The soul cannot forgive until it
is restored to wholeness and health.
In the absence of love - how can one forgive?

With an abundance of love, starting with one's self,
forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity.
-Nancy Richards

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Shack

Popular stories of "instant" forgiveness always concern me. The Shack, by William P. Young is no exception.

When I began reading The Shack, the author captivated me with a compelling story that began by briefly outlining a tale of family violence and estrangement. Mack, the central character, left home at the age of thirteen after spending two days tied to a tree while being beaten by his father for telling the "family secret" to a church elder.

Mack adapted to life on his own quickly, and journeyed forward by "burying" his past. As an adult, he opened his heart to create a new loving family with his wife and children - only to have an unspeakable tragedy strike again - the kidnapping and murder of his six-year old daughter.

Young eloquently captures the human spirit in Mack's questioning of how God could allow such a tragedy to befall His innocent children. He further questions if he can open his heart and trust his Heavenly Father, when his human father hurt him so deeply.

The author held my interest with the mysterious letter from Papa (God) inviting Mack back to the shack where he experienced the darkest moment of his past; the shack where he discovered confirming evidence of his daughters murder. Was this a sick joke? A trap set by the murderer? Or, a message from God?

Once inside the shack however, the story took on a "New-Age" detour that offered Band-Aid type platitudes and simplistic catch-phrases, rather than surgery for the soul.

The author does share some "pearls of wisdom" - especially in the messages of God's love for His people. Much of what he says in this regard is true; however, he dismisses any notion that God is just, fair, or has any rules, laws, or expectations; when in fact, our God of the Bible is both loving and just.

Which leads me to forgiveness: Again, the author offers some "pearls of wisdom" in that forgiveness is not about excusing, forgetting, trusting, or even necessarily reconciliation. Nonetheless, the god of The Shack sidesteps any prerequisites such as confession, repentance, restitution, and justice (Luke 17:3 - Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive).

After more than a days worth of conversations with Papa (God), Jesus, and Sarayu (The Holy Spirit) on the general principles of love, Sarayu heals Mack's human eyes so that he can see as God sees. As Mack looks out over a sea of God's children in the form of beautiful color and light, he notices one agitated light. When Sarayu reveals that light as Mack's dead father, he runs to embrace him in joyous forgiveness and reconciliation.

A few chapters later, Mack repeats this "magical" sort of forgiveness for the man who murdered his daughter even though we see no evidence of Mack working to heal his loss or deal with the injustice. Further, the murderer was never identified, caught, or tried for his crime.

Yet, within the space of a short conversation with Papa (God), Mack traveled the emotional distance from his desire for revenge to forgiveness:

Papa to Mack: "...You already know what I want, don't you?" (Kindle version, location 3573)

"Papa," he cried, "how can I ever forgive that son of a bitch who killed my Missy. If he were here today, I don't know what I would do. I know it isn't right, but I want him to hurt like he hurt me...if I can't get justice I still want revenge." (Kindle version - location 3576)

After Papa and Mack engage in a discussion on the power and necessity of forgiveness, Mack says out loud:

"I forgive you. I forgive you . I forgive you." (Kindle version - location 3629)

Then, Mack asks, "So, is it all right if I'm still angry?"
Papa was quick to respond "Absolutely!..."
(location 3634)

This sort of inauthentic forgiveness places an unrealistic burden on those who are unable to forgive by "magic." In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance." Additionally, it cheapens the journey for trauma survivors who have done the hard work to heal and possibly even forgive. (See Forgiveness and Abuse).

While it is true that forgiveness is made manifest by the love and grace of God, forgiveness requires our participation in the process. One of the dangers of encouraging premature forgiveness is that it usually doesn't last; thereby impeding genuine healing and forgiveness. Another danger is using premature forgiveness as a method of avoiding the truth, and feelings, or emotions that are too painful to "examine."

If we follow Christ's example, even Jesus expressed 27 verses of anger in Matthew 23:13-39 before going to the cross. If we hope to permanently forgive, expressing anger is an important part of the process. Additionally, it is interesting to note that Jesus did not utter the words, "I forgive you," Himself, but rather, He asked His Father who remained all powerful to forgive the unrepentant. ("Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Luke 23:34)

The true gift of forgiveness is in the spiritual and emotional growth we experience during an authentic healing process. God's power is truly fulfilled when the offender repents, the victim forgives, and both participate in the process. In the absence of repentance, forgiveness is not an obligation on the part of someone who has been harmed, but can take place with adequate healing.

As an abuse survivor, I for one, wouldn't trade the lessons I've learned by creating the space necessary to heal. Lessons about trusting others to validate my pain, anger, and sadness; trusting myself to safe-guard my own well-being; to respond appropriately to betrayal and injustice; to remain present with my feelings; to set boundaries; practice self-care, and take responsibility for my life. Through it all, I have experienced proof of God's love for me. All these "gifts" and more would have been lost with "false," premature, or instantaneous forgiveness, as well as undercut tangible, realistic, long-term solutions for real human suffering.

