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Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’

Does anyone else ever struggle between forgiving someone and then having the weight of it hit you all over again and you feel like you never really did forgive? I guess more therapy is in order.

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I’ve heard and read a lot about forgiveness lately. My pastor recently addressed the topic in a sermon, a favorite author/blogger of mine blogged about it recently, and it’s a constant topic on Dr. Phil. It’s frequently addressed on talk shows, in magazine articles, and even in the news. Just what does it mean to forgive, really, and are we capable of it?

We’re taught from the time we are small to apologize for things that we do wrong. We’re also taught, if we’ve been taught good manners, to accept an apology from someone who apologizes to you. Growing up, I can remember giving and receiving less-than-heartfelt apologies to and from my brothers, cousins, and even friends. Usually, my guilty conscience would kick in immediately and I would plead for forgiveness from whoever I had wronged, sometimes because I was truly sorry and sometimes because I was afraid of getting in trouble. Most incidents, as children, were forgiven and forgotten in the space of minutes, hours, or, at most, a few days. Rarely did we hold long-lasting grudges; forgiveness came easy then.

It’s more difficult to do that when the wrong goes a little deeper than calling someone a bad word. So many people have injustices committed against them that can’t just be brushed off, that stay with people through their lifetimes. Murder, whether of a family member or against an entire people, rape, molestation, betrayal, all of these create any number of negative, devastating feelings that can’t simply be dismissed with a simple, “I’m sorry”. How does one forgive in cases like these?

As Christians, we are told to forgive. I love the story of Peter asking Jesus exactly how many time he must forgive. I can picture him asking, “Seven?” hopefully before Jesus tells him that, no, he must forgive seventy times seven, in other words, always. Even when his brother, Andrew, doesn’t clean out the fishing boat for the fifth time that week. I’m making that last part up, but you get the idea. The point is, Christians must forgive, over and again, if necessary. The hard part is actually doing it.

There are unclear specifics to this forgiveness business, however. Are we expected to forgive instantly? For some offenses, I think it’s fairly easy. I can forgive the jerk who cuts me off in traffic and narrowly misses my bumper pretty quickly, even on a bad day. Sure, it’s irritating and it could have resulted in an accident, but it doesn’t imprint my psyche in a devastating way. It’s forgotten in a matter of minutes, especially since driving in Metro Detroit promises that being cut off will be a daily event. But when an argument happens between two friends or family members, it can take a little while to forgive the harsh words and bluntness that come with that. Whether both parties are sorry for happened, or only one is, the sting needs to wear off before one can look at the situation rationally, out of the heat of anger. Saying that you forgive someone, only to bring it up again in a later fight is only lip service and not real forgiveness. True forgiveness means that one has let go of the anger, bitterness, and resentment that lingers after any kind of altercation.

Sometimes, forgiveness comes easily once we understand the circumstances behind an offense, possibly finding out that, in actuality, there was no offense. A spouse’s anger at the other for being late to dinner is quickly dissipated when a flat tire and a dead cell phone are responsible. An invitation that never happened wasn’t a slight, simply absentmindedness or a mistake. The hurt and worry might be there, but no one needs to be forgiven. Life happens.

Forgiveness for those other offenses, though, those deep, dark, things that affect someone’s life forever, those are the tough ones. I’ll never forget the story of the Amish schoolgirls who were all killed by a lone gunman who broke into their schoolhouse one unassuming day, seeking revenge on God for allowing his baby daughter to die. He sent the boys out and shot the ten girls that remained before killing himself. Five of the girls died. That same night, the Amish proclaimed that he was forgiven for this horrible crime. The gunman’s funeral was attended by the Amish, who publicly prayed for his family. By their actions, the Amish seemed to have really forgiven the man who so callously took their daughters away. (http://lancasterpa.com/amish/amish-forgiveness/) I have to wonder, though, in my heart of hearts, do they all really forgive? Do they really have the peace that comes with forgiveness? I’ve had to forgive some pretty big things in my life. I know how it feels when you really do let go of that bitterness. It feels clean inside, like someone opened a window, and when you think back on that hurt, as you inevitably will do from time to time, there’s no residual left. It becomes a non-issue. I don’t know how the Amish have done it, especially the families of those girls. I truly, honestly, hope that they have forgiven, that they can honestly be at peace with what happened. I don’t mean “be at peace” as in what happened was okay, but that they were able to not hold on to any anger nor have any desire for revenge. That’s a huge misconception about forgiveness, that by forgiving, you are excusing what was done. That’s not it at all. Forgiveness is giving yourself permission to let go of all of the negative feelings that linger after you have been done a wrong. I want the Amish to be spared the horror of reliving that event, day in and day out. I admire their courage and that they were able to pull together and support not only each other, but the family of the gunman. I don’t know if I could have done it that soon or that absolutely.

