Driving home one evening I heard an interview that piqued my interest. The man being interviewed was talking about forgiveness and the difficulties of personal forgiveness. He spoke about his own personal struggle with forgiveness after an episode with violent bullying when he was in middle school. He had been beaten and shamed by a gang of fellow students and the event scarred his soul, coloring the rest of his life. Learning how to forgive an episode such as that was the basis for the book he had written. The author’s name is Brian Jones, and his book is called Getting Rid of the Gorilla: Confessions on the Struggle to Forgive (Standard Publishing, 2008).
A compelling premise combined with a catchy title prompted me to purchase a copy of the book, which I did, and then read while on vacation not long ago. As a pastor who must teach and example forgiveness on a continuous basis, this seemed like a great potential resource for my church. Perhaps Jones’s story could help others who are struggling with forgiveness to learn this difficult challenge.
I was completely disappointed with the book.
Now, why am I writing about it? Why don’t I just quietly recycle the book (as it deserves) and attempt to purge the memory of it with other, more helpful tomes? Because a few things—two in particular—about this book were so frustrating that I believe they warrant the following thoughts.
The first problem with Jones’s book is that he fundamentally misdiagnoses the problem about which he is attempting to write. Jones’s diagnosis is this: an unforgiving heart is like a gorilla in the room of our lives, and this central image is drawn from a visit Jones took to the zoo. There, an angered gorilla began strangely hurling gorilla droppings at Jones. Growing angry in response, Jones began shouting back at the gorilla until a zookeeper urgently stopped him, informing him that the gorilla was only in the cage because it didn’t know it could escape if it wanted. Jones had an epiphany regarding his own heart; suddenly his own experiences of unforgiveness became comparable to a gorilla—lurking in rooms, making itself known without permission, hurling things about, making a mess of relationships and lives.
What’s the problem with this diagnosis? Well, the things Jones describes for the symptoms of the gorilla are not sourced, necessarily, in unforgiveness, but rather in rage. Each time Jones describes the gorilla what he is really describing is anger. Rage—excessive anger—and unforgiveness are separate things, and this is because anger is a broader thing than mere unforgiveness; it has a multiplicity of sources (boundary issues, divorce, disappointments, loss, etc.). When we give full vent to our anger it can grow into rage, and fully developed rage (very much like Jones’ gorilla) in our lives is a kind of beast that must be treated—first by identifying its source, then by treating the symptoms.
Why is this misdiagnosis such a problem? Because if you are pursuing the help of a physician for a physical problem, the cure depends upon a proper diagnosis. If you go to the physician complaining of stomach pain, it’s no benefit to you if he sends you home with Pepto-Bismol when in fact you have gallstones. A misdiagnosed illness cannot be cured (and if it is only ineptly and accidentally), and in the same way Jones’s misdiagnosis will make it difficult to cure the problems he is addressing in the book.
The second major criticism of Jones regards his use of scripture. In one of Jones’s many stories he tells of a man who came to him for counselling when Jones was a new, green pastor. The man spoke about sexual abuse as a child, and Jones took out his bible and read Matthew 6:14-15—the concluding comments from the Lord’s Prayer, that “if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” The man’s response to this was to stand and say, “I don’t know much about the Bible, but it’s pretty clear that the person who wrote that had no idea what’s like to be raped by his grandfather.”
In part because of this experience, Jones works to reinterpret the passage, claiming, contrary to Jesus’ direct statement, that “Our forgiveness is not dependent on forgiving others” (78). Jones acknowledges the uniqueness of his claim (then has the gall to cite church figures [Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards] who support the original interpretation!). But Jones disagrees with the bible, Jesus, and the Church Fathers on the following basis: he claims that the word of God is divided into two covenants, and that all the teachings of the New Testament prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus are part of the Old Covenant. In other words, “When Jesus said that in order to be forgiven one must forgive others, that’s exactly what that teaching meant to the people who lived under the Old Covenant arrangement” (p79, italics his). To be fair, what Jones appears to be reacting against is a forgiveness that is ‘legally’ extracted from the people of God. And yet this claim should raise alarm bells for every thinking Christian.
Think about it for a minute—what separates one passage from another? Why did the Church keep all these words of Jesus if they were only teachings for a particular time? What did Jesus mean when he commanded the disciples to teach others what he had taught them (Matthew 28)? In the very next chapter Jones moves into a discussion of the Lord’s Prayer—the passage immediately preceding the one he quoted to the poor, abused soul. But by his logic isn’t this a prayer for Old Covenant people? How can this be a prayer for the church today?
In this, Jones has employed a highly mercenary exegesis—an interpretation of convenience. Passages that he likes are used. Passages that he dislikes are dismissed with a flurry of poor exegesis. And what we must see in the tragic story of Jones reading Matthew 6 to the abused man is that Jones has attributed to the bible what is in fact a pastoral failure. The bible is not the problem here, Jones is.
There are a host of other complaints I could offer about this book; Jones’s storytelling is an exercise in the non-sequitur; his use of the Greek aptly demonstrates the exegetical fallacy; stories are plentiful while content is scarce. And perhaps one of the most frustrating things about Jones’ book is that it is composed of so many of the criteria that one would expect from a stellar book on forgiveness—discussions of rage, intimacy, and forgiveness that are intimately linked and given power by personal disclosure. But here the pieces fall apart. We hold in our hands a book with the appearance of wisdom, but little of its content; the illusion and hints of truth that never come into focus. Perhaps, then, the only thing of value here is Jones’s disclosure and personal stories of the difficulty of forgiveness. But then again, you knew that already.
For those interested, a far better book on forgiveness is David Augsburger’s The Freedom of Forgiveness (review forthcoming). Or, if you’re not the reading type, you can watch The Karate Kid, Part II (and read my review of it here).