When You Just Can’t Forgive: a book review

Forgiveness and justice are two gospel threads, though, in many theologies, one often short-shrifts the other. Either grace is emphasized to the exclusion of justice, or justice, in the form of care for the marginalized, is stressed while grace remains opaque. In Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach, Dr. Bryan Maier holds up the importance of both, explicating the power of forgiveness and God’s heart for justice, in a pastoral and counseling context.

9780825444050Maier has a doctorate in psychology from Wheaton College and is associate professor of counseling and psychology at Biblical Theological Seminary. He approaches the topics of forgiveness and justice as a professor, a counselor, and a pastor who has walked with people through difficult things.

From the outset, it should be noted that this treatment on forgiveness is limited by a focus on interpersonal forgiveness, and not corporate forgiveness (13). So while Maier does envision justice, he is not so much talking about social justice, i.e., a response to systemic issues and institutional dynamics that impact communities, but individual and personal injustices (e.g. abuse, adultery, etc.).  However, he does speak realistically about the nature of sin and the way individual people are affected by evil. He validates the experience of victims and warns us against easy forgiveness.

After reviewing contemporary clinical models which describe forgiveness (chapter 1), Maier sharpens our understanding by offering 3 boundaries around the construct of forgiveness and 4 contours of a Christian approach to forgiveness. He asserts forgiveness is a response to a moral violation (i.e. no moral wrong, no need for forgiveness), that forgiveness is not simply a cognitive reframe (choosing to see reality differently) or empathy for the offender (33-40). Maier asserts instead that forgiveness, in the Christain sense: (1) is derived from divine forgiveness—Christ and his cross, (2) does not have personal healing as its primary goal, (3) is other-centered, focused on the offender, and (4) is active, not passive (41-43).

These four characteristics describe much of what follows in the rest of the book. Unlike a lot of contemporary forgiveness literature, Maier doesn’t think forgiveness is about making the victim feel better about themselves by letting go of the hurt. Instead, forgiveness is about the offender recognizing their error and repenting. Thus, forgiveness is not something to offer flippantly, or the appropriate response if the offender is unrepentant.  Resentment and anger may actually be our appropriate response in the face of ongoing sin. Maier writes:

Interpersonal sin is an assault on justice and the God of justice. Feelings of resentment or legitmate anger are both a logical and appropraite response to injustice. Resentment is logical if it is defined as merely an emotional reaction to what has already been recognized cognitively—that is, that an offense has been committed and the offender is not repentant. Resentment defined this way is also appropriate because God Himself reacts to sin with such strong affectively laden legative feelings. (53)

We forgive because God forgave us, and God’s forgiveness should typify our behavior (cf. Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:12); Nevertheless, just as God’s forgiveness of us requires our repentance, so our forgiveness of others ought to require their turning from their sin (64). God keeps score (chapter 5). So while Christians ought to always be ready to forgive, forgiveness is not the Christian response to ongoing injustice.  Anger with the state of things is, just as creation groans toward redemption (Romans 8:22-23).

Several biblical resources are helpful in this regard. Maier commends Romans 12:9-21, which brackets out vengeance as a Christian response. God himself will repay the evil done to us (80). He also recommends praying imprecatory Psalms (those Psalms where the enemies of God’s people suffer for the evil they’ve wrought), as comfort and assurance that justice will be done (96). He also describes a counseling session where his patient drew comfort from the book of  Revelation, because of its assurance that in the end, someone pays (82).

Maier goes on to describe the reality and benefits of forgiveness and to describe the benefits of forgiveness and justice and counseling.

What I found most beneficial about was how Maier confronts cheap forgiveness. I have personally been taught, and have taught others, to define forgiveness therapeutically and subjectively. I’ve thought of forgiveness as not letting the wrong done to me poison my soul. In Maier’s model, forgiveness is about setting the relationship right. This can only be done if the offender is repentant and trust is rebuilt. This deals objectively with the world of relationships.

