Holden Village Staff Experience August, 2003

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Forgiveness: What we know doesn't help.

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We know the importance of forgiveness.  Parents, teachers, pastors, the words of prayers and hymns, and the culture united to drum it into our heads, especially if we were brought up in the Christian tradition.  But most of what they taught us was the wrong stuff.  At best, they gave us half truths, and at worst they instilled a set of erroneous beliefs which prevents us from doing the very thing we desire - to forgive.  What we learned not only keeps us from beginning the process; it also keeps us from knowing when we have finished.


  • "Don't be judgmental.  Judge not, and you will not be judged."
  • "It's your own fault.  You made him do it."
  • "You had a part in what happened too.  It's at least half your responsibility."
  • "You must be tolerant."
  • "You haven't really forgiven someone unless you have forgotten the past."
  • "Don't get mad.  Get even."
  • "You haven't really forgiven someone unless you are reconciled with him."
  • "You can't forgive unless the other person apologizes."
  • "God forgives you.  You should do no less.  You must forgive seventy times seven."

Forgiving is never easy, but it's almost impossible unless we rethink the belief system most of us learned and still cling to.


We want to heal and be free from the nagging pain that lingers after a great wrong has been done to us.  We want to move on and not be stuck; to live free and grow to become more of who we were created to be.  Forgiveness offers this healing and freedom, if only we limit ourselves to the act of forgiveness and refrain from attempting those tasks that should not accompany it.


Much of what I write below comes from The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don't Know How, by Lewis B. Smedes, but my own beliefs and embellishments are liberally sprinkled throughout.



What forgiveness is - and is not


Forgiveness is an internal process that changes the forgiver, healing his or her heart and soul.   It is not a process that can be used to change the forgiven person, or to heal a broken relationship. 


When we forgive, we do only three things:

  • We come to see the humanity of the person who has wronged us. We come to see him or her as a flawed individual who did a wrong thing that made us suffer.  We no longer see the person as an animal; we no longer label him such things as a liar or a cheat.
  • We give up our right to vengeance.  We relinquish our desire to see the person who hurt us suffer in return, perhaps in proportion to the amount of suffering we've determined they've inflicted on us.  Notice that we don't give up our demand for restitution, or for justice.  Vengeance goes something like, "I want to see you suffer, and know that you are suffering because of what you did to me."  Justice goes something like, "You need to make amends."  Don't confuse the two.
  • We wish the other person well, genuinely hoping that good things will come to him or her and giving up the desire to see the person hurt.

That is forgiveness in a nutshell.  There is no more, no less.  That is what we have to do, and that is all we have to do to forgive the other and heal our own pain.  And to begin the process, we may need to rethink our set of wrong beliefs about the nature and process of forgiveness.



How to do it (Forgive, that is)


First, own your pain.  Forgiving is a remedy for our own pain, and we have to make it just that: our own.  Smedes suggests that ownership goes beyond mere possession: it represents taking personal responsibility.  It is not enough to simply feel our pain.  We need to appropriate it: Be conscious of it, take it on, and take it in.  We need to acknowledge it, admit that we feel it, to ourselves and to anyone else who wants to know.  We need to name it: Identify it for what it is and what it is not.  We need to evaluate it: Ask ourselves whether it matches the kind of wrong we were done.  Finally, we need to take responsibility for the pain: Decide what we are going to do with it: hold on to it, get even for it, or heal it.


Second, take your time; don't rush.  We all suffer smaller hurts that can be forgiven quickly, but quick forgiveness of serious wounds often makes things worse.  If you move quickly towards forgiveness, consider why you're doing that.  Many people forgive too quickly to stifle anger they believe is evil, to avoid confrontation, to do what they believe they should do, or (in the worse case) to gain advantage over another, placing the forgiven person at obligation to them.  When you've determined you're ready to heal, you're ready to forgive.


People who have been wronged and wounded badly should give themselves time and space before they forgive.  It would help to follow these five steps:


Think: Come to as much clarity as you can about what went on.

Evaluate: Were you truly wronged?  Was it an accident, or did he know what he was doing?

Talk: Consult with a friend or counselor.

Feel: Be alone with yourself so you can get in touch with what you feel.  Name it.

Pray: Be honest to God.  Tell God how much you hurt, how full of hate you are.  Ask for help, and use it when it comes.


