“Justice didn’t do a thing to heal me. Forgiveness did.”
This is the closing sentence of Debbie Morris’s remarkable book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking. On a Friday night in the 1980′s sixteen year old Debbie and her boyfriend Mark were kidnapped while on a date. After shooting her boyfriend in the head and leaving him for dead in the woods, the kidnappers subjected Debbie to two terrifying days of rape and brutalisation. Debbie was not the first girl the pair had kidnapped, but she was the first to survive. There were many times she wished she hadn’t. She spent years struggling with pain, anger, depression, alcohol abuse and guilt. And in the end, it was forgiveness that was her healing.
The refusal to forgive him meant that I held onto all my Robert Willie-related stuff – my pain, my shame, my self-pity. That’s what I gave up in forgiving him. And it wasn’t until I did, that real healing could even begin. I was the one who gained.
Stories like Debbie’s remind me again and again of the power and importance of forgiveness. I have never been the victim of a monstrous crime such as that committed against Debbie Morris. I’ve never had to struggle with wounds so deep only forgiveness can heal. And so strangely, it’s easy for me to believe that forgiveness isn’t as important as it really is. It’s easy for me to hang onto anger, bitterness and resentment. Yet though they may not completely consume me, but a little reflection and I realise that they consume way too much of my emotional energy.
In Matthew 18 Jesus instructs his followers in how to respond when they are sinned against. First, he calls them to take the initiative in restoring the relationship, even when they are the innocent party.
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.
The setting for this teaching is the Palestinian village, where everybody knows one another and a serious breach in relationship has emerged. You can’t escape the other person. Rather than bearing a grudge or retaliating, the wounded person is to seek reconciliation, which can only occur when there is repentance and forgiveness, and speaking to the wrongdoer is the first step.
But what to do if the offender refuses to recognise his sin? He is to be treated as a Gentile or tax-collector. Some interpret this to mean he should be excommunicated, ostracised by the community. I find this an impossible reading, for Jesus’s teaching and example was to welcome the tax-collector, share meals, and show love. Jesus seems rather to be saying, “Do all you can to seek reconciliation, and if that is not possible, show grace.”
This is confirmed by the question Peter asks in response to this teaching:
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Peter’s question reflects the sentiment found in rabbinic writings fom near the time of Jesus, which suggest that forgiveness should be extended up to four or five times, then withheld. There is no suggestion that the offender has repented. Rather he appears to be a repeat offender! Yet Jesus taught that even for the one who sins against me repeatedly, I am to offer forgiveness.
I learn the nature of forgiveness by reflecting on God’s forgiveness of me. At the core is the notion that God heals the breach in our relationship with him not by extracting compensation from us, nor by harming us, but by absorbing in himself the pain our sin creates and releasing us from any debt we might owe him. It is God saying “I will not treat you as your actions deserve. I will not hold you in my debt, I will not punish you, I will not withhold my love. I will offer you my friendship.”
In this light, Christopher Marshall defines forgiveness like this:
Forgivenesss is what happens when the victim of some hurtful action freely chooses to release the perpetrator of that action from the bondage of guilt, gives up his or her feelings of ill will, and surrenders any attempt to hurt or damage the perpetrator in return, thus clearing the way for reconciliation and restoration of relationship.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. To ask someone to erase a painful experience from their memory is not only impossible but can be quite harmful. Forgiveness is not a denial that something terrible occcured, but a determination that although something terrible did occur, we will release the offender from their guilt.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Reconciliation requires repentance on the part of the offender, as well as forgiveness on the part of the offended. Where repentance is lacking, where the offender refuses to acknowledge the pain he or she has inflicted and is unwilling or unable to change, there is no basis for a reconciling.
Forgiveness is not restoration. Where there has been a deep breach in relationship, restoration of a relationship to its previous state is often impossible. Wounds may run too deep to enable the wronged person to continue the relationship.
How then, do I go about forgiving? I find a number of things help me get there:
First, to reflect on God’s forgiveness of me, to realise the damage I have caused myself, others, and the earth, then hear God say, “I forgive you.”
Second, to be completely honest about how I have been impacted by the sin of the other person. How it made me feel, how it impaired me, how it shaped my life.
Third, try to understand the person who wronged me. What was it that brought them to do this? What needs were they seeking to meet? What had happened in their life that meant they acted in this way? In answering these questions I am not seeking to excuse their behaviour, but to understand it.
Fourth, identify the ways I am punishing, or fantasise about punishing, the person who has wronged me.
Fifth, identify what it would mean for me to seek the offender’s good.
Sixth, enact a decision to forgive.
More often than not, I find forgiveness is a process rather than a point, but as Debbie Morris and countless others who’ve experienced deep trauma testify, forgiveness heals.