Forgiving the Unforgivable by David Stoop

Forgiveness is no sweet, platonic ideal to be dispensed to the world like perfume sprayed from a fragrance bottle. It is achingly difficult. ~ Philip Yancey

A good friend told me about this book and I thought I would share it with you. In Forgiving the Unforgivable Dr. Stoop acknowledges how difficult it is to forgive certain people. We may consider an offense to be unforgivable when it is so out of the ordinary that it shakes our moral foundations, or when it is committed by a person we trusted and loved. What if the person who committed the offense has died or refuses to acknowledge what they have done? Dr. Stoop’s premise is that forgiveness is possible in all these situations. There is nothing that is beyond forgiveness.

Defining Forgiveness

It’s always good to define what you are talking about right up front, especially when the topic is forgiveness, which seems to have a different meaning for everyone. Dr. Stoop defines forgiveness using some standard dictionary and Biblical definitions.  Then he fleshes out this definition through a list of ten statements that he identifies as myths or truths about forgiveness. Here are a few that stand out for me.

  • Instead of forgive and forget, we should forgive and remember.This is to protect ourselves and not get hurt by the same person over again.
  • Getting angry as you work through the process of forgiving is not only good but it is essential. This is because through being hurt we have experienced a loss, and we are grieving that loss.We must experience anger to process our grief.
  • When we forgive we must give up feelings of ill will toward the person.This doesn’t mean we need to trust them again or even like them, simply that we don’t wish them harm.
  • Forgiveness is a process that might take a very long time. Quick forgiveness isn’t really forgiveness, it is just excusing the behavior.
  • Forgiveness does not require the participation or repentance of the offending party. It is not the same thing as reconciliation. Dr. Stoop says “Forgiveness is required of us believers, but reconciliation is optional and depends on the attitude of the offender.”

I can already appreciate Dr. Stoop’s perspective, because it is so different from the advice and counseling I have heard for years from Christian organizations about how to forgive.

Should we wait for repentance before we forgive?

Chapter Four, A Radical Forgiveness, talks about the difference between Old Testament forgiveness and the radical teachings of the New Testament on this subject. Jewish law teaches that when an abuser repents, then we must forgive. Many Christians also believe in conditional forgiveness, forgiveness only when the sinner has repented. Yet Jesus’ example is of unconditional forgiveness, because he died for us while we were yet sinners. This concept is hotly debated. When you dole out forgiveness even to unrepentant people, is that not cheap grace which lets people off the hook for their crimes? Does unconditional forgiveness mean that there will not be any accountability?  Is unconditional forgiveness even possible for us in our imperfect human condition? What do you think?

Three Paths

Dr. Stoop outlines three paths we can take after we have been harmed by another person.  The Path of Denial eventually leads to emotional shutdown or depression. The Path of Bitterness begins not by denying the hurt but by telling and retelling the story. Some of the steps that follow are accusing the other person, obsessing over the event, and seeking payment or revenge.

The third path is the Path of Forgiveness. On this path we begin by placing the blame appropriately. Sometimes it is obvious where to place the blame, but sometimes not so much. For example when a child is abused they often grow up feeling they are responsible for what happened, sometimes even being told that by their abuser. Or, if your abuser was another child, which is a common occurrence in Kent Academy stories, do you assign the blame to that child, or to the boarding school staff, or do you look back through years and years of child-on-child abuse to find the adult perpetrator at the beginning of the chain?

The Path of Forgiveness leads through the process of grieving, to forgiveness, possibly to reconciliation, and eventually we learn to trust others again.

Binding and Loosening

Something that really struck me in this book is the concept of binding and loosening. Matthew 18:18 says “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” By refusing to forgive, we bind the sin of the offender onto that person. When we forgive and take it one step further by asking God to also forgive that person, we loosen the sin from that person and allow the Holy Spirit to begin working in their life. Jesus modeled this forgiveness from the cross when he prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the prayer we can pray to begin the supernatural process where the Spirit can actually begin to change the offender.

This is the prayer that Stephen prayed as he was about to be stoned, and of course Saul was in the crowd acting as an observer. It wasn’t long before the Spirit was working on Saul to bring about the changed man we know as Paul. What an amazing and powerful thing if we hold the keys to releasing our offenders so that their lives can be changed.

Much More about Forgiveness

There is a chapter in this book devoted to forgiving ourselves. If you grew up in a legalistic boarding school environment and you suffer from guilt, you can appreciate the need for self forgiveness. Forgiving yourself entails going through the stages of grief, just as when you forgive someone else.

Nowadays forgiveness is becoming quite popular in secular settings. Researchers are even measuring attitudes and emotions and finding that they are linked to health issues such as cancer and heart disease. Dr. Stoop cautions not to remove forgiveness from its spiritual context. Forgiveness is best understood in relation to our being forgiven by God. I would go one step further and say sometimes that is the ONLY reason to forgive an offender.

I liked the message of this book that forgiveness does not mean wiping our memories of the offense, and does not require reconciliation with the offender. I would be putting myself right back into the path of danger if I did that. It does mean that you stop ill-wishing the offender, and that you pray for the offender. I find it is very difficult to be angry at a person when I pray for them on a regular basis.

If you are discouraged with the message that you should “forgive and forget,” if you feel guilty because you are not able to forgive an offense quickly (and are being told your attitude is sinful!), if you are feeling pressure to reconcile with your offender and keep quiet about the offense, I recommend this book for a fresh perspective on forgiveness.

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