Friday, February 27, 2009

A Deeper Look at True Repentence

As a society in general, repentance often is assumed on profession of a desire to change, rather than an actual demonstration of change, but that is a terrible standard. Any seasoned liar can cry on command and be convincing; any good con man can explain his actions just as convincingly. Some things are serious enough that we have to take them seriously, no matter how we feel about the person in every other aspect of his life. Sometimes, skepticism has to be the foundation, even though that goes against the ideal for which we strive in all other areas of our lives.

Also, some things are serious enough that repentance needs to include an acceptance of a complete prohibition on the situations that caused the sin in the first place. Those who have abused children should be excluded from any situation where they are alone with children. Period. Professed (or even genuine) repentance notwithstanding. To the end of their mortal lives. No possibility of parole. Period. We can believe their assertions of a changed heart, but we need not create situations where what they did can happen again. Someone who truly has repented sincerely and completely, and who is truly humble, will understand that societal need for certainty and gladly acquiesce. In fact, that is one of the truest fruits of repentance, imo - the humility to change “normal activity” to submit to the best interests of society. If someone fights such a restriction, arguing against it in any way, even by claiming full repentance, I believe we must retain a degree of skepticism and be even more diligent in our duty to protect the innocent.

Some things are serious enough that they need to be categorized outside the norm and treated differently. Jesus himself categorized the abuse of children as so heinous that painful death is better than what will happen to the abusers. That came from the one who said, "Neither do I condemn thee" to a woman caught violating one of the most serious commandments of the time. If he was willing to avoid condemning the adulteress but spoke so severely about child abuse, I think it requires a different approach than other issues.

"Forgiveness" is one thing; ignorance and acceptance of ongoing temptation is quite another; giving the impression of more concern for the perpetrator than the victim(s) is still another. Some things simply are so horrific that they deserve a life sentence, repentance notwithstanding - and anyone who truly is repentant will understand and accept that need. Again, if they fight that restriction, they aren't sufficiently humble to recognize the need for it - which means their heart really hasn't been changed fully - which means there still exists at least a sliver of possibility that it will happen again, given extreme pressures and the perfect storm.

Think of an alcoholic or a drug addict. It is a central, fundamental tenet of rehabilitation that such a person must accept the need for eternal diligence - abstaining from any situation where alcohol or drugs are flowing freely, particularly where there is no support structure to help avoid temptation. That is the manifestation of real repentance - the willingness to do absolutely anything in one's power to avoid any situation where past mistakes are a legitimate possibility. If a drunk or drug addict won't commit to avoiding bars and crack houses, why must we accept their promise that they are the exception - that there simply is no way they will succumb even if they go dancing with the devil?

Again, someone who has repented fully will understand that; someone who has not, will not.

I could pray and ask God this question: "Should I call this man who has sexually abused his daughters to be the Primary Teacher in his daughter's class?" If I did, I would expect one of two answers: 1) total silence for asking such a stupid question; or 2) a solid, spiritual slap upside my head for asking such a stupid question.

Finally, we conflate forgiveness with love WAY too much. They are NOT the same thing, and misunderstanding forgiveness plays a HUGE part of the problem in this type of discussion. Suffice it to say that, unless an abuser has abused me, my wife, my children or someone close to me, forgiveness is not my right. It is left to those whom he has harmed in a real way. "Easy forgiveness" does not help the abuser - and it can be devastating to the victim and those close to the victim, who of necessity will struggle greatly to be able to do what appears to be so easy for us. "Easy forgiveness" of this sort is a result of ignorance and misunderstanding, and it needs to be rooted out of our lives in every iteration. Pure forgiveness is wonderful; easy and indiscriminate forgiveness is abominable.

10 comments:

Kent (MC) said...

Ray, I agree with most of what you say here, but it leaves me curious as to what you view as the appropriate way to extend forgiveness.

