Our Retribution Shrines: Why Forgiving Others Hurts Like Religion

When we invite people into our lives, we show them the architecture of our hearts. We take them on a tour of our bedrooms of love, kitchens of pleasure, and family rooms of joy. They are sunlit and smiling places. We’re not ashamed to show them off.

But hidden within this architectural arrangement, behind a secret door, is a very different kind of room. Once the lights are off and we’re all alone, we go there. We step into a tiny space where shadows dance in the faint candlelight. A stale smell of rotten history clings to the air. Stapled onto its walls are crumpled memories and ugly faces. Its floor is littered with a collage of dried tears and dark blood.

This is our retribution shrine. Here we invoke painful memories. We sing dirges about back-stabbing friends, two-timing spouses, abusive parents, bullying classmates, ungrateful bosses. Their faces, on which we’ve drawn horns and blackened out teeth, hang on the wall. Here we worship. We worship the deity of retribution. We preach to ourselves about what they’ve done to us. And we willingly pay our tithes of anger, resentment, and hate.

When we prepare to leave, before we close the door, the benediction we utter is always the same: I will not forgive you. Not now. Not ever.

As We Don’t Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us

Most of us—at least those of us who are Christians—regularly pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We say these words in church, yet kneel inside our retribution shrines at home, because we’ve mastered ways of reconciling our self-contradiction.

We say, “Well, it’s not like I’ve actually taken a hammer and hit my ex upside the head—like he deserves! So in that way I’ve forgiven him.” Thus, we reason, because I’ve not physically assaulted the one who sinned against me, I’ve forgiven him.

Or we say, “It’s not like I’m God. It’s asking too much for me, the victim, to just forgive and move on. I’m no fool. Once she shows some signs of being sorry and making amends, then maybe I’ll consider forgiving her. But not till then.”

Or we say, “If I forgive him, I’ll be letting go of a memory I need for self-protection. I need to remember what he did so I’ll never let it happen to me again. The only way I’m going to move forward, to face the future, is by keeping the pains of the past in front of me.”

In other words, those three words of the Lord’s Prayer, “as we forgive,” are explained away, parsed into meaninglessness, or shelved until a more opportune time that never seems to arrive.

And I understand why. We all understand why. The reason we don’t want to forgive, the reason we visit our shrines of retribution, makes perfect sense: we don’t want to die.

Letting Go of the Worship of Wounds

@@Forgiveness always means something has to die.@@ Our hate and anger and resentment have to die. Our well-crafted, minutely planned plots of revenge have to die. Our pride and ego and our vast collection of hurt feelings have to die. Our desire to control and manipulate the other person has to die.

@@To forgive others means that all our bad blood with the perpetrator must be spilled atop the altar of absolution.@@ Our swirling black buckets of anger and grief and revenge poured out. Our retribution shrine packed up and burned amidst the fires of forgiveness that blaze there.

We will die. And this death will hurt like religion. It will mean letting go of our worship of wounds. It will mean unclenching our fists that have long clasped our icons of pain. It will mean to stop paying our tithes to the deity of daydreams of revenge.

The Other Side of Forgiveness

What will surprise us, however, what will shock us, is what happens after this death. Rather than finding ourselves empty and alone and purposeless in a solitary grave, we will discover life on the other side of forgiveness.

We imagined that the retribution shrine was keeping alive, but instead it was keeping us handcuffed to a corpse. A rotting, worm-crawling corpse of unforgiveness. We drug it around. It held us back. It putrefied our hopes. It spoiled our joy. Yet we clung to it as if it were life.

Now, having said, “I forgive you,” we discover the handcuffs unlocked and ourselves free. And we hear laughter, the laughter of heaven reverberating all the way from Bethlehem to Calvary to our innermost soul as God fills his lungs and laughs the light of his love into us.

For on the other side of the death of forgiveness is the resurrection of joy. An easter in which we emerge from the tomb in the arms of the man whose scars glow with mercy. We find ourselves staring into the smiling face of the Savior who, unbeknownst to us, was at work in us all along to bring us out of the dark and dank retribution shrine into the brilliant house of his Father’s grace.

And, oh, what a house it is! Here we are free not only to forgive but to love. Here we are liberated not only from unforgiveness but now our prayers are unshackled, too. We begin to intercede for those who hurt us. We no longer speak ill of them, but speak of their needs to the heart of our Father. Those faces that once were iconic of hate become those who bear the image of God, those for whom Christ died, those who—along with us—are included in the sacrificial magnum opus of Good Friday.

Now, instead of a retribution shrine, we put a cross on the wall and paste beside it the faces. Faces that once encapsulated our pain that now capture our mercy. And for them we pray. For them we died the death of forgiveness. And we see ourselves, and them, ensconced within the wounds that shine from the body of the God on the cross, who has forgiven us all.