Let’s start this chapter by admitting that we like to use hyperbole — extreme examples to clarify our points. We Christians may be particularly fond of it when we’re illustrating an important theme of the gospel, such as forgiveness.
Is hyperbole bad? No, Jesus used it (Matthew 5:27–30). Can it be used poorly? Yes. But before we get to the problem, let’s consider the purpose of illustrations. We use illustrations to make points clearer. If illustrations don’t make our point clearer, then they’re not good illustrations — they’re distractions. Sometimes this just results in ineffective teaching. Other times, it can be harmful to those being taught.
Imagine a father explaining forgiveness to his son. He uses the illustration of when his wife (the child’s mother) forgave him for having an affair. The dad may be making theologically rich, well-articulated, and skillfully applied points about forgiveness. But the illustration is a distraction. All the kid can think is, “Are my parents getting a divorce? Are we going to have to move?”
This is what we frequently do when we use criminal or traumatic offenses1Most offenses that are criminal are traumatic, but not every offense that is traumatic is criminal. What needs to be understood here is that criminality (legal process) and traumatic nature (healing process) of recovery from hurts of these kinds are different from normal day-to-day offenses. as illustrations of what it means to forgive. When we recount the testimony of someone who has been raped, beaten, or similarly offended forgiving the person who abused them, we are putting every survivor who hears us in a comparable position as the son in the illustration above.
When, in a ministry context, we talk about someone forgiving their rapist, we are not providing legal or counseling advice on how to respond to the experience of rape. When we give an example of someone forgiving an abusive spouse or parent, we don’t explain what happens when you call Child Protective Services (CPS) or how to make a safety plan.2For guidance on how to pastorally care in these situations, consider lessons 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7 at https://churchcares.com. But because survivors only hear their experience discussed in church as an illustration of forgiveness, they begin to think “just forgive” is the only guidance God has for them.
A good rule of thumb is don’t use these kinds of illustrations if you do not have the training or time in your sermon/lesson to provide substantive guidance on how to respond to a criminal or traumatic experience. If we are going to use illustrations of this emotional weight, we must be willing to devote the time the subject matter requires. It is pastorally irresponsible to do otherwise.
Illustrations with criminal offenses
When using an illustration or testimony involving a criminal offense, the following points would need to be made (this list is representative, not exhaustive):
- It is right and God-honoring to report such an offense to the authorities (Romans 13), that is, the police.3If you want to understand more about how Romans 13 and 1 Corinthians 6 harmonize with each other, consider reading “Why Is It Inappropriate (and Dangerous) to Alert an Alleged Offender of Abuse before Calling CPS and/or the Police?,” bradhambrick.com, April 16, 2019.
- If children are not involved and the thought of reporting is hard, it is wise for a survivor to talk to a counselor experienced in working with abuse/rape survivors because these are legitimately difficult decisions.
- Choosing to pursue legal action against criminal activity is not an expression of bitterness or unforgiveness.
- Forgiveness is one part, and usually not the first part, of the healing journey after the experience of abuse or rape.
- When you reach the point that forgiveness is the next part of God’s healing process for you, forgiveness does not mean trusting or placing yourself in the position to be vulnerable again. If the person who hurt you demands trust or leverages the Bible against you, they are continuing to be abusive.
These points take time in a sermon or lesson. Admittedly, they steal the thunder from a point about forgiveness. But realize, without these clarifications, the “thunder” of your message will be haunting to someone who has not had the opportunity to process their experience.
Illustrations with traumatic experiences
When using an illustration or testimony involving an offense that is traumatic, the following points would need to be made (this list is also representative, not exhaustive):
- Painful memories are not the same thing as bitterness.
- Hypervigilance after a traumatic experience is not the same thing as a lack of faith.
- Flat emotions after a traumatic experience does not mean you’re unloving, apathetic, or not worshipping.4If you are unfamiliar with the common symptom clusters that frequently emerge after a traumatic experience, consider watching step 2 in this resource on trauma: “Post-Traumatic Stress (Seminar Videos),” bradhambrick.com, September 25, 2015
- Seeing a counselor experienced in working with trauma survivors can help a survivor learn to manage the emotional fluctuations that often occur after a trauma.
- Forgiveness does not erase memory. For offenses that are disruptive when remembered, Miroslav Volf’s book The End of Memory can be a helpful discussion of forgiveness.
Again, these kinds of points do break the momentum of your sermon or lesson. But to the person who has experienced the kind of things you are using as an illustration, that “momentum” feels like an avalanche. To the person who is learning to manage their trauma, slower is safer. If we are going to speak of their life experience, then we should do so with the tenderness that experience requires.
This chapter forces us to consider again where we began this book — forgiveness means someone has been hurt. Criminal and traumatic offenses mean that there are more consequences to this person’s pain.5If you are prone to the rebuttal, “But aren’t we all equally sinful? Criminal sin doesn’t need to be double-dipped in the blood of Jesus, does it?” I encourage you to read “We Are Equally Sinful. We Are Not All Equally Broken or Toxic,” bradhambrick.com, October 13, 2017, http://bradhambrick.com/we-are-equally-sinful-we-are-not-all-equally-broken-or-toxic/. We need to take this into account when we teach on or talk about forgiveness.
Considering these things, take a moment to read Psalm 23:1-4:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me. (emphasis added)
Why did I choose to emphasize the word walk? It is a pacing verb. It reveals the pace at which the Good Shepherd is willing to go. The Good Shepherd moves at the pace that is best for the sheep. The scary setting — the valley of the shadow of death — does not rush the pace. The health and ability of the sheep set the pace. Sheep with a limp traverse the valley more slowly.
If we are going to be accurate ambassadors of the Good Shepherd, we must prioritize our ministry efforts the same way. We cannot let our zeal for the destination cause us to harm the sheep who have been entrusted to our care. That is what this chapter has been about: helping us pace our illustrations about forgiveness to the needs of those who have been hurt.
Questions for reflection
1. When have you seen an illustration become a distraction? If it was around a sensitive subject, how did it detract from the care agenda of the person teaching?
2. How does the pacing verb “walk” of the Good Shepherd help you understand the pastoral significance in discussing criminal and traumatic offenses in the holistic manner recommended in this chapter?
Excerpted from Making Sense of Forgiveness © 2021 by Brad Hambrick. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission. To purchase this and other helpful resources, please visit newgrowthpress.com.