Anonymous said...

this all gets harder and harder as the evidence mounts with time of my own venality and consequent unfitness to judge,in fact recently I've been thinking that it is sinful for me to make the least judgement-which of course I do all the time.However,i agree that there have to be fruits meet for repentance,which must include avoiding all possibility of sin.I really value your clarity.
The difficulty for me is around forgiveness.I share your discomfort with easy forgiveness,I find it facile,yet the Lord's standard is that it is for us to forgive all men.Perhaps we should read this as aspirational-that we should be actively engaged in the process of striving to forgive all those who have offended us,a bit like the injunction to be ye therefore perfect.I have experienced the resolution of finally finding it in myself to be able to forgive,and realising how this had held up my progression up to that point-but I genuinely don't see at present how I could have achieved this with integrity otherwise.But I do think there is a danger of making one's forgiveness dependant on the repentance of another,which leads to a loss of autonomy and compounds the harm of the sin.It's important that we remain masters of our own destiny as far as possible should we be sinned against.
My sister was killed in an accident some years ago,and at the time I wanted to find the young man who was held responsible in order to offer him my forgiveness.I felt that one young life had anded and another should not be ruined.Of course, this was easy as there was no malice involved.I have felt sad since that I did not act on that because of the feelings of others.I think maybe we should be striving to do all the forgiving we can.

Papa D said...

"what you view as the appropriate way to extend forgiveness."

Kent, I think that varies dependent on the situation - the sin. In general, for sins that don't have an element of such seriousness that precautions need to be taken indefinitely, I believe in the concept of "forgive and forget". I'm not sure "forgetting" always is possible on our own, so I believe we need to pray for help in that forgetting, but at the very least we can "forget" in the way we treat the person. We can refuse to "hold them accountable" in practical terms. We can be gracious in our thoughts, let go of our hurt and bitterness, embrace them as true friends, TREAT them as if the sin never occurred.

This post is more about the extreme situations where accountability really must be a continued part of true repentance - where "forgetting" simply isn't an option. I really am not talking about "typical repentance" in this post, where complete change can be assumed without much danger of severe harm if it actually is not so - and where it is fine to continue to be tempted by one's surroundings. I'm talking about situations where the nature of the sin is such that true repentance requires obvious, diligent avoidance of temptation - like an alcoholic or a child molester.

What I'm saying fundamentally is that there are situations where, for the sake of the community, extended "restrictions" need to be in place EVEN IF we personally are convinced that someone truly has repented fully. I'm also saying that the truly penitent will understand that need and not fight it.

Papa D said...

"I do think there is a danger of making one's forgiveness dependent on the repentance of another."

Amen, Anonymous. I agree totally with the command to forgive all men. I just see it in the traditional Jewish vein - that I have no right to presuppose that I can forgive someone who has not harmed me. That, I believe, is the heart of "easy forgiveness" - that I claim the right to forgive someone who has harmed someone else, thus making their struggle to forgive somehow a condemnation of their sincerity or righteousness.

I can't judge how difficult it "should" be for someone else to forgive someone who has harmed her - specifically because I can't see into her soul and understand how deep and terrible the harm might be. Therefore, it's not my place to say whether or not someone else "can" fully forgive someone else. I simply know the ideal - that we strive to forgive all who have harmed us.

I need to focus on myself - and if that means I need to "forgive" those who harm others due to my hypersensitivity to harm, then so be it. I must forgive them. However, I simply can't hold that standard up for everyone and expect them to hurt for all and actively, individually forgive all who harm others.

Frankly, that kind of outlook can lead to an extreme of seeking to know who hurts whom, which can lead down a rabbit hole of assigning blame and judging in order to forgive - and that is not a healthy path to follow. I think a more productive pursuit (and better foundation standard) would be for each of us to pray for the ability to "generically forgive" all who do not harm us personally - actively "forgetting" about those cases, if you will.

Anonymous said...

My daughter travelled in Rwanda,working for a charity that seeks to put international pressure on governments to comply with their own constitutions.As part of that process she encountered a young woman who had lost her family,indeed her society,as the consequence of the genocide.She said that she felt that only God had the right to forgive the enormity of horrors she had seen.That feels at some level right,but how does one live side by side with others whom one cannot forgive?Perhaps this young woman has been able to hand that over to God.That surely is an act of grace,if it is possible.
Does anyone know of any writing by the likes of Desmond Tutu-having heard him speak about the truth and reconciliation committees I'm struck by his will to build civility,and his grasp of both justice and mercy.
Papa D i believe that the Quaker community did at one time have an initiative whereby they befriended convicted paedophiles and attempted to integrate them into broader society on the basis that this was the best way to ensure scrutiny.I found it both radical and ultimately sensible.They are so good at practical christianity.Rather them than me though.I hope your idea of continuing accountability has some currency in the church-that's not been my experience as I guess it's easy for people get lost from view over time,quite apart from establishing conviction without recourse to the legal system.This must be troubling to those in authority.