I also appreciated the validation of anger, not just as an appropriate response but as a motivating factor in our work against injustice. I do not know an activist who isn’t angry, and I’m glad for it. Anger and resentment at injustice are meant to move us to action, to set the world to rights. Maier names these as important and legitimate responses in a world where all creation groans toward redemption (Romans 8:22-23).  In fact, I think this book may have changed my thinking a little bit about what forgiveness means, when to offer it and when to hold out.

In terms of a ministry aid, I think Maier offers some sound advice for pastors and counselors,  in walking people through the process of forgiveness. He uses the Bible judiciously, holding up the ideal of forgiveness without slighting victims of profound evil. By pointing to repentance as the normative standard for forgiveness, Maier doesn’t make light of sin, while still holding out the possibility of reconciliation and redemption. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from Kregel Academic and Ministry in exchange for my honest review


Healing Hatred in Rwanda: a book review

When John Steward arrived in Rwanda in 1997, three years after the genocide, he was greeted by Rwandans who told him in a friendly, but direct manner, “Welcome to Rwanda. You have a difficult job— and please don’t ask me to forgive anybody” (11). He was there to coordinate reconciliation and peacebuilding work. He began searching for models that emphasized ‘the process of healing, the journey of forgiveness and the possibility of reconciliation (13). He also wanted to sensitive to the African culture and context. Building on the work of Rwandan psychologist, Simon Gasibirege, they began holding Personal Development Workshops (PDW) which helped Tutsis, and Hutus work through the pain of genocide and racial tensions.

9781783688838From Genocide to Generosity tells the stories of those impacted by Steward’s work in Rwanda, testimonies of those who faced grief, rage, and deep wounds, and took steps towards reconciliation and healing. In his prologue, John Steward shares how he was prepared for his Rwandan work when eighteen months prior to his trip to Rwanda when his wife told him he needed to work on his attitude. He began attending a workshop called, “Men Exploring Non-Violent Solutions”—an anger-management course. Through doing his own inner work and observing the emotional healing of other participants (many of whom were court ordered attendees), he built a foundation for his Rwandan work.

My own understanding of the Rwandan Genocide has been mediated through films like Hotel Rwanda (2004), Beyond the Gate (2005), and books like Roméo Antonius Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil (2003) and Jean Hatzfeld’s Machete Season (2003). Of these, only Hatzfeld’s book does the best job describing the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, and from the perspective of convicted perpetrators of violence. Steward casts a wider net, sharing about the healing journey of both the victims and victimizers.

This book is part of the Langham Global Library (a ministry of the Langham Partnership) and was a 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year: Gold Award Winner in the category of Grief/Grieving. It is both heart-wrenching and inspiring, as you hear stories of how people have picked up the fragments of their life after a profound tragedy. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book through the SpeakEasy Blog Review Program in exchange for my honest review

The Write Man Was Convicted: a book review

Shaka Sengor was guilty. He killed a man in cold blood during a dispute over a drugs. He was convicted of murder in the second degree and went to prison for fifteen to fourty years. For much of his sentence he was not a model inmate. He had a botched escape attempt under his belt. He spent time in solitary (the hole) for assaulting prison guards. But during his nineteen years in prison he was transformed through reading, spiritual practice, and ultimately by writing his wrongs:  practicing the cathartic self reflection of journaling, writing fiction and letters.

27297084Despite Sengor’s guilt, don’t think for a moment that he wasn’t a  victim. Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison tells the story of his childhood, his experience of abuse, and his broken home, and how he was seduced into the drug trade. It also tells the story of the anger and fear he felt when he was shot as a seventeen year old and the lack of compassion he experienced from physicians and law enforcement. The experience made him afraid and angry enough to carry a gun. At nineteen, he killed a man aduring a drug transaction (Senghor was a crack dealer).

