditional love. It may not be possible to reconcile with people who leave our cells, our covenant, our marriage. But it is possible to love them.

2. A strategy for us to use as a team with very conflicted people

1) Don’t judge.

These poor people who are causing us heartache are undoubtedly struggling with major problems in themselves. It is tempting to “kick them while they are down,” or tidy up the church by sweeping them out. Often people call that “maintaining standards,” as if the church will be contaminated. We struggle to have enough confidence in Jesus to face things that are wrong or tragic with grace and hope. Whether it feels like a struggle or not we are called to bear with difficult relationships in hope. We are a circle of hope.

“Judge not lest ye be judged” is one of the Bible verses unbelievers know best. Yet Christians are known for being judgmental. People are tempted to condemn people in self-defense. In rare cases a “wolf” in sheep’s clothing will need to be judged so and released so they can come back. But we never condemn people like God can justly judge them; that’s not our right. Our message is reconciliation; until the end of time, that’s our main interest in every situation, for every person.

2) Contain the conflicted in love.

The angry, the hurt, the mentally ill, the unfaithful, the unaccountable, the disobedient can take us over, use all our time, demand all our attention and elicit all our emotion. The church is often a fertile field for the weeds of self-interest. They need proper boundaries. If they can’t learn them by themselves, we will help them by containing them. That means surrounding them like white corpuscles to a wound, or holding them like an out of control child, or hedging them in like a good herder. They need a safe place to heal or learn.

Likewise, we struggle to keep the difficulties we are facing in others from becoming part of someone else’s conflict, or to be drawn into someone else’s dysfunctional, damaging, or ill ways of relating. Individuals, and the church as a whole need to be safe from people who wound fragile hearts and upend the order in the church. That is another reason some people need to be contained in good boundaries.

Rather than letting things work out however they might, our pastors (or sometimes others) lead us to make a deliberate “container” for people to work out their issues and come to reconciliation, or not. A common incident is when people are considering divorce, or a relationship has experienced violence, or sexual partners have connected outside marriage and are separating. Individuals undergoing psychological problems may be good candidates for a container; their “sin” may not be against another person, but against themselves in some way.

Things to remember in order to “contain” a conflict-ridden situation

  • It is OK to be limited.

So often we feel we need to fix things only Jesus can fix, especially in a system like ours, which is idealistic and personal. We want to “go the extra mile” for people. We believe that Jesus transforms people and can deal with anything. But often our enthusiasm leads us into territory that might be beyond our limits. We’re trying to learn our limitations and to leave room for God to work. Some things need to be left to the Lord, and none of us are God. We need to discern when to “push it;” when to wait, and when not to wait. Matthew 18 is not a principle, it is the result of discerning prayer.

  • It takes time for the truth of a situation to surface.

Contrary to normal instinct, it might sometimes be better not to believe everything someone tells us “at face value:” whether it is about themselves, about one of us, or about our church. If it seems false, it probably is. It is often best to step back, prayerfully, and let things be tested and shown up for what they really are. It is always tempting to rush into a crisis with the good intention of solving the problem or being a help. But rushing in often results in us merely becoming another player in the conflict. Some crises have taken years to form; we are generally just seeing the latest scene in the ongoing drama. So, quite often, the crisis needs to be left to the people in it. We surely don’t need to get involved with only our first, untested impressions in hand, and we usually don’t need to get involved before we have been invited.

3) Why create a loving “container”

Create a container when there is a relationship crisis or some personal crisis which

    • will cause disruption in the church that is very damaging, especially to unbelievers or the most fragile

    • will disrupt the people working things out if it becomes public knowledge

We can create a container when there are intimates or acquaintances who are already involved with the troubled parties who can form a “free zone” in which people get space and encouragement to grow toward healing, reconciliation or resolution.

The idea of having boundaries or being contained is not attractive to many people. It might be hard to get consent for one’s distress to be seen and cared for in this way. A container might sometimes be formed without the consent of the parties. It might help to remind people that the natural, cleansing process of the body of Christ will eventually turn toward their behavior and results might be painful. We would like to help people repent and reconcile before they feel harsh light or shame. In rare instances the unreconciled parties might request a container to help them and would have an personal participation relationship with the container. Most of the time the container will be more independent of the conflicted parties so it can be an effective buffer for the church.