Forgiveness is not an event of immediacy. It's not a bolt of light that brightens the soul and burns the pain to ashes. Forgiveness is a slow transformational process. Hard earned life-lessons take a great deal of time and grueling work!

God doesn't promise to heal us by "magic," but rather invites us to trust that His Love and Grace will carry us through as we participate in our own healing journey.


Anonymous said...

that sounds like a very disturbing book. i haven't read it, but i wonder if the book is implying that had he "forgiven" his father sooner, his daughter would have never been murdered? was her murder "allowed" by god as punishment to the man for his not having forgiven his father? thus her murder showed him the way back?

i do think that sometimes people are pushed to forgive, *or else*. that if we don't "stop making life difficult" for those who have hurt us, then we deserve what we get when bad things happen to us.

if the character in the book was encouraged and/or able to forgive with little to no atonement, justice, or redemption (such as admitting wrongdoing or asking forgiveness) on the part of the offender, then to me, this sounds like another example of people being encouraged through religion, to ignore their anger and other necessary steps of healing, in favor of "forgiveness".

i'm glad you point out that one can still have faith, and yet still be committed to a path of healing that doesn't include "hasty forgiveness". sometimes i think that people believe that because their faith dictates forgiveness is so important, that so true healing is sidestepped in favor of acting forgiving. thanks for pointing out it is possible to still have faith, and yet follow a more truly healing path.

healandforgive said...

Hi MM,

Good question. Mack actually said to a friend, "Maybe what happened to Missy is God's judgment for what I did to my own dad." (He was referring to the time when, as a child, he put varmint poison in his dad's bottles of booze.)

However, the book makes it clear that this is not true.

Mack also asked Papa (God), "So, you use pain to force people back to you?" Again, this notion is dispelled.

The book doesn't indicate any sort of punishment for not forgiving. The premise is that Papa (God) wants Mack to forgive for his own well-being - so he can find more power in love and forgiveness than in hate.

In my opinion, forgiveness is often used as a method of "quieting" a survivor in order to maintain "status quo," which often short-circuits an authentic process.

Yes, we can still have faith yet be committed to a path authentic healing.

Anonymous said...

oh good, i'm glad the book makes that distinction that the man wasn't being punished for not forgiving.

and i think you're absolutely right about forgiveness encouraged to silence survivors to maintain status quo. that has been my experience. i think too sometimes people want you to not talk about or deal with trauma, because it reminds them of their undealt with pain.

i'm glad you articulate about an authentic healing process. thank you again.

healandforgive said...

i think too sometimes people want you to not talk about or deal with trauma, because it reminds them of their undealt with pain.

Very true!

I know I experienced that with all of my brothers.

Karen said...

Hi Nancy,

Forgiveness can be such a sensitive topic and one not easily understood. I'm still sorting through it myself even after reading your second book. I still need to get your first one.

I have to say that I fall somewhere in the middle of what you describe as forgiveness and those who feel it is a matter of flipping a switch or something magical. It's easy for me to separate myself from those who describe it as a magical experience because I did that for 25 years. It doesn't work. My struggle with your view on forgiveness is how do I not treat others like they are my offender if I do not take that first step in releasing my offender to God?

I believe forgiveness and restoration go hand in hand and are steps taken together in healing. My experience so far has been that I needed to literally tell God that I will not seek revenge on my offender nor do I wish for evil to fall on him. I considered this act as my first step of forgiving my offender just as Jesus forgave me long before He was on that cross. You'll also notice all throughout the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) that Jesus forgave many of their sins long before He was on the cross. Yes, they needed to repent in order to receive forgiveness but Jesus already had the gift of forgiveness to give them. That's what I consider what I did when I released my offender to God. I received God's gift of forgiveness and now I'm able to extend that to my offender when he repents. Forgiveness is not something within myself that I can give. It is a gift from God. I do believe this gift has to be treated well and handled responsibly but I do not feel comfortable telling myself or anyone else that they don't have to forgive until they reach a certain point in their healing. I feel that leaves us open to giving in to emotions that can lead us to destructive behavior in our relationships.

Nancy, you know I'm a big fan of yours and have been very much encouraged by a lot of your posts. I hope I have not offended you in anyway. I just felt to give my 2 cents. :) On a side note, I loved the book. It gave me a deeper understanding of God's love for me and His desire to be in an amazing relationship with me.

healandforgive said...

Hi Karen,

Thank you for your comments. You have not offended me in any way.

For me, one of the values of The Shack is that it has opened up conversation, dialogue and debate for so many to think about God in new ways.

I'll answer some of your questions that I outline in Heal & Forgive I:

In the beginning of my process I desperately wanted my mother to acknowledge my abuse and change her behavior (such as in Luke 17:3), however, when I realized that this was not going to happen, I received that acknowledgment from others. In that way I received some sort of justice - not revenge - simply justice. I never had a desire for revenge.