The injustice Senghor faced inside Michigan’s prisons is harrowing. He was the victim of systemic injustice and racism from prison guards. He witnessed the horrows of prison rape. He participated in violence. He experienced the psychological wounding of four-and-a-half years in solitary confinement after he assaulted a guard (his confrontation with the guard was a n0-win-situation).

Ultimately this book is a story of hope. Senghor comes to own his past, and the things he did wrong. He doesn’t make excuses for himself, but sets out to make amends through writing, community activism and mentoring youth. He finds love with an ctivist he begins a correspondence with. His transformation began mid-way through his prison sentence when the godmother of his victim wrote to him asking the why question. Senghor wrote back his regret and she forgave him. That began a correspondence (described in the prologue and afterword of this book). That set the stage for Senghor to grow and change.

I like memoirs and this is a good one. It is a compelling story. I recommend the book, but issues caution to readers which would be disturbed by violence (and language). Some of the events described are ugly: rape, feces fights, violence, abject racism. This may be difficult for some readers to take. Other books, such as Michelle Alexander,s The New Jim Crow or Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy tell the tale of of our broken legal system. This is an insider’s experience. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

Dangerous Love: a book review

Ray Norman is scholar-in-residence at Messiah College and the director of Fatih Leadership, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at World Vision International and the former national director for World Vision’s program in Isalmic Republic of Mauritania. While he was in Mauritania, in the wake of 9-11, he and his daughter Hannah were shot. Hannah’s situation was critical. Both received medical attention and were evacuated. Both lived. Miraculous, Norman and his family returned to Mauritania. Dangerous Love tells their story of personal risk, the Normans’ commitment to justice and mission, and the radical power of forgiveness.

225_350_book-1780-coverThis book was written more than ten years after the principle crisis it describes. Ray Norman continued his work in Mauritania until he felt God’s call elsewhere. He and Hanna’s story had a major impact on the people of Mauritania, especially those who observed the grace with which they faced near tragedy, and their commitment to caring for the poor and marginalized after being tested by bullets. Because of this instance, Norman got to share his faith with government officials, and commendations from the chief Imam for Norman’s (and World Vision’s) love for the poor of their nation. Hannah and Ray also visited their would-be-murderer in prison and advocated on his behalf. Later he was released from prison and testified to the difference the Norman’s made in his life.

This isn’t all rosy. In a postscript we hear of Hannah visiting Mauritaia ten years later on a college mission trip, which causes a breakdown and panic attack. She  and her family were courageous but that didn’t mean everything was easy.This is a good book if you are interested in mission and stories of how to reach the Muslim world with the love of Christ. I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.

Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: a book review

The most important human relationship is that of parents to their children. To know the love of your mother and father, will set you up to be able to love well and live well. Unfortunately our parents also have the greatest capacity to wound us. Neglect, rejection, abuse destroys a child. Bitterness against parents for past wrongs, poisons adulthood.

Leslie Leyland Fields tells the story of her own estranged relationship with her father, a man who showed little interest in relating to her and who had abused her sister. As an adult, she sees her father after a ten-year absence and is still hurt by his disinterest and distance. It is when he is in his eighties and in ill-health that she renews her relationship with him. Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers unpacks her story and others who have walked the difficult journey of needing to forgive their parents. Each chapter concludes with discussion questions and reflections from psychologist Jill Hubbard.

Two biblical images frame Fields story. Jonah is a prophet who is called to go to the people of Nineveh. The inhabitants of this city were Assyrians who had terrorized the people of Israel. Hurt and angry, Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh and flees. When God intervenes and Jonah finds himself going to that city, he can find no pity in his heart for those people. He waits for God to destroy them and is angry when he does not. This is a poignant metaphor for the bitterness childhood victims face. Fields shares stories of women in their seventies who are still bitter towards their father and unable to forgive. But bitterness poisons the well and thriving in life comes only when we learn to forgive.The other biblical image is Joseph. He also was forced to go where he didn’t want to go and carried profound wounds from childhood. And yet he was free to forgive and grow into the opportunities that God gave him and even forgive his brothers!