Finally, wait for the situation to be ripe before you forgive.  But don't wait too long, letting your rage settle in to claim a right to your soul.  Do not become your bitterness and the poison within you.  There is a right moment to forgive, but we cannot predict it.  We can only get ready for it.  Only the hurting person can know when the time has come.  The wise person will act when it has.



A word about spoken forgiving


You don't have to say anything.  When we believe we've finally forgiven the person who wronged us, we may want to tell them.  We might feel that we haven't completed the process until we have done so.  However, we need to discern whether or not this is the right thing to do.  Smedes suggests taking your time, sizing up the risk of telling, waiting until the person you've forgiven shows a small sign that he is ready to hear from you, being oblique in telling, beginning by wishing good things for the person you've forgiven (out loud), keeping it short and light, and giving the other person time.


Spoken forgiving works best when we do not demand the response we want.  We must leave people free to respond however they are inclined.  If it's not what we hoped for, we continue our healing in private.



Rethinking our erroneous beliefs


If and when we do the things above, we have forgiven.  But our erroneous beliefs can both prevent us from beginning the process, and prevent us from recognizing that we have finished it.  We need to examine them, rethink them, and craft a set of new beliefs that will enable us to forgive.



"You must forgive, and more importantly, you must forget."


"One of God's better jokes on us was to give us the power to remember the past and leave us no power to undo it. ... It would give us some comfort if we could only forget a past that we cannot change.  But the ability to remember becomes an inability to forget when our memory is clogged with pain inflicted by people who did us wrong."   (Smedes, Introduction)


We can't forget.  It's not in us; we're given a memory, and it works.  Don't think for a minute that your inability to forget becomes an inability to forgive.  Forgetting isn't in the list above, and it does not erase the bitter past.  A healed memory is not a deleted memory.  Instead of enabling us to forget, forgiving creates a new way to remember.


We remember the good parts of the bad past, but we do not recreate it to be better, less painful, or more tolerable than it was.  A wrong was done to us that wounded us deeply.  Forgiving does not edit the wrong from our memories; it only helps us remember the positive things that follow it.


We remember the past with truth.  We get new courage to recall what happened even though it wounded us badly.  We also dare to recall our own responsibility for what happened to us, if we have any.  Forgiving gives us eyes to see ourselves in truth for what we were and what we did to add to our own pain.


We remember with a new respect for ourselves.  Victims often twist the wrong someone else did to them into something that is wrong with them.  If someone abandons us, we imagine what we were not worth keeping.  If someone abuses us, something bad in us must have made them do it.  But when we forgive, we name the wrong and aim the blame straight into the eyes of the one who wronged us.  Ironically, in doing this, our self-shaming memory is healed.


We remember with sadness.  We can feel the healed pain again and be glad for the moment's connection with the past.  We may need to grieve; we may experience regret, but we can still forgive.


We remember without illusions.  Once we have gone through the work of forgiveness and have cultivated the honesty needed, we can look back on the past and remove the illusions that may have been in place for us, and be ready for possibilities and hope.



"When you forgive, you are reconciled to the other person"


In the movie Chocolat, Josephine escapes from her physically abusive husband Serge, and finds refuge in the chocolate shop, where she is able to heal, rediscover herself, and find joy.  The mayor of the town, shocked at Serge's treatment of her, forces him to learn some manners, and convinces him that his treatment of Josephine was wrong.  Chastened, Serge shows up at the chocolate shop, all dressed up, with his hat in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other.  Josephine answers his ring; he apologizes in all humility and offers her the bouquet.  She accepts both his apology and the flowers. 


"I promise you," he says sincerely, "Things will be different when you come home."


Josephine refuses to go home with him.  Has she forgiven him? 


We don't know unless we ask Josephine.  The point is, we can't tell from whether or not she goes home with Serge, that she has forgiven him.  Forgiveness and reunion are separate, and very different.  Do not confuse the two; forgiveness does not automatically restore the relationship to the point before the wrong took place.  In order for reunion to happen, there are often amends to be made and trust to be rebuilt.  Forgiveness is not dependent on either, and we may have good reasons for not seeking reunion with the person who has wronged us. 


In fact, it is likely that Josephine cannot forgive Serge unless she does not reunite with him. 


