Several months ago, a friend asked me how one goes about practicing forgiveness with respect to someone who persists in crossing relational boundaries, making unkind remarks, refusing to take responsibility for his/her behaviour, etc. She wondered what the balance between accountability and grace might be: When do we hold the other accountable for that which they have done and when do we extend the hand of grace?
There are no easy answers to these questions, in part because these questions are born out of deep pain. When an abuser reappears in your life, when a family member persists in making hurtful remarks, when an employer shames your work in front of the team, when a friend betrays your confidence… Life puts us into contact with people whose behaviours cause us to experience deep and profound pain – pain that is only made worse when these same people expect reconciliation with us yet refuse to take responsibility for their part in what went wrong.
As my friend and I discussed and wrestled with these questions, we persistently came up short. In each of the situations above, it can be absolutely critical for one’s safety to maintain boundaries. We wondered, “Does a focus on boundaries undo one’s efforts at forgiveness?” We agreed that forgiveness and reconciliation are two different concepts. While forgiveness involves the other person – even if only in our own spirits – it does not depend on the other (although the behaviour of the other certainly influences how easy or difficult the journey toward forgiveness may be). Forgiveness is letting go of the power an action of harm has over us. It is seeing the other and the self as both broken and good. It is refusing to drink the poison of resentment. It is seeing the other through the lens of grace. Because forgiveness is about the healing of the self and not about being reconciled with the other, it is typically understood as an unconditional act. The self can forgive the other regardless of the other’s capacity to change because the essential act of forgiveness is unbinding the self from the power of the other over the self. Reconciliation, however, is different. Reconciliation depends on the readiness of both self and other to be in relationship with one another. Because of this, reconciliation is always conditional. When the other continues to engage in actions of harm or when the other does not take responsibility for actions of harm, the self is not safe. In these situations, reconciliation is not possible. Forgiveness, however – as we have defined it here – is.
Despite the progress my friend and I made with respect to the definitions of forgiveness and reconciliation, we still came back to our original question unsatisfied. “Does a focus on boundaries not reawaken old wounds such that our efforts at forgiveness are undone?” As we talked, I proposed an idea. I suggested that to hold these two concepts together we must practice a type of “non-violent non-resistance to the self”.
Let me explain by taking this phrase apart.
The Self: The self includes our core true self and the container we have been given (our bodies, our personalities, our families of origin) through which we observe and discover our true self. As we grow and mature and have experiences, however, life does what life does. Our containers develop holes that we try desperately to plug up. I don’t know why we perceive our true self to be so vulnerable. But in our attempt to protect our true self from pain, we plug the holes in our container by applying more and more fix-it materials. In common language we call that the ego – the actions we take to plug the holes in our outer self to protect the perceived vulnerable true self.
Non-Resistance: Non-resistance has received a bad rap over the last half century because people have perceived non-resistance as a form of passivity. From the perspective of passivity, non-resistance actually enables injustice and harm to continue. I would like to propose an alternative perspective on the term. Non-resistance is the act of receiving before responding, of integrating before engaging. This may not sound like much but if we receive before we respond we allow ourselves to observe the deeper truth of a situation. Having received this truth, we are significantly more effective in our discernment regarding how to address both the situation and the deeper truth it holds.
Non-Violence: Non-violence is more than the absence of violence. It is the application of love, grace and mercy in the place of judgement, violence and harm. It is honouring the spark of the divine in the other even as one honours the spark of the divine in oneself.
Putting the Words Together
When the three terms noted above are put together we observe the following: Flipped into the positive, the term non-violent non-resistance to the self could be read as unconditional and discerning love and acceptance of the self. When harm comes our way – either by way of current, active harm or by way of remembered harm, our first task is to love our selves unconditionally, recognising the wounds being awakened by the harm, gently holding these wounds, allowing these wounds to speak to us. In that moment, the practice of non-resistance is not an act of non-resistance to the other. It is the practice of non-resistance to the fullness of one’s self. Here we neither resist our pain nor reject it. Instead we receive into our spirits the deeper truth our wounds are seeking to teach us. When we receive the wounded self lovingly, non-violently and unconditionally, we do not judge the self for its wound. We do not do violence to the self for its pain. Instead we own our pain, we pray into our wound, we accept that we feel harmed and we release the experience of harm into God’s care. The idea here comes from an old truth known by the contemplatives of faith: We cannot release that which we have not accepted and we cannot accept that which we have not owned or acknowledged.
With this in mind, let us return to our opening question: “When do we hold the other accountable for that which they have done and when do we extend the hand of grace?” When we have owned, accepted and released our wound into God’s care, we will be much better at discerning the tender space between practicing forgiveness and the setting of boundaries. When the wound no longer binds the self, the self is able to offer genuine forgiveness while still holding appropriate and necessary relational boundaries. Boundaries – those firm lines in the sand – are mediated through a spirit of unconditional love and grace, even if and when the other resists both that line and that love. To be sure, to hold to a boundary line while offering forgiveness takes a tremendous amount of courage: This journey is not for the faint of heart. As far as I can tell, however, it is the only way to live in that tender space between practicing forgiveness and setting boundaries.
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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change. Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.