Our Invisible Malady
Is the work internal before it becomes external?
For more than a decade I lurked around seminary and graduate programs. I applied, withdrew applications, visited campuses, began writing scholarship essays, got cold feet, tentatively began an MDiv because it just made sense and then it suddenly just didn’t make sense at all.
I knew I wanted an ecumenical program with a holistic bent that focused not only on the student’s future work in the formation of souls, but on the student’s own spiritual formation. I wasn’t sure if I would find that in a counseling program, a DMin or MDiv, or just a graduate program in spiritual formation. Over the past several years, though, under the guidance of a young professor and at a school with a rich history of spiritual formation and ecumenism, one program seemed to nail all of the qualities I wanted in a graduate program. But it was one class in particular that clinched it for me: Formation Through Struggle.
When I look around at the Evangelical western church, I see two primary contributors to the domino effect of fallen leaders, pastors, and ministers.
The first is education without formation. This produced leaders who hold seminary degrees where the focus was learning Greek and Hebrew, preaching tactics, systematic theology, and more, but not on the direct care of the seminarian’s soul. Young men (mostly) were coming into seminary with drive and passion and a vision for preaching and teaching, but their souls needed healing, wholeness, and perhaps some therapy. They were men who needed to learn to forgive or lament or weep or confess instead of it being assumed of them that they already knew how to do those things.
The second thing I’ve observed is formation without education. Many smaller churches, in particular non-denominational, charismatic, or Pentecostal churches, produced pastors and leaders who were mostly formed by life and their experiences, their own research and communities. They were informed and formed mostly by what was around them or what they produced of their own volition or gifting. Often times they were the sort who rose through the ranks of their own churches, promoted based on their faithfulness to the community (or loyalty to the leader and their vision).
First, I want to say that neither of these things are necessarily in and of themselves bad. An emotionally healthy seminary graduate is possible and a faithful leader with no seminary education and yet wide exposure to other views is also possible. We should rejoice when we see either one of these. But neither is the norm and if we find one doth protesting too much, it is probably evidence that they are or are led by one of the two descriptions above. The self-aware former knows they have formational work to do lest they cultivate an emotionally unhealthy church, and the self-aware latter knows it will be important for them to expose themselves to ideas and education outside their immediate circles, lest they cultivate an echo-chamber.
As I was watching these two different types of leaders shepherd their churches into emotional train-wrecks or intellectual echo chambers I realized I was in danger of becoming either myself, or worse, both. Not that I am shepherding a church, but I am aware that writing publicly is a kind of pulpit ministry and I should be attentive to the care of my own soul as I try to be a “shepherd of words.”1
This was a long way of telling you why I chose the program I’m in specifically. I wanted an education but I wanted one in which I would not be allowed to move through without some serious personal work in my own life and spiritual formation. I wanted a program where I couldn’t fake it to make it, but where I also wouldn’t be in an idealogical or theological echo-chamber.
The past year has been that, and never has it been more evident than in our last term, in which we took the class I mentioned above: Formation Through Struggle. This was one of our residency classes, meaning we spent eight weeks reading and then a week-long intensive together where we were in classes, practicums, exercises, spiritual direction, or small groups for about ten hours a day.
I don’t want to give too much away because a part of the program’s strength is the inability to prepare for some of the work we do. The work can’t be manufactured or turned on for the crowd. But there was one exercise that I found so noteworthy, I couldn’t believe it was the first time in my entire life I’d been taught how to do it.
I’ve been told to do it, I’ve been commanded to do it, I’ve had it done to me, and I thought I had done it ten-thousand times before, but until I did this exercise, I wondered if I actually ever had actually done it.
The exercise was forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the sort of Christian spiritual discipline that we all have Big Feelings about and Big Opinions about, and it’s also the sort that most of us assume we’ve done or are doing or will have to do again. It’s also the kind of spiritual discipline that feels almost impossibly difficult for some of us and seems like second nature for others of us. I’ve known people who have caused great harm to many in their lives and never uttered an apology and I know people who go around constantly saying they’re sorry and asking for forgiveness when they don’t need to. I also know people whose lives are withered away with roots of bitterness and unforgiveness, and others who pretend nothing hurts them and they’re fine, fine, fine, nothing to see here. I’ve been in Christian communities and programs where we’ve been told to offer forgiveness or ask for it, as though it was a thing we could check off a list before moving to the next thing. I’ve also been a part of communities and programs where, like Fitzwilliam Darcy, one’s “good opinion once lost is lost forever,” and forgiveness is never offered in any form.
But I have never been in an environment where there was actual teaching on and then exercising of forgiveness. As in, we learned something and then were sent off to spend a chunk of time with a grievance for a while, turning it over in our mouths and hearts, lamenting it, listening for God in it, listening for good in it, and then actively voicing forgiveness for it.