Forgiveness removes our anger, hate and desire for vengeance, but to restore a relationship, there must be repentance and restitution on the part of the other.  (If I have stolen your pen, I can't just ask for forgiveness to reunite with you.  I have to give your pen back!)  A person can truly forgive and refuse to be reunited.  Reunion can happen only if the person who has wronged us is honestly sorry, and only if we can trust that person not to wrong us again.   Once we have forgiven, we are not expected to go back to where we were before the rupture took place.


Being forgiven does not qualify a person to be a friend, spouse or partner.  And if he does not qualify, we are better off to walk away and heal ourselves alone.


Reunion may be such a threat that it prevents a wounded person from forgiving.  We must understand that forgiving is not an obligation to return to abusive situations.  The surest way to convince some people not to forgive is to tell them that if they forgive, they must go back to the person who wounded them.


If we have forgiven, we have removed one obstacle to reunion: that of our own bitterness.  Whether the relationship heals depends pretty much on the forgiven person.



"You can't forgive someone unless he apologizes first."


If we wait until the person who wronged us apologizes before we forgive him, we fall victim to our rage and our wounds while we wait.  We need to understand that forgiveness happens within ourselves; it is not an interaction with another.  When we wait for an apology, we may be confusing forgiveness with reunion, or (in the worst case), we may be using others' apologies to obligate them to us.


Smedes gives five arguments against forgiving an unrepentant person and counters each one.


If a person who wrongs us does not repent, he doesn't deserve to be forgiven. 

Nobody deserves to be forgiven.  Forgiveness is only for people who don't deserve it.  Being sorry does not earn us the right to forgiveness.


Forgiving someone who does not repent is just too hard to do. 

Forgiving unrepentant people is a no-lose opportunity to start your own healing.


To forgive an unrepentant person is not fair to ourselves. 

Are we fair to ourselves by prolonging the bitterness and hate?  Are we being fair to ourselves when we let the other, the very person who wronged us, decide when we get to forgive?


To forgive an unrepentant person is dangerous; if he feels no sorrow for what he did, he is likely to do it again.

Forgiving is not tolerance.  We do not invite the person we forgive to get close enough to us to hurt us again. 


The Bible says that we have to repent before we can get forgiven.

Does this mean that we should not forgive anyone until he is sorry for what he did?  We cannot afford to wait for this before we begin healing ourselves.  The person who hurt us should not be the one to decide whether or when we should recover from the pain he brought us.


Keep in mind that there is a difference between forgiveness and reunion.  If a person who has wronged us wants to reestablish the relationship, he must come in sorrow and repentance.  We cannot expect to be forgiven without being sorry for the wrong we did.  But we should not demand sorrow for the wrong someone did to us.  Repentance does not earn the right to forgiveness; it only prepares us to receive the gift.



"Don't be judgmental.  Judge not, and you will not be judged."


In other words, forgiving someone means you stop blaming them.  Wrong!  Sometimes we think that to forgive someone, you must make light of the wrong they did you, or excuse it.  The simple exchange of, "I'm sorry," and the reply, "Don't worry, it was nothing," does not apply to situations requiring true forgiveness.


If you are going to forgive, you are going to forgive a deed that hurt and wronged you.  It was not nothing; it was big enough, hurtful enough and wrong enough to cause you a great deal of pain and to cause you to remember it with hurt, pain and anger.  Any deeds of less significance don't require forgiveness; they can be excused or borne with magnanimity.  We're talking here about the big ones; the ones that require us to judge and blame the other.  Were talking about naming a wrong and holding another accountable for doing it to us.


We don't like to blame others; in fact, we prize the ability to stand in someone else's shoes and understand why he did what he did.  Or we like to think his intent was good and that he never meant to wound and wrong us.  "Judge not" may have been drummed into our heads from the first time we got angry at someone for treating us badly.


But when we fail to blame people, we cannot forgive them.  However unpopular this stance may be, we need to adopt it before we can forgive, in spite of the fallacious beliefs that keep us from blaming the persons who have wronged us.  Smedes suggests the following fallacies.


The "Who am I to judge?" fallacy asserts that imperfect people have no right to judge others.  It's designed to keep us humble.  But this type of humility keeps us from judging evil when we see it; it keeps us from holding those who do us wrong accountable for their actions.  We, as rational human beings, have the right and the obligation to size up others' actions and to assign responsibility to them; that is, we must not fail to place the blame for hurtful and wrong actions on the perpetrators.


