Forgiveness—Who to Trust?
This reflection continues a blog series expanding on themes in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Forgiveness: Freed to Love. Earlier posts explored how the pamphlet came to be, confusion between forgiveness and reconciliation, one important reason I care about forgiveness—Jesus’ example, and the influence of personality patterns on our experiences of forgiveness. A final note for now:
TRUST IS THE MISSING PIECE OF THE FORGIVENESS PUZZLE FOR MANY. A friend told me she was surprised I could trust her so soon after she’d hurt my feelings. She had apologized. I’d had time alone to process. Imagine me crying, praying, and finding that sweet release into the Spirit that I name forgiveness.
Hmmm. Something surprised me too, but not about trusting that friend.
Since then, I’ve mused about who I’m trusting when I forgive and continue in relationship. I realized it wasn’t my friend, no matter how dear and trustworthy she is. With forgiveness, I don’t need to trust the person who “did me wrong;” I am trusting the Spirit of Love that can heal and restore me. My focus shifts to God. It wasn’t even ironic that I was in the middle of presenting a workshop on forgiveness. The Divine offered me a gold-plated invitation to practice while the topic was fresh in my mind and heart.
I’m grateful I had the self-awareness and spiritual tools ready for the moment.
How Trust Matters in Forgiveness
With forgiveness, it matters who we trust as we release our hurts, large and small. It matters more than we might imagine. It’s clear to me that trusting The Holy in forgiveness makes the practice sturdier than a purely secular approach. Our ordinary resources are so limited: People are by nature deeply entangled in habits of personality, patterns of self-protection, woundedness, and pernicious cultural influences. We need something beyond our limited scope and imagination.
Divine resources can work in and through us to open wider perspective, begin improbable healing, bring Goodness out of our messes, and guide us into fullness of Life, individually and in community. That’s what God does.
Trust in the Spirit helps make forgiveness genuinely freeing. However, trust is another religious term that can push buttons. I’ve turned to a dictionary and some word history to expand my sense of possibilities: “Trust” is a verb, an action. It means to rely or depend on, or to place confidence in. Trust allows us to do something without fear or misgiving.
Built for Trust
Humans are built for trust. It’s a crazy exercise to list all the ways we already trust: We depend the cashier to give us correct change at the grocery store; we rely on bridges to hold us up; we have reasonable confidence that the cars on the freeway will stay in their lanes as we hurtle along in the same direction. People couldn’t survive in relationship to the natural world or each other without some basic trust in how things work. We’re built for trust in the Divine too, but it can feel more like reclaiming a hidden treasure—the lost ease and simple confidence of a child.
With forgiveness, we need trust in the Holy beyond intellectual concepts or codified beliefs. That’s because we can think or proclaim a belief in a God of Love, but actually experience the Holy as more like a cosmic super-bully. Some religious teachings lean heavily this direction. To trust in the Divine with forgiveness may invite us to change or heal distorted images of God we’ve experienced unconsciously for decades.
Distorted Images of God
I’m not saying there’s one correct metaphor or name for God, however I do recognize that some images are more life-giving than others. A life-giving image of this Transcendent Mystery will reveal some of the “fruits” I learned in Sunday school: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5). We can recall additional life-giving qualities of the Holy from the Christian heritage: God is hospitable, merciful, creative, and just… Nurturing confidence in these facets of the Divine nature will help us forgive.
Where we don’t feel trusting “enough” to release into the Spirit (“forgive”), we can reflect on possible distortions in our experienced images of the Divine. Some distortions named in an article by Juanita Ryan, Seeing God in New Ways include:
- God has impossibly demanding expectations and keeps raising the bar.
- … is cold, distant, or only interested in facts and performance.
- … has much more important things to do than pay attention to me
- …is unreliable or abandons me.
- … rants and carries a threatening stick for punishment.
- …can’t be counted on, is loving one day, angry the next.
- …. is passive and unable to give needed help.
None of these reflect the joy of inner communion, connection, intimate loving Presence and guidance that sing through the Quaker faith heritage and many other Christian witnesses. …No matter the name or gender pronouns one applies to the Divine.
How do we heal from unhelpful God images so we can grow in trust, and remove hindrances to forgiveness?
You could explore trust through your own positive experiences: Pay attention to who or what you already trust with your hurts and inner tangles. Do you rely on your journal, a good friend, life-partner, therapist, spiritual director, or an elder in your faith community? If you can recall a solid sense of your own authentic trust, notice your posture, the emotional tone, and the thoughts that come. What is that trust like for you? We can envision that whatever we feel or think in those experiences surely echoes the greater trustworthiness of Divine Love.
It’s news to some that our images of God naturally shift through our lives of faith and faithfulness. We can intentionally expand them to nurture our sense of trust in forgiveness. Images may come from varieties of sacred scripture, poetry, nature, or personal experience. Metaphors of water have been particularly vivid and meaningful to me, especially through the prayer-poetry of Denise Levertov (d 1997): The Avowal and To Live in the Mercy of God. We can choose to turn toward images that reflect our best hopes and different ideals than may have been imposed on us or accepted by our younger selves.
New thinking can shift things within, but some of these distorted sensibilities are deeply buried. We have to learn to recognize them, then trace their influence. If you are willing to explore more, you could reflect on times of broken trust in your life. What happened to your images of and relationship with God through disasters, losses, life-wrenching changes? Were there times you felt the Holy let you down, wasn’t present or active? Maybe you later recognized the Spirit’s presence in healing or improbable good that came through regardless. Pray about it. Talk to a spiritual mentor or begin a more formal spiritual direction/accompaniment relationship.
God Is Nothing But Love
When folks on retreat or in spiritual direction with me get stuck with forgiveness, exploring trust in the Spirit opens way forward. Inner obstacles lose their power. A wider puzzle picture comes clear. If you’re having trouble with forgiveness, trust may be a missing piece.
There’s a contemplative chant from the Taize community that often sings through my head and heart these days, “Gott Ist Nur Liebe”. In English, the lyrics mean: “God is nothing but love./Give yourself to Love./God is nothing but love./Give yourself without fear.” It’s the warm invitation of the Divine in forgiveness.