Sunday, June 21, 2015

Anger and Forgiveness

Many of us who have been victims of some wrong take years to forgive those who wronged us. Some of us never do forgive, and we hold onto anger and hate until they turn us bitter and eventually separate us from God.

As Christians, we are often taught to forgive as easily and quickly and generously as Jesus forgave those who crucified Him. In forgiving, we let go of anger and hate and a desire for revenge. We gain peace and the ability to move forward only when we let it go of these negative feelings. In this view, anger is always a sin.

I'm not so sure about this.

It's big news when victims of violent crimes forgive perpetrators of evil, as the families of the victims in Charleston have publicly done. I can't help but feel awe of their faith and their trust in God to do such a thing, and I am comforted that their words of peace will work against the public retaliation and vengeance that could all too easily spring from such a crime. They have gained peace for themselves and generated peace for their city. At least, I hope that's the case.

But in a world mired in sin, anger--but not hate--can be healthy and useful when it serves justice. Think of children who are always forgiven as soon as they do wrong. Do they ever understand what they've done? Do they learn, change, repent? We are stubborn in holding onto our sin, aren't we?

An important component of our faith journey is accepting just what sinners we are. In realizing the depth of our sin, we realize how dependent we are on Christ, who took our sins--and the sins of the world--onto Himself. Only in recognizing how sinful we are can we ask forgiveness from the One whose mercy and grace are infinite, and only then can we truly forgive those who trespass against us. The families in Charleston are clearly well along this path of spiritual growth.

Too-quick forgiveness, however, can send an unhealthy message to criminals. Dylann Roof has heard families of those precious people he murdered in cold blood tell him they forgive him. Already? Eventually, yes. But how can he understand what he has done, the horror of what he has perpetrated, the depth of his depravity and the hurt he has inflicted? How can he ask forgiveness and repent?

Forgiveness is a process, much like grief. Some people move quickly through it, and others take longer. But the dead are unaffected by their loved ones' grief while criminals are affected by their victims' forgiveness.

I worry that other victims of violence will feel that they must meet the same standard set by the families in Charleston...especially victims who are also persons of faith, who feel that they are "bad" Christians because they cannot forgive right away. A healthy and just anger can carry victims through the awfulness following a crime, the slowness of court systems, the unfair loopholes and caveats that allow the guilty to escape earthly punishment. It can help abused children survive their abuse.

Anger isn't always bad, especially when it is coupled with wisdom and self-control. Scripture even gives examples of God and Jesus being angry at wrongs committed. Here's what Adam Hamilton, United Methodist pastor and author of a wonderful book on forgiveness, has to say about this kind of anger:

"I think anger is a normal response to something horrible that someone has done...and that's actually healthy to have, to feel that. At some point you have to figure out, 'How do I let that go?'"
Anger, unlike hate, can be like fuel. When allowed a controlled burn for good purpose, anger can give energy and motivation to change. When it gets out of control and is coupled with hate, as recently happened in Baltimore, anger becomes an evil itself.
So righteous anger can be good as part of the process of forgiveness, but as Hamilton points out, you have to know when to let it go. The Dalai Lama once met an angry woman who had survived horrid child abuse at the hands of her father. He asked her, "Do you feel you have been angry long enough?" What a powerful and important question we all need to ask ourselves!
Wisdom comes from knowing when to let go of anger, when it has done the good it can do and now just holds a person back. Like a two-stage rocket system, we can use the anger to get free of the gravity of the situation, but eventually we need to let it go and use a different system for moving forward. God is our guide in the timing of letting go.
If you are experiencing anger toward someone who has done evil to you or your loved ones, don't panic or feel bad about yourself because you're angry. Invite God into that anger, and let Him direct your energies toward justice and ultimate healing for yourself and for those who wronged you. Fight hate and revenge, but let your anger be righteous and serve Him. Invite Him into that process of forgiveness.
And evil will be overcome.

Note: If you're struggling with forgiveness in any situation at all, I strongly recommend Adam Hamilton's book Forgiveness: Finding Peace through Letting Go. It's not a long read, but it is a powerful one.

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