Just Forgive?

I have been in more than one setting recently in which people have urged one another “to just forgive.”  The incongruity of the pain people have described is jarring when compared with the easy, definitive guidance that others have offered that advice.  Running over the questions of how fresh the wounding might be or how long the healing might take, they are like a Nike commercial, “Just do it.”

Forgiveness is the point of departure, the first step in our own reconciliation with God.  In God’s presence we can count on being heard.  We can count on trusting God with our wrongdoing and we can count on trusting God with the wounding that we have suffered at the hands of others.  The journey of forgiveness into God — of forgiving and being forgiven — may not be easy, or painless, but it is always safe.

Forgiveness is also the point of departure for reconciliation with other human beings.  But that journey is both difficult and far less dependable.  Not everyone is trustworthy — some never will be.  The wounding we have experienced at the hands of others can be a momentary act of fear or callousness, but it can also be the deed of someone in whom pathology runs deep.

For example, the wounding in a sexual predator or child molester can run so deep that their own healing — if it comes in this life at all — may take years.  These are people who cannot necessarily be trusted with the pain that they have inflicted on us.  They may never be trustworthy in that respect.

In those cases the difference between the journey of forgiveness and the journey into reconciliation becomes clear.  The one is a journey into God on which we can embark alone to find healing for the wounds inflicted on us and release from the wounding that we have inflicted on others.  But reconciliation with other people may or may not be possible, because reconciliation takes two who are willing to go on that journey together.  Not everyone is willing to start that journey and some, never will be —- not in this life or in ways that we can detect or trust.

It also becomes clear in those moments that forgiveness is not something you “just do” — a transaction made up of just the right words, actions, and a particular frame of mind.  It is a journey of transformation and possibilities — some of which only God can achieve.  That journey is not about doing forgiveness, but of becoming forgiveness.

That journey is often incomplete.  Incomplete because God is the only one who knows us thoroughly and can embrace our wounds and the wounding we have inflicted on others.  Incomplete because in some cases we might forgive, but the person on the other side of the experience refuses to build a reliable or safe bridge of reconciliation from their side.  Incomplete because we suffer so much pain or we have inflicted so much pain that we have yet to fully understand or transcend it.

None of this is said to place limits on the grace of God.  But to ignore these complexities is not wise and those who urge others to “just forgive” are often those who have never faced their own wounds, or have yet to be honest about their own capacity for wounding.  So, instead, they look for the quick fix, a formula instead of a journey, a Band-Aid as the alternative to deep healing.  And because forgiveness is something we can’t do, but must become, they run roughshod over the struggle of others — and ultimately, their own.


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.