I also know how it feels to try and forgive, over and over, and even to think that you have forgiven, only to have those feelings come crashing back in on you. This is ongoing in my life. I was molested as a child for several years by my mother’s husband. I won’t go into specifics, but suffice it to say that I have a lot to deal with as an adult. Therapy is a wonderful thing and it helps, but I have to view it as part of a process, not a quick-fix. There are a lot of feelings to still be sorted out, a lot of rage that had built up inside of me for years that I had hidden away while I put on a happy face. I only thought to get professional help when I felt my emotional world crumbling around me. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t stand that my abuser still walked free, without a legal taint to his name because of the statute of limitations, that people defended him, that people still thought he was a good guy, even though I knew that he was a scum ball. It still bothers me to this day. I have a lot of trouble letting that anger go. I don’t know how. I pray for God to take that bitterness away, to make it disappear, to give me peace, to let me forgive. Sometimes, I think He has, that it is gone, and I’m free of it. I feel triumphant and joyful; I have forgiven, just like I have been forgiven! Then, a flashback happens. Or a bad dream. Or a news story where some child is taken advantage of. It’s in those moments that I feel like I haven’t forgiven at all, like it’s a wound with a scab ripped off, raw and bleeding. I hate that feeling. I wish I could rise above it and someday I believe that I will, but I haven’t yet. I can’t imagine having to forgive the perpetrators of genocide, dictators, human traffickers, and other people who somehow think it’s okay to use their power to purposely hurt others. My situation doesn’t even compare to what some of those victims go through and I wonder how they go on. Some turn to revenge, alcohol, or other self-destructive behaviors, but I’m sure that some of them have forgiven their demons, too.

Forgiveness is a sticky subject. As I said before, it doesn’t mean excusing the fault. It also doesn’t mean that you have to reconcile with the people that you forgive. Reconciliation means renewing a relationship and in some cases, that’s just not doable. The person you forgive may have died, they may be dangerous for you to be around, such as an abuser, or you just might not want a relationship with them anymore, for whatever reason. There’s nothing in the Bible that tells me I have to let toxic people back into my life and really, it would be self-destructive to do so.

What about those situations where you’ve done something wrong, realized it, asked for forgiveness, but none is given? I’ve been in that situation, too. I wronged one of my very best friends in my late teens by blatantly lying to him about someone I was seeing, hurting him deeply. When I was found out, I blamed everything else but me. My apology was no good, mainly because I didn’t take responsibility, and he knew it. He never spoke to me again. I can look back now as a mature adult and totally understand that his anger was justified, not only by what I did, but by my lack of ownership and lackluster apology. I know I wasn’t forgiven and it still comes back to haunt me to this day. I screwed up a really great friendship over a relationship that only lasted a couple of months. Brilliant. Maybe the person who deserves an apology from you has died, or you’ve lost contact with him/her over the years. I look at these situations like this: I’m not going to receive forgiveness, therefore, I’m going to learn from my mistake(s). I try and make sure that I take ownership when I mess up, whether it’s at home, work, or just out in the world. I teach my children and my students that it’s better to ‘fess up than to lie about something they did wrong because it will be much worse when you’re caught. I value trust and honesty and force myself to be up-front about things much more than I ever did as a stupid kid. Does it always work? No, there are plenty of times when I don’t communicate well because it’s hard for me, but that doesn’t mean I will stop trying.

There are a lot of grey areas here, none of it is black and white. It’s not easy. Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant when he told Peter that he must forgive seventy times seven times. It’s a process, not cut and dry. I only know that I am called to forgive, as I was forgiven.

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