I experienced a great hurt two Januaries ago, a hurt that kept sending ripples into the future. Every time I was reminded of the hurt—and there were dozens of reminders everywhere for it—the pain rose up in me again. I felt betrayed, rejected, slandered, and misunderstood. In all that time—despite all the talking about me that they’d done—there hadn’t been one word from the injuring party to me. I kept feeling like real healing couldn’t take place unless they came to me and said, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Here’s how I harmed you. Would you forgive me?” And so I felt victim to the hurt and its ripples forever. I didn’t mean to be. I didn’t like to be. But forgiveness seemed to me to be a two-person job. One asked, the other offered. I was willing to grant it if only they would ask!
But I don’t think I cognitively realized that asking for forgiveness and giving it are two different things, and one can be done without the other. One takes great humility and the other takes great strength. And they take even more humility and strength if done alone instead of together.
Forgiveness, I am learning, means staring a wrong in the face and not sugarcoating it or hyperbolizing it. It means saying the harm as it is and not pretending it doesn’t hurt or making it seem unforgivable. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean restoration. It doesn’t mean we say the words “Will you?” and “I will” and then things go back to the way they were. The very presence of forgiveness in a relationship means that something has changed, we are no longer a blank slate with no mistakes or harm in our story. We can never go back to the way things were and we shouldn’t be expected to or expect to. Instead, forgiveness (either asking for it or offering it) can be a formative event in our lives that changes at least one of us for good. And forever.
Forgiveness also includes, I am learning, a proper lament. I’m not talking about wallowing or whining. I’m simply saying if we cannot name and lament what has been broken, I’m not sure our forgiveness is complete. A quick “I forgive you,” in response to a great harm doesn’t allow for there to be acknowledgement of what that harm has done to another person. We aren’t merely bodies to be wounded or hearts to be seared, we are image-bearers of God, and when we hurt, God hurts. And when we offer a quick and costless forgiveness to someone without paying attention to what hurts in our own selves, we move on while God is still lamenting.
Some of the work of forgiveness is to move nearer to God and whatever he is doing in us through this harm and healing. It is to be in union with Jesus as he feels our hurt in himself, it is to be union with him as he sits in the healing love of the Father, it is to be in union with the Spirit as the Spirit points to Jesus as the way of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not something we offer to another in our own strength, it is deeply embedding ourselves in the Trinity, moving as God moves, stilling as God stills, loving as God loves. And it is not easy. It is not cheap. It is work.
But no one had ever shown me how to do the actual work of forgiveness before. It felt nebulous, blurry, doubtful, always hanging around the question of “Did I?” and the statement, “I think I did, but maybe there’s more.” Doing this exercise in our residency required me to take a good hard look at the harm, but also to take a good hard look at the person who harmed me, to look at them with the eyes of Jesus, to not pretend what they have done hasn’t hurt me and others, but to see their harm with care-full eyes, to allow myself to feel tenderness toward them, to put myself in their shoes. It also required me to fully lament what I have lost since this harm, which has been a lot and a lot more than I originally thought when I began the exercise. I realized there is almost no place of my life over the past two years that this harm hasn’t touched. It has taken and taken and taken from me. It wasn’t just an event I needed to forgive, it was a series of small funerals. This exercise allowed me to name all of those funerals and grieve them each, give them names and then new names.
Since that afternoon during our residency, I think I can honestly say, “Yes. I did forgive and I do forgive and it’s done. I have forgiven them. They did not ask for it. They may not even be sorry at all. But I do not need their permission or presence to forgive them.”
Does this mean I won’t feel the ripples any longer? No. Does it mean they are absolved of their own sin? Nope. Does it mean I no longer have to deal with the ramifications of their sin or my own bitterness that festered during the past two years? No. Forgiveness doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Forgiveness is actually the acknowledgement that it deeply matters and my attention to it is worth giving. Avoiding forgiveness is a way of avoiding not only my own healing but my own complicity in the event.
. . .
I know this was a bit of a rambling post, but I thought it was important to be as clear as possible about the problems I see in myself and the world, but also offer a solution. I think, I don’t know for sure, but I think forgiveness may be a main culprit in a lot of the unhealth in the church we see around us and within us.
I think there is work to do to forgive our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, yes, and some work to do in forgiving our neighbors and leaders and pastors and teachers. But I wonder if we might start with the work we need to do in forgiving our very own selves? And, perhaps, even though God has done no wrong to us, in our inability to see the wholeness of a situation we still perceive he has, we need to forgive God?2
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Eugene Peterson, Subjective Spirituality