All people hurt, and all people wound. Those of us who grew up in a loving, supportive home were also hurt by our parents in some way. I’ve carried my own wounds into adulthood (which I won’t recount here). Fields and Hubbard offer a powerful reminder of the need to forgive. Fields own story of forgiveness and reconciliation is not perfect. Her father doesn’t change, or at least not much and he dies leaving behind six children who did not really know their dad. But she found away to process the past and not let it control her or determine her destiny.

I recommend this book to anyone who has difficulty in their relationship with their parents and who needs help processing the pain. Fields story makes this an easy to read book and Hubbard draws out implications. I give this book four stars: ★★★★.

Lord Do Not Rebuke Me in Your Anger: Psalm 38 (the Seven Penitential Psalms)

Psalm 38:title–22 (NIV)

A psalm of David. A petition.

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger

or discipline me in your wrath.

Your arrows have pierced me,

and your hand has come down on me.

Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;

there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.

My guilt has overwhelmed me

like a burden too heavy to bear.

My wounds fester and are loathsome

because of my sinful folly.

I am bowed down and brought very low;

all day long I go about mourning.

My back is filled with searing pain;

there is no health in my body.

I am feeble and utterly crushed;

I groan in anguish of heart.

All my longings lie open before you, Lord;

my sighing is not hidden from you.

10 My heart pounds, my strength fails me;

even the light has gone from my eyes.

11 My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds;

my neighbors stay far away.

12 Those who want to kill me set their traps,

those who would harm me talk of my ruin;

all day long they scheme and lie.

13 I am like the deaf, who cannot hear,

like the mute, who cannot speak;

14 I have become like one who does not hear,

whose mouth can offer no reply.

15 Lord, I wait for you;

you will answer, Lord my God.

16 For I said, “Do not let them gloat

or exalt themselves over me when my feet slip.”

17 For I am about to fall,

and my pain is ever with me.

18 I confess my iniquity;

I am troubled by my sin.

19 Many have become my enemies without cause;

those who hate me without reason are numerous.

20 Those who repay my good with evil

lodge accusations against me,

though I seek only to do what is good.

21 Lord, do not forsake me;

do not be far from me, my God.

22 Come quickly to help me,

my Lord and my Savior.

When we read Psalm 32 we explored the experience of having been forgiven and set free. Psalm 38 takes us back into the same territory that Psalm 6 put us in, even beginning with the same words. Repentance is cyclical. Sometimes we buckle under the weight of our sins, sometimes we know fully the joy of being forgiven.

But this Psalm speaks more explicitly about how sin stands behind his calamity. The psalmist knows that his peculiar suffering is caused by his sin [Note: Suffering doesn’t always have sin as a direct cause, other psalms explore the suffering of the righteous].  He speaks of God’s wrath, his guilt, his sinful folly, his sin and iniquity. His sin has caused him to suffer and his health to falter.  He longs for forgiveness, healing and restoration but he experiences none.  And he feels isolated and alone. Even the good that he offers others is repaid harshly.

David (presumably the author of this Psalm) suffered for his sin.  He knew that God was right to be angry with him. He had disobeyed God’s law and misused his power when he took Bathsheba and had Uriah the Hittite killed in battle (more about this when we discuss Psalm 51).  He sinned when he trusted in his army instead of God. At times his anger burned hot and he acted rashly. When he was older he failed to address the sins of his sons Amnon (who raped his half sister Tamar) and Absalom (who avenged Tamar and forcibly wrested the Kingdom from David’s hands for a time).  I think he had difficulty confronting his sons because he was guilty of the same sins. A little leniency from David meant that he reaped the whirlwind and many whom he called friends and allies betrayed him.

We do not know the occasion of this Psalm (or even if   the superscription ‘of David’ means that he  wrote this psalm). But we’ve experienced this. Have you held on to Sin in your heart and seen it poison everything in your life? Have you been bitter against someone who betrayed you and abused your trust?  You were justified in your anger but when bitterness grew in you, you were the one who suffered.  All your relationships were poisoned and you felt isolated and alone.

