Forgiveness: Myths and Process

by Dcn. Wayland Moncrief

On August 10th, 1969, Susan Struthers entered her parents home and found the mutilated bodies of her parents lying on the floor. The horror of this bloody orgy sent her into shock, a nervous breakdown, and years of agonizing recovery.

We know God asks us to forgive, that He requires us to forgive, but how are we to forgive such hatred, violence, and utter disregard for human life and values? How are we to forgive such premeditated evil? How can we forgive the loss, the pain and suffering, that we have endured? How can we find love for those who attack us, subject us to violence, or slander our reputation? How can we restore peace in our hearts?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus grants the Church the authority to forgive sins. He says, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” But the power to forgive sins is certainly not limited to the Apostles. Nor is it limited to priests. While we don't have the authority to grant absolution in God's name, we all have the capability, and responsibility, to forgive.

While we all cherish being forgiven for our sins, forgiving ourselves and others can be difficult. Yet, as Christians, forgiveness is not only required, but it is critical for our community. It is critical for our own mental and spiritual health. As the Lord commands us to be generous, to be great givers of our resources, so we are commanded to be generous in love, and generous in forgiveness, just as the Lord is generous with us.

Adulterous Woman

Adulterous Woman
Artist: Unknown 1

Forgiveness is almost always difficult. Even the simplest gestures of insensitivity cause us anxiety. However, we often increase the difficulty of forgiveness by a lack of understanding. The hurt we feel when we are wronged almost always involves multiple issues. Not recognizing these issues as separate and distinct from the requirments of forgiveness makes forgiveness complicated, and finding adequate solutions difficult, if not impossible. So, what is forgiveness and how do we forgive? First, we need to look at a some common misconceptions about forgiveness.

Misconceptions about Forgiveness.

Forgive and forget:

  1. Forgive and forget: this is common advise, so why is it classified as a misconception?
  2. We are creatures with a memory. The truth is we can't forget. Many of us can remember hurts that occurred five, ten, or twenty years ago. We can even remember hurts from our childhood. So simply forgetting is not usually possible.
  3. Even if we were capable of erasing our memory, doing so would be dangerous and just expose us to being hurt again.
  4. Forgetting the issues we face does not resolve anything. While resolution with our offender may not always be possible, ignoring the issues we face doesn't even allow for resolution within ourselves. It is just an attempt to sweep dirt under the rug. The real issues will eventually resurface. True forgiveness requires resolution, especially a resolution within ourselves.
  5. Fortunately, forgiveness does not require erasing our memory. Quite the contrary it requires a realistic evaluation of events. It requires objectivity and truth: truth of ourselves, truth of the wrong done, and truth about our offender.

If we forgive, then we'll just be hurt again.

  1. As we have just said, ignoring the issues we face is dangerous. Forgiveness does not mean setting aside good judgment. Forgiveness requires truth and objectivity.
    1. Persons who have been abused must forgive, but they are not required to put themselves in danger.
    2. A wife that has been beaten is required to forgive, but she is not required to live with her offender.
    3. If someone robs us, that person is not automatically entitled to our trust. Trust is earned.
    4. If someone slanders us, or intentionally damages our reputation, that person is not automatically entitled to our friendship. No one has the right to damage our reputation, and we are always free to chose our own friends.

If we forgive, then we surrender our right to justice.

  1. Sacred Scripture tells us, "The LORD is slow to anger and rich in kindness, forgiving wickedness and crime; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless ... " (Numbers 14:18, NAB) Forgiveness in not a declaration of innocense, not does it ignore the offense.
  2. Forgiveness does not excuse our offender nor diminish the requirements of justice. In fact, forgiveness makes true justice possible, because it removes the bias and predujice of revenge. Only when the bias of revenge is removed is justice truly objective and fair.
  3. Our offender is still responsible and should be held accountable for his transgressions. He is still required to make restitution for loss and damages.
  4. The power to pardon is in our hands. Jesus, said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34, NAB) Notice that Jesus did not deny what they had done.

We can't forgive until we are asked to forgive

  1. This is critically important. Forgiveness does not depend on others.
  2. Our offender will seldom know that we have forgiven them. Telling our offender that they are forgiven is a matter of judgement and not always advisable. If done, it has to be done in a way that will not reignite our differences.
  3. Forgiveness is 'our' path to healing. It is something we do for God and for ourselves. If we expect an apology we are most likely to be disappointed. If we wait for an apology, then we surrender control of our healing. Why would we want to put our happiness into the hands of the person who hurt us?
  4. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves. Why would we want to carry around the burden of anger and hate?

If we forgive then we forfeit the possibility of change

  1. Forgiveness does not forfeit the possibility of change. It enables the possibility of change.
  2. Resuming a relationship is a complex matter, and it is not always advisable. We must truly forgive, but the best way to proceed in a particular situation usually involves finding solutions to many problems.
  3. Refusing to forgive makes finding appropriate solutions impossible.

So, what is forgiveness?

Forgiveness literally means 'giving back life'. Forgiveness is an act of our heart and our will. It is commanding our heart to love those who have hurt us without surrendering justice, our human dignity, or our rights as Children of God. In it's most difficult sense, it is loving our enemy and doing good to those who persecute us.

How do we forgive?