The "blame-share" fallacy states that if we share responsibility for a wrong done to us, we are disqualified from blaming the person who did it.  While it is desirable to accept our responsibility in any situation, we cannot believe that doing so disqualifies us from holding the other responsible.  We can, however, temper our blaming with humility in these situations, but we must, in all humility, hold the other accountable for his actions.


How about the fallacy that "to understand someone is to forgive him"?  All we have to do is walk a mile in the other's shoes, and we realize why he did what he did.  But when we understand someone in this way, forgiveness is not necessary, because we find ourselves able to excuse his behavior.  And if we freely excuse the behavior, we do not need to forgive.  We only need to forgive the behaviors that we fail to understand, no matter how hard we try.  In fact, when we say we've forgiven someone because we've come to understand why he did what he did, we have not forgiven him.  We've excused him.


Smedes suggests three tests to determine that someone is to blame for the wrongs we have suffered: (1) The person did the deed.  You know it; he knows it.  If you don't know for sure, hold on until you do.  (2) He meant to do it.  He knew what he was doing and intended to do it, not because of fate, or by accident, but by choice.  (3) He initiated the action.  No one forced him to do it. 


If all tests check out, then he is accountable for wrongdoing.  If what he did wounded and wronged you personally, you blame him.  Only then do you consider forgiving him.


Don't rush into blame.  You could be wrong.  But Smedes' point is that forgiving always comes with blame attached.  Its for the tough-minded; for the ones who know their own faults, but who recognize a wrong and dare to name it.



"You must be tolerant."


Smedes suggests that the following assumptions about forgiving and tolerance are nonnegotiable:

  • Some things are intolerable in and of themselves no matter how many people put up with them. 
  • Intolerable things are forgivable.
  • Forgiving an intolerable wrong does not make it tolerable.
  • Forgiving an intolerable thing does not mean we intend to put up with it.

How often do we forgive?  As often as we need to.  When people ask how often they should forgive, what they usually want to know is how much abuse they need to put up with.  They are not really asking about forgiving.  They are asking about tolerating, and they need to understand that forgiving and tolerating are two very different things.


Forgiving is not an obligation.  It is an opportunity to do something good for ourselves after someone has done something bad to us.


Forgiving is not about letting people get away with something.  It does not mean that we tolerate what that person is doing to hurt us; does not turn us into mush.


Forgiving is not about staying with people who are hurting us.  It is not about tolerating abuse.  We need to set limits - but not on forgiving.  It is abuse we need to set limits on.  Only when we get away from abuse can we even think about forgiving.


"What Jesus said about forgiving seventy times seven had nothing to do with putting up with things until the seventy times eighth offense.  Jesus was telling us not to make forgiving a matter of numbers.  He was talking about healing our memories of a wound that someone's wrong etched in our cemented past.  Once we have stopped the abuse, we can forgive however many times that it may take us to finish our healing."  (Smedes, p. 161)



"As a Christian, you are obliged to forgive."


Are we obliged to heal ourselves?  If someone says this to you, ask what they think you are obliged to do.  Often, they want you to implement one of their mistaken beliefs about forgiving.


Perhaps these people want us to reunite with the person who wronged us; perhaps they want us to excuse the wrong and not hold the other accountable.  Perhaps they are telling us to tolerate what is intolerable.  Unless their insistence that we are obliged to forgive arises out of a genuine desire for our personal healing, it is not only untrue; it is absurd.


I suspect, however, that they want to be healed of their own pain, and they believe that our reuniting, excusing, and tolerating will accomplish that.


It would be good if we could, in all charity, remind them what forgiveness is, and what it is not.  We are not obliged to heal ourselves.  We can only forgive when the desire for our own healing is present.  And our forgiveness of another cannot heal the pain of a third party.



In Summary

  • Forgiveness happens in the mind and heart of the forgiver.
  • Forgiveness does not restore a relationship, nor does it obligate anyone to return to an intolerable situation.
  • Vengeance and justice are two separate and distinct things.  In forgiving someone, we give up our right to vengeance, but not our demand for justice.
  • We forgive people only for hurting us and wronging us by what they have done, not for who they are.
  • We cannot forgive someone unless we have first blamed them; that is, we have named the wrong and held them accountable for doing it.
  • Forgiving someone does not mean we tolerate someone's abuse.
  • Forgiving someone does not cause us to forget the past, but to remember it differently.
  • We are not obligated to forgive.  That would mean we are obligated to heal ourselves!


Peace be to you.



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