Through it all, even our during our estrangement, I never stopped loving my mother. Even before I "forgave" her, I didn't wish her ill, I prayed for her every day, and hoped that she found happiness in every aspect of her life.

Like you said, I "released her to God," but I wasn't ready to forgive her myself, and certainly didn't feel safe enough to have a relationship with her.

I wholeheartedly agree that forgiveness is a gift from God. I also believe that power is a part of the equation. My interpretation of the Lords Prayer is that Forgiveness flows down from the most powerful – God – to the less powerful – adults to children etc..

In other words, it is easy for a parent to forgive a 4 year old child who hits them, because they are more powerful.

However, it is difficult for a child to forgive a parent who continues to abuse their power by hitting them.

For me, part of being able to forgive was healing enough to equalize the power with my offender- being able to exercise boundaries and protect myself. I couldn't do this as long as I still felt like a weak, damaged child in the presence of my mother.

I agree with your statement: I do not feel comfortable telling myself or anyone else that they don't have to forgive until they reach a certain point in their healingI'm not comfortable telling anyone when they should or should not forgive. I think forgiveness happens on each individuals own time-table.

I also believe the scriptures tell us we must forgive after certain preliminaries are met, such as repentance. However, nothing says we can't forgive before repentance should our heart so desire.

I forgave my mother before she acknowledged my abuse. This was not an obligation on my part, but was available to me after so many people helped me heal.

After my mother did acknowledge my abuse, forgiveness came full circle with her participation.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. I enjoy the dialogue.


Karen said...

Oh, ok. I do see more where you are coming from now. I think we may be on the same page. I guess I see "releasing them to God" as part of the forgiveness process and that is what I encourage others to do. I also try to state very clearly that it is a process not a one time, "flip the switch" kind of event. Releasing my offender to God gave me huge relief of feeling like I had to do something with or to my offender. Then the real healing began and it definitely has been a step by step walk. I think it's hard to feel angry with someone and feel like you've forgiven them at the same time. I've found it very important to remember that just because I get angry over the behavior of my offender does not mean I haven't forgiven him. It's all part of the forgiveness and restoration process. At least that is the way it's been for me.

Thanks again and I really enjoy the dialogue as well.

healandforgive said...

Hi Karen,

I agree, it appears that we are on the same page. Terminology is often tricky and forgiveness is certainly complicated.

There are so many definition of forgiveness that even when someone says "forgive," we often don't really know what they mean.

Like you, I also see "releasing them to God," as part of the process. One that looks more like slowly turning on the dimmer switch rather than flipping a light switch.

I would use the analogy of slowly turning the dimmer switch as the "forgiveness process" and when the light finally "fully flips on" as actual "forgiveness."

Karen said...

Ooo, I like your analogy of the dimmer switch. Mind if I use that? :)

healandforgive said...

Please do! :)

Anonymous said...

I loved The Shack. It was a first time read that seemed to point out that forgiveness goes beyond even our own understanding of God. There has been so much negative input that many Christians won't even read the book. I think this is a solid shame for sure.

Who was God before there were words to explain him? He is still that same God. We should not be so small in our thoughts to avoid opening our minds to grand possibilities.

Forgiveness is the sea of perfection. Regardless of how long it may take to fully let go of our hurtful past, it is worth the journey. And, you can have compassion for those who have hurt you - and even love once there is understanding. There is really no need to qualify forgiveness or put limits on how to behave. When you are ready, just let go by simply taking every thought captive until you receive full release.

I am one of those who prays for healing for the whole world - from the past mistakes (that have nestled their way into even our DNA) all the way up to the future. I believe, through understanding (seeing others as God sees them) we can reclaim divine rest and healing through understanding and forgiveness. We are not separate from those who hurt us. He knew us all before we were in the womb - we all come from the same place. This helps me see that hurtful person as a creation of God - a person with purpose too.

Religion has an ancient way of making people somehow feel justified when the sinner has to pay for their sins. We hold onto this idea in society because letting go of that idea opens us up to too much broad-mindedness. We can't handle the thought of forgiveness wiping away the act of the wrong-doing of others - even though that's exactly what God does for us.

I do not say any of this lightly - I've been hurt too. Our family has struggled through two terrible murdurs. On the other side of deep pain, there IS healing because I have experienced it and it starts with purposing your heart to forgive. It has nothing to do with what the other person says or does or how they behave - forgiveness is a choice that YOU make. Once you have set out in your heart to forgive - all of eternity gets behind you and flood gates of joy and understanding open to wash away all the pain.

The act of forgiveness is greater and reaches farther than any opinion of man - including mine. I am yet to understand it's magnitude.

healandforgive said...

Dear Anonymous,

Forgiveness is a complicated topic indeed!

Thank you for joining in the conversation.

All my best,