This idea of containment is biotic. Since we are the body of Christ, our functions are often like a body. When a body is injured, the blood sends white corpuscles to “contain” the injury and begin the healing process. We have people who are gifted “healers” and each of us may be called upon to exercise the ability the Spirit gives us to heal because we are in proximity to a conflict. Most of the time, the relationship or problem can be reconciled. If not, then the container may end up squeezing the invasive person or attitude out of the body, something like a sliver being pushed out of one’s finger. If we are confident, we might be good doctors, speeding up the process.

  • The container helps to keep the distress within appropriate boundaries.

Letting sin, despair, hysteria, or dysfunctional relating “leak” all over a cell or the church at large can be very damaging. Most people will only get innuendo or partial truths to deal with from public “confessions” and gossip. Mostly, they will pick up emotion and distress that says, “something is wrong.”

So as a cell, or as elements of our team, or as an entire team, we would do well to learn how to contain the conflicted in a loving embrace, without letting someone’s problems gush out and poison our whole mission. Sin, insanity, and evil are always asking for handouts and have no shame in demanding all our resources while receiving none of them. While we are preoccupied with lavishing attention on such situations, others who will receive our love and counsel are often neglected and our devotion to our cause can be diverted. So it is OK to not be drawn into the whirlpool of the distress and to say no to its demands if that is what one discerns is best, and it is generally wise to protect the church from being drawn in.

  • The container gives the distressed a place to heal and change.

The conflicted need a safe place, in which they know they are loved, to go through their process of growing the way they are going to go through it. Maybe we are like a human “padded room.” More likely, we are a shoulder to cry on. The desperate, the hurting, the betrayed, the angry, etc. need to get to the other side, and we can be like a life preserver for them. Whether they end up in reconciliation or break-up, it would be best to know that God’s people walked with them through it all. Sometimes people will not fit in our limited container, and we will need to admit that. (We have Circle Counseling to help us, and other resources).

4) How to create a loving container

What might “containing” mean?

  • A commitment to gather around the injured and injuring rather than shunning.

  • Honesty about what is happening in widening circles on a “need-to-know basis”

  • Sending in the connected and gifted and letting others circle in prayer.

  • Collecting resources in anticipation of the next crisis: shelter, childcare, legal help, psychotherapy, etc.

  • Protecting the vulnerable from premature judgment from the uninformed or immature.

  • Not going it alone. The pastors and Cell Leader Coordinators want to help when we feel over our heads. We are all members of a big team, supporting, praying, and strategizing for redemption and reconciliation. Our work is too much for any one of us to handle.

  • Letting couple, or parties, or individual tell their own story. They are not part of the container, they are enjoying the gift of containment. We are holding them. We are not having the trouble for someone, nor are we containing it to control the process. People have their own capabilities and they need to find their way, with God’s help and ours, to get to the other side of their present experience. This doesn’t mean, for example, that one of the partners in a divorcing couple would lead the container to give him or her what they want, or as a therapy group, or as a container for their ill will towards the rest of the church. The container is for reconciliation or, if that is not possible, for a peaceful resolution.

How does a container get started? How does it work?

  • It is best that a pastor name a group as a container. He or she will name the members and may call their first meeting. Whoever begins the process, will will need to ask permission of the parties involved. If the situation is dire enough, the group might be formed without their permission and just with their knowledge. There are no secrets kept from the people trying to be reconciled.

  • A container may or may not meet face to face. They may just acknowledge that they are all in the process and communicate how is best suited for them.

  • A container almost never meets as a group with the conflicted parties. Members may provide them services, may speak for the group, may intervene in various ways, but the group as a whole is not a personal resource for the parties. Instead, it is designed to encourage them to work out their trouble in a healthy way between themselves. The parties still have their mates, friends, families, pastors and professionals to help them in many ways. The container protects the space for these relationships to work things out naturally in their own time without infecting the church or being disrupted by public scrutiny.

  • There is no time limit for the container. The pastor, or whoever is the convener, will call it to a close when its purpose is completed, that is, when reconciliation or resolution is achieved. Generally, one to three months should be enough. Any longer and the container might derive an identity from the crisis and transform into a cell or team, which is not its nature.

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