How about lust? Are you tempted to treat others as objects to be used for your own satisfaction? Or greed? Are you constantly reaching for just a little more and find yourself consumed by your own consumption? Does your pride prevent you from turning to God or others for the help you desperately need?And the list can go on. I know it because I am sinner too and in my own way have suffered what the Psalmist describes.

But the Psalmist knows more than the weight of his sin. He knows that hope for forgiveness and restoration are found in God. He lays his soul bare and cries, ” Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me, my God. Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Savior.” His own actions may have caused his suffering and isolation. His health deteriorated because of anxiety and guilt over what he had done. But he knows that he can do nothing to aleviate his condition. If there is freedom and life and hope, it will come when the God of salvation draws near.

May we also look to the Savior of our souls to free us from the sin that entangles us.  Teach us Lord to turn our hearts to you.

Blessed is the One Whose Sins Are Forgiven: Psalm 32 (Seven Penitential Psalms)

The Seven Penitential Psalms were chosen because they teach us about confession; yet they do not all teach us in the same way. Our first psalm (Psalm 6) lamented personal suffering and sadness which comes from sin. The tone of Psalm 32 is different. It is not a lament at all. Instead this is a psalm of thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness.  At the end of Psalm 6, the psalmist feels heard and awaits the Lord’s sure deliverance. Here the psalmist sings of a lived reality.  His sorrows were swallowed up by the mercy of God. Here is Psalm:

Psalm 32 (NIV)

Of David. A maskil.

Blessed is the one

whose transgressions are forgiven,

whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the one

whose sin the Lord does not count against them

and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,

my bones wasted away

through my groaning all day long.

For day and night

your hand was heavy on me;

my strength was sapped

as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you

and did not cover up my iniquity.

I said, “I will confess

my transgressions to the Lord.”

And you forgave

the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you

while you may be found;

surely the rising of the mighty waters

will not reach them.

You are my hiding place;

you will protect me from trouble

and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;

I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.

Do not be like the horse or the mule,

which have no understanding

but must be controlled by bit and bridle

or they will not come to you.

10 Many are the woes of the wicked,

but the Lord’s unfailing love

surrounds the one who trusts in him.

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;

sing, all you who are upright in heart!

The psalmist is aware of the isolation and loneliness of being a sinner. He remembers how his bones ached and his spirit withered. He knew that he was the recipient of God’s wrath. But then he confessed his sins–did not hold back anything but declared them all. And then he experienced absolution, freedom, total forgiveness and joy. With confidence he exhorts us to shed our obstinance and petty pretense and seek forgiveness from the God of grace.

Have you experienced what the Psalmist describes? There was a time when I felt the weight of my sin and resented God’s goodness (if God weren’t so good, he wouldn’t demand so much would He?). But then I experienced God’s goodness afresh–His Grace abounding to my sin-sick-soul. And in that moment I felt loved by God and the freedom of forgiveness. But I am from a people of unclean lips and I have unclean lips. I don’t do confession well. I bet you don’t either.

I feel like our gut response to sin in our lives is to pretend it isn’t there. Sure we aren’t perfect but we really aren’t that bad either, right? So we excuse our faults and make sure that we do more good than bad. We hide from the ugly parts of ourselves and we hide from one another too. And God. When God and others see us for who we truly are we feel exposed. We are naked and ashamed so we run and hide.

What this Psalm suggests to me is that another way is possible. To the extent that I have bared my soul to God in confession I am able to latch on to the forgiveness He offers through Christ.  It is when confess our sins that we know the freedom of forgiveness.  What we hold back from God, God will not bless. What we give to Him is transformed in His hands. I pray for myself that I would be bold in my confession and honest with myself about where my thoughts, words and deeds hurt the ones I love. In better moments I pray that for you too. Join me in confession and let us experience the freedom of God’s forgiveness together!