When we’re harmed by the wrongdoing of another, we are likely to experience both pain and anger. Hopefully, though, at some point we will consider the place of forgiveness in light of our anger and pain.
However, before we rush too quickly to trying to patch things up, we need to make an all-important distinction between pain and anger with the realization that these two things, though often intricately and hopelessly intertwined, must be dealt with differently. And we need to recognize that disentangling the two requires both the help of the Holy Spirit and true humility of spirit in us.
Pain manifests in both conscious and unconscious ways. Pain might result in actual physical discomfort, panic, anxiety, depression, sadness, memory loss, changed behaviour, changed ways of relating, self-isolation, self-harm, and a myriad of other ways. In whatever way we identify the pain we are experiencing (whether on our own or with the help of a friend, confidante, or counsellor), we should NEVER use forgiveness as a therapy for our pain. You’ll see why shortly.
Pain requires healing, and most of the time, healing comes through an external source, not through self-medication. For the Christian, the ultimate source of healing should always be sought from the Great Physician, Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean that healing is always a “direct and instantaneous from above” experience (though it may in fact be that), but is often over a period of time and through other forms of mediation.
Spiritual healing should be sought in direct reliance upon God, but healing can come to us from God mediated in practices of prayer, meditation and reading of Scripture, silence, worship, and even service to others. Of course, discussion and dialogue with seasoned and experience spiritual directors, pastors and counsellors are also a means.
Healing, of course, may come quickly or take a long time. It may come unmediated or mediated by a helper. We can’t predict such things in advance, and spiritual healing is not a program or a technique, though programs and techniques may accompany healing. Remember, healing is all at the mercy and grace of the Father of our Lord Jesus and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
Anger is slightly more complicated than pain because it manifests in both righteous and unrighteous ways.
Righteous anger arises when we see God’s name and reputation brought into disrepute. Righteous anger may also manifest in a concern for justice for others before ourselves, a concern for the well-being of others even before ourselves. It is possible be righteously angry and not sin (Eph 4:26)
Unrighteous anger, in contrast, manifests in rage, in seeking revenge, in plotting harm against the offender or even other non-offenders (i.e., lashing out against those near us), in condemnation, in gossip and slander, etc. Unrighteous anger is sin.
Before we even begin to think about how forgiveness may occur, we must distinguish between our pain and our anger and ensure they are dealt with properly. Three things to remember:
- Pain requires healing
- Righteous anger requires lament
- Unrighteous anger requires repentance
Pain requires healing
When someone does something wrong or harmful to us, it is normal to feel pain. If we don’t, we should consider whether we have been hurt so often and repeatedly, perhaps by the same person, that we have set up a hard emotional and spiritual shell as a psychological and spiritual defense mechanism against pain. If that is the case, we need the Spirit to reveal to us our hardness and seek to have our hearts softened. But even if harm is not felt, it can still do irreparable damage.
When we feel emotional and spiritual pain, then we need to do what we normally and instinctively do when we feel physical pain: seek treatment, and resist the urge to self-medicate.
In most cases of serious harm or pain, we seek the help of a physician. Likewise, in relational or emotion pain caused by an offender, we seek the Great Physician, Jesus Christ. We do this in prayer, and yes, through processing with the help of a professional, a trusted friend or family member, or a spiritual confidante. And yes, we keep going for divine therapy as long as we need, even when the offender is unrepentant. That is, we keep casting our pain, daily, even hourly, at the foot of the Cross.
In contrast, we need to resist the enticingly and powerful urge to gain healing through self-medication or self-numbing. If we are there, we need to seek the help of others, and most importantly, the help of God himself.
We need, in other words, to identify and name the pain we have and lay it at the foot of the Cross of Jesus who bore not only our sin and guilt, but our pain and shame as well.
Righteous anger requires lament
Once we’ve differentiated between pain and anger, we then need to clarify whether the anger is righteous or unrighteous, as noted above.
If it is righteous anger we need to do two things:
- Lament – Here we need to do what is modelled so well in the Psalms when we see God’s name and reputation harmed, when we see others continually being harmed, or even if we see that our offender is doing so because of the harm he or she has received in past. We lament, we cry out to God that he would do something.
We need, in other words, to identify and name the injustice we have experienced or seen and put it at the Cross of Jesus who one day will right all injustices.
- Let God Deal with Injustice – The typical pattern of lament in the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 2) is to cry out to God in our righteous anger, but then to rest in God’s promised deliverance, even if we do not see that deliverance in our own lifetime. Biblical lament sees injustice, but also knows ultimately that even if we work toward righting wrongs, only God will ultimately be Victor.
Even righteous anger can quickly turn to sin. In your anger, do not sin (Eph 4:26) and do not let a root of bitterness grow in you (Heb 12:15). Here we need the Holy Spirit to give us discernment and conviction. Moreover, righteous anger issues in righteous action, doing something about the injustice, even if the only righteous thing we can do means pouring out our lament to God and leaving it in his hands. Unrighteous anger, in contrast, stews internally and issues in seeking harm and revenge of others.
Unrighteous anger requires repentance.
If the Spirit reveals that our anger is unrighteous, we do not deal with it by unilateral forgiveness of an unrepentant offender. To do so is already an action not done out of faith but in the flesh, the ungodliness that issues when we live out of fellowship with God and in our own unrepentant sin.
Rather, we acknowledge our unrighteous anger, regardless of the repentance of non-repentance of an offender, and we do business with God. That is, we confess our unrighteous anger, rage, slander, gossip, and conspiracy to harm to God. We confess that even as the “offended” we have now sinned against God and need his forgiveness.
The fact is, before any reconciliation between us and our offender can truly take root, it means having a clear account and clear conscience and purified heart before God. “If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousess.” (1 John 1:9) However, as John had just previously noted, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)
Indeed, to try to deal with the unrepentant while failing to confess unrighteous anger is simply to be blinded to the truth that an unrepentant sinner is wholly incapable of reconciling to another unrepentant sinner.
Seeking to forgive an unrepentant sinner is to take justice into our own hands rather than to give the sinner into God’s merciful and righteous and just hands.
In the end, pain is dealt with by God’s healing touch. But even if pain is not fully dealt with instantly or shortly, we are commanded by Jesus himself to love our enemies and do good to those who do us wrong or harm us. To love the enemy is a work of the Spirit in us and a recognition that God alone can bring the unrepentant to repentance–and that he does so through his kindness and love (Romans 2:4).