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The forgiveness myth

The act of forgiving isn't always as tidy as we might imagine

By Trisha Elliott

She suits anyone's notion of a great-grandma, from the buttoned-up cardigan to the orthopedic shoes. Gathering herself, she describes how her father repeatedly assaulted her as a child. At first she hid in her bedroom closet, but she soon came to realize the futility.

At 14 she had her father's baby. Now from her remote-control recliner, with her father long-dead, she says, "I'm a Christian. Does that mean that I have to forgive him?" Stock responses can't touch this darkness. There is no room for pat answers. Does forgiveness need to come out of the closet?

The Christian story is a tidy one, its loose ends sewn under the banner of Good News: Sins are forgiven. Disease is healed. Death is conquered. The prodigal son runs into the arms of his compassionate father. He's given the best robe. The fatted calf is killed. There is a banquet. Christendom smiles. Ah, there it is -- forgiveness. Neat. The problem is that life isn't. Her life isn't.

She is ignoring the ringing phone and the cat purring loudly on her lap. She says that she never received an apology from her father, not a real one. He muttered "I'm sorry" once when he drank his money away. Now he's dead, a heart attack. There will never be an acknowledgment or a sincere apology. There is no chance of reconciliation. Forget Luke's prodigal son story; forgiveness is useless here.

What do kisses, hugs and banquets have to do with an 89-year-old whose assailant was as unrepentant in life as he is cold in death? God knows that a single story doesn't suit all. So there are others. One in particular. Older and less sanitized, it's a forgiveness story worth telling.

After a stressful day of shearing, while the sheep fought and Laban's sons sang songs, spun stories and drank excessively, Jacob gathered his family and his fair share of the flock and left his uncle's home in Haran. Days later, Laban and his sons caught up to Jacob in the mountains of Gilead intent on settling a score. They accused Jacob of stealing the teraphim, the household gods that sat firmly on a mantle in their Aramean home. Jacob bristled with righteous anger as Laban and his sons ransacked the tents, first his, then Leah's, then Rachel's. He blistered with shame when he heard Rachel, who had in fact stolen the gods, tell her father that she couldn't move off her camel's saddle with its convenient wicker baskets because she was in a woman's way. Jacob's rage snapped; 20 years worth of offences erupted. He remembered it all: how after seven years of hard labour to win Rachel's hand, Laban deceived him on their wedding night; how he worked an additional seven years in order to marry Rachel; how during those 14 years slaving in the heat of the day and freezing in the cold of night, Laban held Jacob personally liable when it was obvious that wild beasts had torn apart his sheep; how Laban continued to deceive him; and how he was now calling him a thief! Jacob's sons gathered around him, Laban's around him. They were so close that they stood in each other's shadow.

Forgiving and forgetting would only be possible if memory came hard-wired with an off switch. Human minds are no more capable of forgetting past events than Jacob was when he rhymed off a two-decades-in-the-making list of offences. Memory isn't as fickle as a few forgotten dates, names and phone numbers suggest. Memory is preserved in the deep recesses of the soul like mothballs in a closet. The slightest thing can conjure a memory, particularly a painful one.

Conventional understanding of forgiveness heaps the burden of forgetting and the sometimes unhealthy task of restoring a relationship upon the wounded. The problem with forgiveness is that while it is universally embraced as a Christian aspiration, its definition is elusive. Even the word "forgive," as written in the Bible, is ambiguous. The original languages of the Bible, namely Hebrew and Greek, have several words for forgiveness, each having slightly different connotations: kaphar (to cover, blot out or satisfy); nasah (to lift or bear); salach (to put something behind, back or under foot); aphiemi (to send away, cancel or release); charizomai (to give pardon or afford grace); and apoluo (to release or unbind). Forgiveness, it seems, defies a single interpretation. The word is as complicated as the act of forgiving itself.

Yet there is some clarity. Individually, the Greek and Hebrew words afford a richly nuanced picture of forgiveness. Collectively, and in context, they suggest that forgiveness has something to do with the removal of a weight, perhaps the weight of guilt, vengeance, indebtedness, sin or shame. The kind of weight that keeps one pressed to the past either as a perpetual victim or offender.

The woman slouching in the recliner chirped her way through life in an attempt to hide her weighted heart. She claims that she would have been able to carry on just fine if the child she had offered for adoption at 14 hadn't shown up on her doorstep two days ago, the spitting image of her father. She is sobbing. Her shoulders are shaking but her tears have been buried so long that they struggle to surface. Again, she says, "I'm a Christian. Does that mean I have to forgive him?"

Tension suspended in silence. Even though Laban had suggested making the peace covenant and so should have erected its monument, Jacob forgave, knelt down and rolled a stone between them. "Gather some stones," he ordered the others. Soon there was a heap so high that when Jacob and Laban broke bread on the pile they had to sit on their knees. While Laban and Jacob each agreed to the principle of the covenant, they didn't agree on what to call its symbol.

"Jegar Sahadutha," Laban called the pile of stones in Aramaic.

"Galeed," Jacob countered in Hebrew.

That's how the monument of peace stones, a weighty birthmark on the nation of Israel, came upon two different names. In the end, it wasn't about what it was, but about how it was going to be.

Relinquishing the weight of harm involves reaching for holy peace. Forgiveness is opting for peace with others, with ourselves, with our God. Broadly defined, forgiveness begins the moment that we are faithful enough to give ourselves over to the love of God and set down the stone as Jacob did before Laban. Sometimes forgiveness is the process of setting the same stone down over and over until the desire to carry, visit or throw it is forgotten. When Peter asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive his brother, Jesus replied, "not seven times, but 77 times." Christ knew that there are times when forgiveness requires infinite revisiting.

Forgiveness as opting for peace doesn't mean condoning what has happened or pretending that it didn't happen. It doesn't mean removing consequences. It isn't contingent on true repentance. A peace monument in Gilead testifies that it doesn't necessarily mean restoring a relationship either. Forgiveness can be as much for those whose prodigal someone has come home as it is for those whose prodigal someone is yet to come home and who might never. Forgiveness is the enabling freedom that led to Jacob's final but peaceful departure from his uncle after two decades of abuse. It is also the freedom that led to Jacob's moving reconciliation with Esau, the brother he sold out for a bite of stew. Though it can have different endings, the effect of forgiveness is always the same: enlightenment and peace. Forgiveness is opting for the peace of God, an option that never expires, not after two decades of hiding out with a corrupt uncle in Haran or 89 years of hiding inside a sick father's closet.

She pulls herself up with her walker, shuffles past and reaches the door, visibly drained. The Christian mandate isn't to tell her that she has to forgive. It is to be a supportive presence while she withdraws the stones of painful memory, piles them into a monument of peace and dedicates the whole heap to God. One day she might call that process, that piece of her life she'll build and revisit, "forgiveness," but not today. Today she's straightening her shoulders, setting her face and getting ready to smile. Today she is deciding to carry on. God bless her.

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