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 ten 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?

Adulterous Woman

Mercy
by Ron Dicianni1

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.” 1 But the power to forgive sins is certainly not limited to the Apostles. Nor is it limited to priests. And, while we don't have the authority to grant absolution in God's Name, we all have the authority and capability 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.

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 usually involves multiple issues. Not recognizing these issues as separate and distinct from the requirements of forgiveness makes forgiveness complicated and finding adequate solutions difficult, if not impossible.

Adulterous Woman

Adulterous Woman
Artist: Unknown 2

Misconceptions about Forgiveness.

  1. Forgive and forget:
    1. Forgive and forget: this is common advice, 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. So, simply forgetting is not possible.
    3. Even if we could forget, 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, and the hurt, will eventually resurface.
    5. Forgiveness requires a realistic evaluation of events. It requires objectivity and truth: truth of the wrong done, truth about ourselves, and truth about our offender.
  2. 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.
    2. Persons who have been abused must forgive, but they are not required to put themselves in danger.
    3. A wife who has been beaten is required to forgive, but she is not required to live with her offender.
    4. If someone robs us, that person is not automatically entitled to our trust. Forgiveness is a must, but trust and respect are earned. We are always free to choose our own friends.
  3. 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 … " 2
    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 of revenge. Only when the desire for revenge is removed is justice truly objective and fair.
    3. Just as we are responsible for our transgressions, our offender is responsible for his, and should be held accountable. We are both required to make restitution for any loss or damage.
    4. The power to pardon is in our hands. Jesus, said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”3 Note that Jesus did not deny what they had done.
  4. We can't forgive until we are asked to forgive.
    1. This is a commonly held belief and critically important. But the truth is: our forgiveness does not depend on others.
    2. Our offenders will seldom know that we have forgiven them. Telling our offenders that they are forgiven is a matter of judgment, and is not always advisable. And 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, if we wait for an apology, then we are very likely to be disappointed. Why would we surrender control of our own healing to our offender? Why would we want to put our happiness into the hands of the one who hurt us?
    4. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves. Why would we want to bear the burden of anger and hate?
  5. If we forgive then we forfeit the possibility of change.
    1. Forgiveness does not forfeit the possibility of change. It makes change possible.
    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 time and judgment.
    3. Changing a relationship usually involves finding solutions to multiple issues, refusing to forgive makes finding these solutions impossible.
  6. If we still feel the pain, then we haven't truly forgiven.
    1. Forgiveness is an act of the will. It is not based on emotions. We may take solace in that we have forgiven as Our Lord demands, and that comforts us. But, it does not mean that our pain, and our emotions, will go away.
    2. Forgiveness is not a warm fuzzy feeling. It is not a panacea for our pain. Forgiveness and reconciliation are very different. Reconciliation with our offender is normally a very complex intellectual and emotional procedure.

In discussing these misconceptions, I hope you can see how these beliefs make forgiveness very difficult. Perhaps, they have hindered your attempts to forgive and further aggravated your pain. Forgiveness isn't meant to be that hard.

So, what is forgiveness?

Forgiveness literally means 'to give back life'. Forgiveness is an act of our heart and our will. Our will commands our heart to love those who have hurt us - without surrendering justice, without surrendering our human dignity, and without surrendering our rights as Children of God. It is following Our Lord's command to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us.

And, 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."4 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, that often takes a long time. It starts in a desire to restore our own inner peace. We want to end the turmoil in our minds and hearts.
    3. In the beginning seeking inner peace may be all we can manage. However, that peace can only be fully restored in forgiveness. We need to ask God to give us the desire to forgive, and that desire needs to be nurtured, refreshed, and sustained in prayer.
  2. The second step involves 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, we feel the one who hurt us is not entitled to our 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 of 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 a 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 God, we restore our own health. In turning our hurt over to God, the One Perfect and Just Judge, we restore our 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 transformative. It becomes a divine and holy act. Our will must continually remind us of our intent to restore peace, and command our emotions to forgive. This sustains us in difficult times where triggers may reignite our 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 earnest our prayers are for the other, the more our hearts are transformed and relieved from the bitterness of wrath.
    3. Once you can truly pray for God's blessing for your offender, then you have truly forgiven, even if the pain is still with you. And if you cannot pray with a sincere heart, then keep praying until you can. At some point, your prayers will override your emotions, and you will truly want the best for your offender. The pain you feel signals a lack of resolution, but it does not diminish your act of forgiveness. If we can pray with a sincere heart for God's blessing on our offender, then we have fulfilled Our Lord's command.
  5. The final step deals with maintaining our peace.
    1. Reconciliation is a far more complicated process than forgiveness. Do not assume reconciliation is always possible. Forgiveness is something you can control - something you can do for yourself.
    2. Reconciliation with our offender, on the other hand, requires knowledge, communication, and an willing desire by both parties to come to terms. It requires a thoughtful plan, and a receptive opportunity.
    3. 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”5
    4. 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 re-living our injuries, that is the time to count our blessings, to contemplate the Goodness of God, and renew our spirit.
    5. If our emotions cannot be healed through reconciliation, then they can be put to death by redirecting our thoughts. As the text states, “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?”

Baruch Hashem

Discussion

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

References

Images

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