Will God forgive me for whatever it is I have done, or must I continue to suffer?
We might re-frame the question this way: If I repeatedly hurt myself or another person, or, for example, if I relapse into the very thing I told myself I would never ever do again (and that I told my loved ones I would never ever do again); given just how deep my regret is, and given just how much damage it’s done to my relationships, will I ever feel the feeling of forgiveness again? Will I ever feel again what it feels like to be whole? Will I ever feel restored or reconciled to the person I’ve hurt (or to myself)?
A theologian once said, sin and forgiveness run “horizontally” and “vertically.” Sin and forgiveness involve both our relationship to God and our relationships with other people. On the one hand, when we hurt people we care about (or when we do harm or hurt to ourselves) God unfailingly forgives and draws close to us when we ask. But this doesn’t negate or erase relational damage. In a vertical sense, we are always accepted and loved by a God whose spirit nourishes every possibility of life within us. This is true even when we cause pain, feel regret for it, and in the aftermath struggle to accept or love ourselves. However, in a horizontal sense, relational healing and forgiveness take time. Relational healing is a process. Meaningful relationships weather powerful storms, but they are fragile when trust is broken. When a relationship is damaged or a wound reopened, healing is a long and winding path. It requires love, time, honesty, and re-building the foundations of fidelity or trust. Depending on the damage caused, the path doesn’t always lead where we expect or want. Sometimes reconciliation keeps a safe distance, especially when the damage caused is cyclical or abusive. Horizontal forgiveness, especially for serious relational damage or pain, is long-haul soul care.
What about when I know I’m forgiven horizontally and vertically, but I continue to struggle (internally) with my regret? What about when I’m unable to forgive myself?
Suffering is painful, especially if it is regret. But suffering is also the soul’s attentiveness to the deep feelings that pass through us. As Henri Nouwen might say, suffering is a place where we encounter ourselves laid bare. When suffering is unrelenting, we need to seek help. But when suffering is redemptive or meaningful, it can attune us to the possibility and hope of healing and wholeness in God’s bright and loving future. God’s forgiveness does not cease. The judgment of God is that forgiveness and love have the final say. But it’s also true that healing from deep spiritual or relational hurt is like healing from a severe physical injury. Wounds need to be dressed, bathed, cleaned, and redressed through the habits of attentiveness, listening, honesty, hope, and trust. Healing and forgiveness aren’t feelings only; they are a process.