Forgiveness

Last week, on a friend’s recommendation, Carolyn and I started listening to the podcast “Dirty John.” It’s a six-episode true-crime story, reported and edited by Christopher Goffard of the LA Times. Worth a listen.

Anyway, the fourth episode is called “Forgiveness,” and, as we were listening, I found myself thinking, I don’t think I agree with that understanding of forgiveness. What was being presented as forgiveness (by one person — I won’t name who, so I don’t spoil anything) seemed like a brushing-over, a non-acknowledgment of reality; it seemed more like willful ignorance, choosing to pretend that some very real and important actions weren’t actually real or important.

Eugene Peterson writes (Living the Message, April 28):

The word forgiveness has been watered down by journalistic cant and careless practice. It frequently means no more than, “I’ll let it go this time — I won’t let it bother me — but don’t do it again.” It is the verbal equivalent to a shoulder shrug. So there needs to be repeated return to the New Testament to renovate the word, to discover its vitality, its strength, its power, its versatility; to realize that it is the most creative act anyone can engage in; to know that more new life springs from acts of forgiveness than anything else; and to believe that the parent who is called on to engage in an act of forgiveness is in a literally god-like position.

Another friend recently pointed me to Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our Worldco-authored with his daughter Mpho. My friend said it was tremendously helpful for his own processing and thought it might be good for me too; he was right.

Tutu begins by stating two simple truths:

there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness. When you can see and understand that we are all bound to one another—whether by birth, by circumstance, or simply by our shared humanity—then you will know this to be true.

When you’ve been hurt, that can be hard to hear. It can be hard to want to forgive. It’s much easier when we’ve been wronged to feel justified, to cling to our grievance, to consider ourselves as having the moral high ground, perhaps even to hold on to our right for revenge. At the end of the introduction, there’s a prayer, which begins:

I want to be willing to forgive
But I dare not ask for the will to forgive
In case you give it to me
And I am not yet ready

Too real. And Tutu doesn’t skip over the very real feelings of those who have been wronged, acknowledging the reality and validity of our experiences, while also drawing us forward:

Know that what was done to you was wrong, unfair, and undeserved. You are right to be outraged. And it is perfectly normal to want to hurt back when you have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. … Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.

As Tutu lays it out, the fourfold path of forgiveness and healing is this:

  1. Telling the story: sharing the facts — what happened
  2. Naming the hurt: sharing the feelings behind the facts — what was lost
  3. Granting forgiveness: recognizing our shared humanity — learning to tell a new story
  4. Renewing or releasing the relationship: stepping into a future unfettered by the past
Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1669).

More often than not, we just do #3, without understanding that each piece is important because forgiveness is not just an act for us as human beings, but rather a process. It takes time to forgive — and not time in the sense that if we wait long enough, we’ll forget about it, but rather time in the sense that we may have to forgive over and over again until we have truly given up any right of revenge, any wish for retribution, any desire for the other’s ill.

With TIME Magazine declaring as their 2017 Person of the Year the Silence Breakers — the women and men who spoke up about sexual harassment and assault — #1 and #2 have broken their way into the public awareness, and that’s important. The journey of forgiveness begins with naming and acknowledging the full extent of what has happened.

But it can’t stop there; if we recognize our shared humanity, that all of us will, at some point (and sometimes the same point), be in a position of being the transgressor and the transgressed against. It is forgiveness that unlocks the cycle of retribution and bitterness, that frees us from our past, and opens the way forward.

For me, learning #4 was the most helpful insight. There can be a sense that forgiveness means we must go back to how things were before, as if nothing ever happened. It was liberating instead to read these two options:

Releasing a relationship is how you free yourself from victimhood and trauma. You can choose to not have someone in your life any longer, but you have released the relationship only when you have truly chosen that path without wishing that person ill. Releasing is refusing to let an experience or a person occupy space in your head or heart any longer. It is releasing not only the relationship but your old story of the relationship.

Renewing a relationship is not restoring a relationship. We do not go back to where we were before the hurt happened and pretend it never happened. We create a new relationship out of our suffering, one that is often stronger for what we have experienced together. Our renewed relationships are often deeper because we have faced the truth, recognized our shared humanity, and now tell a new story of a relationship transformed.

Wherever you may be on your journey of forgiveness, with whatever needs to be addressed — or confessed — and forgiven, I pray you’ll have the strength to keep walking.

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