Forgiveness as an Expression of Anger.
My aim here is still to argue in favour of the much maligned emotion of anger. I want to celebrate it and encourage the experiencing of this emotion for the simple reason that it is vital to our flourishing. So far (Anger (1) and Anger (2)) I have been concerned with defending anger and suggesting ways in which we can manage it. All along, however, my purpose has been to arrive at this point where I try to highlight what I think is an important, but overlooked use of our anger: forgiveness.
The word, however, is used to signify two different acts.
1. The re-establishment of friendship
This relies on the remorse and repentance of the person who offended us and clearly can’t be offered without it since it takes two to establish a friendship. Jesus spoke of this kind of forgiveness when he encouraged Peter to be prepared to forgive another up to seventy times seven times, which is just another way of saying to keep on forgiving whenever it is sought.
Forgiveness as the re-establishment of friendship is the ultimate goal of any action we decide to take as an expression of our anger. In my last post I suggested a series of steps for the effective management of this unruly feeling. These were accepting, allowing, identifying, understanding and deciding. Whatever action we decide on as an expression of the anger we feel at some injustice, our ultimate aim is to bring about some change that will eliminate the injustice. And if we are successful in bringing about that change then reconciliation, for which this kind of forgiveness is essential, will hopefully be the final act in the entire saga. This form of forgiveness belongs in any conversation about anger and is, I believe, anger’s greatest expression since it is what completes the anger gestalt.
2. The replacement of feelings of bitterness and resentment with goodwill.
This is what is generally meant in our culture by the word forgiveness. (It is, in fact the definition offered by my computer’s dictionary for the word.) It too has a place in any conversation about anger since it is a productive expression of it.
The series of steps I’ve suggested for the management of our anger culminated in taking a decision as to how to bring about the change our anger is calling for. But it left open the question of what we should do if the action we decide on doesn’t bring about the change we feel is needed. Are we condemned to feeling angry or hurt without end? I think we have two options in this situation.
The first is to grieve the loss of the change we wanted. I haven’t got the space to go into any detail here, but this would involve the acceptance of the loss and then the allowing of the sadness that it inevitably provokes. In this way our anger is dissolved into the solvent of grief.
The second is to forgive those who have wronged us. This forgiveness is not a function of some other emotion as is the act of grieving, but is a function, and a conclusion of the original anger.
The reason I say this is that forgiveness is one of those ways in which a change can be effected in a situation of injustice. In the story of Zacchaeus we read of how, when Jesus gratuitously accepted and welcomed the crook Zaccaeus it was enough to bring about a profound change in how that thieving tax collector chose to live. I suppose Jesus could have berated him for his dishonesty and selfishness, he could have publicly shamed him, but instead he saw that gratuitous mercy was the right response to the situation. I don’t think we should attribute ulterior motives to Jesus’ actions and suggest that he showed mercy to Zacchaeus in order to bring about change. His forgiveness was free and free of attached strings, which, paradoxically is what gave it its power to transform.
This story is, of course, a small window onto the way that God operates in general. God transforms this world not through judgement and retribution, but through mercy. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the merciful means by which God renews the whole of creation. And yet it is undeniably an act of anger. God acts in Jesus because he sees the injustice of this world. He is provoked by wrongdoing to bring about change. And this is the very definition of anger.
I would add this caution, however, that forgiveness as the replacement of bitterness with goodwill needs to come at the end of the process of managing our anger. Unless we first accept, allow, identify, understand and act on our anger then this setting aside of our feelings of hurt will merely be a way of avoiding those difficult feelings, a way to deny our anger rather than a productive use of it.
Forgiveness is far from easy to do. In fact, when it is the product of a well managed anger then it is the sign of emotional flourishing. It requires a great deal of maturity and skill to master any of our feelings, but to master anger, the most turbulent and frightening of them all is to harness the vital part of the potential of our humanity; it is to draw deeply from the image of God.
As we have seen, although forgiveness may have the effect of changing the person being forgiven, this is not and cannot be its aim. If it were then forgiveness would lose its gratuitous quality. It may or it may not, therefore, bring about a change in the other person, but it will bring about a change in us: how we view the other, how we think of ourselves and how we experience the situation. The bitterness and the resentment that bound us to a hurtful past will have been loosened allowing us to make fresh evaluations and decisions. What can emerge is a new way of being, one that is liberated from previous wrongs and, maybe also from old habits of our own that may have contributed to those wrongs. Forgiveness sets us free. In this sense, when it results in forgiveness, our anger has brought about the most profound change of all.