Papa D said...

"She said that she felt that only God had the right to forgive the enormity of horrors she had seen."

I agree with this sentiment IF she meant that none of us can forgive someone for what he does to others - and that when someone does something so horrendous to so many that human forgiveness is not enough. I think that's included in the statement, "I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive."

I just now had a thought. What about someone who kills someone else who has no family to mourn for the dead and forgive the killer? What about someone who kills a homeless man or an elderly woman living all alone with no survivors and no real friends? If there are no mortals to offer forgiveness, perhaps it really is only God who can forgive. Again, I haven't considered this before now, so I'm just free-flowing and will need to think about it some more.

That brings out an interesting point that I have understood for a while but never framed in this exact way - that the purpose and focus of forgiveness is different for us and for God. We are to forgive primarily because of the effect not forgiving has on us. (Only sometimes can our forgiveness actually affect the perpetrator of our harm.) Our forgiveness doesn't change a thing about the eternal reward of the person who hurts us, as they can be forgiven by us but not by God. We can be merciful in our own judgment, while God can meet whatever punishment is appropriate.

Otoh, God's forgiveness is focused on the person who harms - determining the correct action with regard to their eternal condition. Our challenge is to let go of our natural tendency to want to "play God" and think we know what his final judgment will be.

chococatania said...

This is a very thought provoking post - thanks.

I have been thinking about repentance and forgiveness a lot lately. So far - when it comes to forgiveness, I have felt that there are times where forgiveness is truly a process.

The process of forgiving opens our hearts - as it takes so much humility to be willing to let go of the pain caused by the perpetrator. It is when we go to the Lord humbly - and readily forgive the person that hurt us - that our heart is also able to receive the healing power of the atonement.

Above all - we need to follow the Spirit. I was in a situation where I had to forgive another person, and I did forgive him, but I knew that I didn't need to trust him. The Spirit manifested this to me - I needed to be sure that I was not doing something that would eventually cost my eternal life or the lives of my children. However, this didn't take me off the hook as far as forgiveness is concerned. Because I chose to forgive, I was blessed with a greater portion of the Spirit (as my heart was not tied up in anger). I have been able to "forget" the ways this person has wronged me (the forgetting part can be hard, but I think remembering pain is a way that Satan tempts us to feel hurt again and sorry for ourselves; therefore, undermining the healing effects of the atonement). And even though I have forgiven and forgotten, the Spirit of discernment has been with me to know that I cannot trust this person.

I really think that concerning repentance/forgiveness (especially the forgiveness end) can be solved if we are living close to the Spirit. If we have the Spirit with us, and we have charity with us, then we are not easily provoked. We are long-suffering and kind: thus eliminating the need for "easy" forgivness because we probably weren't hurt in the first place.

So many things can be answered by the simplicity of staying close to the Spirit and then doing as it prompts.

Anonymous said...

Choc-it is lovely to me to that you would share such sacred experience here,forgiveness has taken me to the edge of my spiritual capacity and I'm aware that it requires the most noble capacities of our souls.Respect.I would hope that no more will be required of you,but I'm only human.
Ray,I'm clueless re the nacle and am entirely intimidated by the level of debate here and elsewhere,just love to know that we can grow together.

Papa D said...

"And even though I have forgiven and forgotten, the Spirit of discernment has been with me to know that I cannot trust this person . . .

So many things can be answered by the simplicity of staying close to the Spirit and then doing as it prompts."

Choc, about all I can say to that is, "AMEN!"

"just love to know that we can grow together."

Anonymous, "and amen!" Honestly, that's my favorite part of blogging - the growth and insight I get reading other people's comments. I find so many true gems so frequently - just like in these comments.

Joe said...

My goodness, what a post. Absolutely love and agree with what Chococatania said. As someone who has never went through something even close to being grossly hurt by someone, I don't know or think I could possibly have the right to even give some kind of opinion, other than what we are directed to do in the scriptures. Some sins are so gross and severe in nature, I think what you quoted is right, Ray...Only the Lord can decide what is forgivable - "I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive."