Forgiving God: Processing the Movements of the Soul

Forgiving God is a controversial topic among many believers, especially Christians. Jewish believers, however, have a long history of talking about “forgiving God,” and it is present in the classic story of Job as my last post suggested. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, for example, one of the most significant questions in Jewish theology is whether believers can forgive God for the death of millions and the seeming failure of his promises.

A familiar Jewish tale relates the story of a rabbi who encountered a tailor as he left the synagogue. The rabbi asked the tailor what he had been doing. The tailor responded that he had been praying about forgiveness. It is good, the Rabbi replied, to pray for forgiveness and then asked the tailor what sins he had confessed. He confessed his “little sins.” The Rabbi, a bit concerned, asked what he meant. He had confessed the sin of cheating his customers in a few minor ways. But, the tailor continued, he also forgave God of his “big sins.” After all, the tailor theorized, his sins were little compared with God–while he cost his customers a few coins and some cloth, God oversaw a world where children die. So, the tailor concluded, he made a deal with God. If God would forgive him of his “little sins,” he would forgive God of his “big” ones.

No doubt this offends some sensibilities. I was offended the first time I read about “forgiving God” in Rabbi Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But the idea has grown on me through the experience of life, the depth of hurt, the lament tradition in Scripture, and a resentment towards God that ebbed and flowed with the pains of life.

Forgiving God does not, in my mind, refer to forgiving God of his sins. Rather, it refers to letting go what is hidden in my heart against God. Let me explain….

When tragedy overwhelms us, it fills our life with hurt and pain. Reality hits us in the face. The pain is unavoidable; the hurt is deep. And our thoughts as believers naturally and appropriately turn to God.

Some turn to God in praise and thanksgiving. Perhaps through the experience of life and their walk of faith they have learned to “give thanks in everything.” Perhaps it is a conditioned first resposnse.

Others, however, turn to God in anger and lament. They are disappointed with God. Like Job, they believe (or at least it sure appears) that God has wronged them. They are frustrated with God’s hidden purposes; they are irritated by the seemingly meaningless pain. It depresses some and creates anxiety in everyone.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with anger and lament. It is modeled in Scripture. The wisdom story of Job is a dramatic lament. Half of the Psalm-worship of Israel was lament, and much of it filled with depression, anger and confusion. Even the martyred saints around the throne of God and the Lamb question with the classic lament question, “How long? How long?” (Rev 6).

Thus, while some respond with praise and others with lament, both are appropriate and understandable. Indeed, most of those, if not all, who respond with praise also learn to lament as a healthy way of grieving. Saints often move from praise to lament and ultimately (it is hoped) back to praise.

However, the return to praise is not an easy road to travel. It is filled with potholes and stalked by robbers. Some, including myself, turn to bitterness rather than back to praise for seasons of time. In this bitterness we dwell in our resentment. We project onto God all the inner demons of our own souls. We blame God for all the hurt and pain in our lives. We envy those who have it better; we resent the God who would permit our pain. We doubt, question and wonder why.

Stuck in bitterness, some ultimately reject God. They move from faith to doubt to unbelief. They rebel against and curse the God they once trusted. I believe this move from bitterness to unbelief is ultimately driven by our own inner woundedness, perhaps our own unresolved anger and alienation. When we project our “stuff” (whether it is parental abandonment or whatever it might be) onto God, then we make a God in the image of our woundedness or even equate God with our woundedness. And who wants that kind of God? It is better to live without that God than to live with him.

Forgiving God is my language for that process that moves us from bitterness back to praise. Perhaps “forgiving God” is not the best language to use–it is subject to misunderstanding. But “forgiveness,” at its heart, is release. To forgive God is to let go of the resentment, to let go of God’s throat and our demand that he treat us as we think we deserve (which, btw, is a dangerous thing to demand of God–do we really want what we deserve?!).

Acceptance is a key issue. To accept our reality, that is, to live life on its own terms, to take life as it comes, is necessary for comfort and peace in the midst of tragic circumstances. This acceptance is generated by trusting God.

Trusting God arises out of comtemplating his greatness–he is God, not me. It arises out of contemplating his sovereignty–he is in control, not me. It arises out of contemplating his wisdom–he knows better than I. But, most importantly, this trust arises out of contemplating his faithful love–I am beloved by God. I will not trust a God who does not love me, but convinced that God loves me more than I love myself I will trust that God. And this is the God of Jesus–the God who gave himself for our sakes.

When I trust God, I can forgive him. When I trust God, I can accept my reality. I can let go of control and power. I can let go of my pride that believes that I could run the world much better than him. I can let go of judgment and accept the truth of my circumstances….but my acceptance is contingent upon trusting God’s love for me and his sovereign purposes. And trust is learned–knowing the story, living the story, and experiencing the story through God’s people.

This trusting acceptance is forgiveness–it releases us from our own resentments, bitterness and self-inflicted wounds. Forgiveness then empowers us to praise God once again, and through praise we experience transformation.

This has been my experience. When hurt and pained, I lament (sometimes with anger). My lament can easily turn to bitterness and resentment. But recalling the story, seeking the face of God, and trusting his love for me, I accept (to one degree or another) my lot and release the resentment. Forgiving God, I learn again to praise him.

Only recently have I realized that this is a constant cycle in my life. Something triggers me (e.g., envy of other parents who watch their sons play football when I never had that opportunity with Joshua) and the cycle begins again. But, I trust and hope, it is a spiral toward transformation rather than a degenerative plunge into unbelief.

But the move from bitterness and resentment to forgiveness has never been an easy one, and only recently have I discerned what is for me a healthy, helpful and hopeful contemplative process for letting go, forgiving and once again praising God. I will share that process in my next post.

More to come…..

For visual learners (like me), this chart illustrates this post. I used it this past Sunday as I taught this post at Woodmont Hills in Nashville, TN. I kinda like it myself. 🙂 At least, it is true in my own experience.



4 Responses to “Forgiving God: Processing the Movements of the Soul”

  1.   Terrell Says:

    Thanks for stripping away your flesh and baring your soul. Your sharing gives fresh hope.

  2.   rich constant Says:

    Only recently have I realized that this is a constant cycle in my life. Something triggers me (e.g., envy of other parents who watch their sons play football when I never had that opportunity with Joshua) and the cycle begins again. But, I trust and hope, it is a spiral toward transformation rather than a degenerative plunge into unbelief.

    john mark
    my brother i will pray that you will be settled
    and allow the memory or your son to find peace with the lord.

    amen to your post .. wonderful

  3. Profile photo of Bobby Valentine  bobbyvalentine Says:

    I once thought I lived life on its own terms but I had deceived myself. I have now come to believe that is one of the most difficult things of all to do. Accepting our place so to speak … I don’t like it one bit. God hasn’t zapped me yet so perhaps there is hope. It is amazing, is it not, how life can drastically change the focus of our faith.

  4.   Dave Says:

    This ex-Christian Gentile has read and re-read Kushner’s excellent book, yet implied is a translation truth that might startle so many: G-d the not-so-powerful and creator of ra, or moral evil (Yeshayahu 45:7), is a sinner, too.

    However, the Eternal can never be a sinner in the sense of pesha or willful transgression, or in the sense of avon or iniquity, but is very much one in the sense of chatah: missing the mark.

    What can we of the image of G-d do about it? We can sulk in resentment, which the Eternal never intended for us in this life or the next, or we can be partners with the Incorporeal in refining and improving this world and, in the process, ourselves, as our Partner on the other side works day by day to earn and renew our trust. In the process, in those moments when we are not obligated to fulfill universal or covenant-specific commandments regarding our neighbour, it is important to thank G-d for the little things, things as little as nourishments after being nourished, and to appreciate the Eternal for the little miracles that happen every day and that should not be taken for granted.

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