Ten years ago this month a man walked into an Amish school in Pennsylvania and shot eight little girls, killing five of them. What happened next caused a nation to stand in awe of the families of the murdered and wounded girls. They forgave. Many of the families visited the man’s widow, parents, and parents-in-law to comfort them. It is reported that the father of one of the victims held the father of the perpetrator for nearly an hour as he sobbed. They attended the funeral of the man to support his wife and children and even set up a trust fund for their care. I watched in amazement at the behavior of the Amish community and wondered if I would have the grace to do the same.
Although my pain is nothing like that of those families, I still have hurts that need forgiving. As I write this, I find myself in a struggle to forgive. I have been planning this blog for several months, but only four weeks ago did I come face to face with my own festering grudges. I was talking to my counselor during our regular session when I heard myself speak about my frequent nightmares and how they relate to my past experiences. Bitterness was coming out of my mouth. Was that me? A man who believes in the fundamental importance of forgiveness within his Christian faith and for his physical, emotional, and mental well-being speaking with rancor? “I sound bitter, don’t I?” I whispered. She said yes and then proceeded to tell me that I was “stuck.” “Oh, God help me!” I cried. My unforgiving spirit had halted my march toward wholeness. It loomed as a catastrophic avalanche, consisting of a multitude of real and perceived hurts inflicted upon me by others, cutting off my path to peace.
The late poet, Maya Angelou, wrote that forgiveness is “one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.” According to an article written by the staff of the Mayo Clinic, forgiveness can give one “healthier relationships, greater spiritual and psychological well-being, less anxiety, stress, and hostility, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, (a) stronger immune system, improved heart health, and higher self-esteem.” That is quite a round of benefits. Tyler Perry affirmed, “It’s not an easy journey to get to a place where you forgive people. But, it is a powerful place, because it frees you.”
There are two passages from Matthew where Jesus taught on forgiveness that has always challenged me. The first is a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgive like God? Willingly? Unconditionally? Without justice? The second is Jesus’ discussion with Peter about how often we should forgive in a day and the parable of the ungrateful servant in Matthew 18:21-35. Jesus said our forgiveness was to be limitless because, how can I, with an unpayable debt to God, experience His forgiveness and then be so ungrateful as to refuse forgiveness to s/he who, comparatively speaking, owes me so little? How can I reach this standard?
(The following outline is loosely based on one given by Stuart Rothberg, but the comments are mine.)
- Name your pain.
Betrayal. Physical, sexual, and/or mental abuse. Bullied. Disrespected. Unfaithful. Forsaken. Forgotten. Abandoned. Character assassinated. Patronized. Demoted or fired. Little or no confidence shown in you. Crime against my person, loved one, or property. . . .
Forgiveness begins with recording your story about the person or thing that hurt you and its consequences. Who was involved? What happened? When and where did it happen? How did it and does it make you feel? Write an honest and comprehensive story.
- Be a survivor.
The person or thing that causes you to feel like a victim will always control you until you take charge of your feelings, emotions, and thoughts. Stop defining your life by your pain. Give up expecting something from someone that they are unwilling or unable to give. Determine to be an over-comer.
You may never meet the person who hurt you again. S/he may not even remember you or think about what s/he has done to you. Waiting for an apology or an explanation keeps you trapped. Take back the keys of your heart and mind and release yourself from the jail of the victimized.
- Release the grudge.
“Justice” is an abstract idea that may never happen and may never satisfy you if it does. Revenge may taste sweet, but it sours the stomach. As a boy I waited the whole week of junior camp to take revenge on a boy who hit me. All week I befriended him. We went everywhere together. The time came and I reared back and hit him with all I had. He looked at me with a look of betrayal and crumbled into tears. I did not feel anything like I thought I would. I felt awful and our friendship did not last.
Let the legal system or God be the avengers. Release the right to personal revenge. Forgive the debt owed to you by your offender.
- Let go of bitterness and anger.
What prompted my own crisis of forgiveness was a phone call. Several months before I sent a letter of apology to an individual taking responsibility for my role in the decay of our relationship. I think I had expected a reciprocating letter taking responsibility for their role, but no. What I got was a justification for their actions and no acknowledgement of wrongdoing. All the hurt came back like a flash flood. I thought I had forgiven, and perhaps I did, but the conversation brought back all the old feelings and I indulged in the bitterness and anger. I allowed a root of bitterness to be planted, nursed, and grow all over again. Now here I am repeating the process that I thought was finished.
The peculiar thing about forgiveness is that it has to be repeated, often for the same offense, the same offender, and throughout the same day.
- Give up the right to tell your story.
My pastor preached on forgiveness a couple of weeks ago. He did not need to get my attention because I knew God had my number. The sermon was going along fine until he said the true test of forgiveness is when you, “Give up the right to tell others (your story).” He went on to say that on those occasions when you do tell your story, “It does not sound like it happened just yesterday.” Ouch! I am not there, yet.
- Realize that forgiveness is both an event and a process.
The act of forgiveness is an event that can be dated and timed, but getting relief from the pain is a process. It is a daily journey and we may have to repeat one or more of the above steps as we go along. Give yourself time to get there.
Forgiveness does not condone the wrong. It may not even require reconciliation. In some cases reconciliation is impossible or inappropriate. Forgiveness is more about you, your peace, your well-being, than it is the offender. “Forgiveness,” someone said, “is a choice for the brave and the courageous.” Well, I must be off to forgive again . . . and again . . . and again . . .