  1. The first step is asking God for the desire to forgive.
    1. The Book of Sirach tells us: "Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner holds them tight." When we are hurt, we hold the pain in our hearts. We want to protect our pride. Forgiveness requires recognizing and coming to terms with our pride.
    2. Forgiveness is a process and may take a long time. It usually starts in a desire to restore our own inner peace. We want to end the turmoil in our minds and hearts. In the beginning seeking inner peace may be all we can manage. However, that peace can only be fully restored in forgiveness. We start by asking God to give us the desire to forgive, and that desire needs to be nurtured, refreshed, and sustained in prayer.
  2. The second step is restoring the humanity of our offender.
    1. In recent wars we fought Krauts, Japs, and Gooks. Why? Because it is easier to kill a Kraut than a young German philosophy student. It is easier to drop a bomb on a Gook than to incinerate a poor Vietnamese farmer. Labels such as these dehumanize our offender.
    2. In our pain the one who hurt us is not entitled to respect. In our emotions he does not deserve compassion. He is no longer a member of the human family. He is no longer a spirit created in the image and likeness of God. No, he is a liar, a cheat, a jerk, an idiot, an animal, or a fool.
    3. Forgiveness requires restoring the humanity of our offender. The great golfer, Lee Trevino, once said, "Nobody plays with a full deck" , meaning no one has all the grace and skills he needs. Our offender, like us, 'is a person tottering on the fringes on extinction. He is a hodgepodge of good and evil, decency and meanness, truth and lies, just like us'.
    4. By restoring our offender to the human family, our own vision is cleared and we see through a lens less smudged by hate and revenge.
  3. The third step is surrendering our desire to get even.
    1. The poet Homer once wrote, "[Revenge] tastes so sweet, we swirl it around on our tongues and let it drip like honey down our chins."
    2. Revenge is an extension of our pride. We want our offender to suffer like we did - to feel the same pain, the same betrayal. We want him to turn and burn in hellish agony. Yet, in reality, the poison of revenge falls, not on our offender, but on us. It drips evil into our spirit, toxins into our humanity, and cancer into our souls.
    3. The act of forgiveness takes away the poison. By surrendering our right to get even, by leaving justice to the proper authorities and to God, we restore our own health. In turning our hurt over to God, the one perfect and just judge, we restore our own sense of justice.
  4. The fourth step is revising our feelings.
    1. Forgiveness requires courage. If we allow the prompting of the Holy Spirit to guide us, our desire for peace is transformed. Forgiveness then becomes an divine and holy act. Our will continually reminds us of our intent to restore peace, and commands our emotions to forgive. This sustains us in difficult times where triggers may reignite our anger and passions.
    2. In this step we ask God to change our hearts and to bless our offender. No matter how we tried to disguise it, what we felt before was simple hate. In seeking blessings for our offender, we team with God in a miracle of healing – and in the process experience the healing of God in our own hearts. The more ernest our prayers are for other, the more our hearts are transformed: releived of bitterness and wrath.
  5. The fifth and final act is not really a step to bring about forgiveness, rather it deals with maintaining our peace.
    1. In dispelling the myths we said that forgiveness doesn't require forgetting our offender or the offense. The truth is we can't forget, and even if we could it would be dangerous.
    2. Sacred Scripture tells us that true love 'does not brood over injury' . The Book of Sirach takes this even further saying, “Do not give in to sadness, torment not yourself with brooding; gladness of heart is the very life of man, cheerfulness prolongs his days. Distract yourself, renew your courage.”
    3. This is advice well worth following. Brooding over our injuries gives them life and takes away our peace. As the Book of Sirach states, “Distract Yourself'. When we find our minds turning toward our injuries, that is an opportune time to count our blessings, contemplate the Goodness of God, and renew our spirit. If our brooding cannot be healed through reconciliation with our offender, then it can be put to death by redirecting our thoughts. As the text states, “Distract yourself ... gladness of heart is the very life of man.”

While in prison, Tex Watson, the most brutal of the Manson Family murderers, experienced a spiritual conversion. Hearing of this, Susan Struthers began writing Watson anonymous letters. A year later she traveled to meet the man who had so brutally murdered her parents. After several visits, Susan knew that Watson's remorse was genuine and she revealed her identity. With the memory of the mutilated bodies of her parents in mind, how difficult it must have been for Susan to forgive. Yet, in 1990, she testified at his parole hearing - in favor of his release.

Peter once asked the Lord, “How many times must I forgive my brother?” But Peter's question views forgiveness only from one side - from his injury. He does not want to risk being hurt, but he doesn't consider the dangers of refusing to forgive. But Jesus turned Peter's question around. We too, need to turn the question around. So when Peter asks, “How many times must I forgive my brother?” , Jesus, in essence, replies, “How many times should I forgive you?” 1

Topics for Meditation

  1. "Can we harbor anger against our brother and expect mercy from the Lord?" (Sirach)
  2. "Compassionate and merciful is the LORD; he forgives sins, he saves in time of trouble." (Sir 2:11).
  3. "Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ."
  4. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”. (Lk 23:34)

Topics for Discussion

  1. What are the consequences for refusing to forgive?
  2. Who are the beneficiaries of forgiveness?
  3. Why does God demand forgiveness?



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