The act of forgiving is one of the toughest challenges any human being ever faces but, writes Steve Chalke, it is also one of the most liberating
The only daughter of a devoted mother and father was killed in a hit-and-run accident while out riding her bike. When eventually arrested, the driver responsible was discovered to have no licence – it had been revoked as a result of a prior dangerous driving conviction – and no insurance.
At the trial that followed the driver was sent to prison for manslaughter. But for the dead girl’s parents, prison was not enough. After his daughter’s killer had served his sentence, on the day of his release from jail, the girl’s father borrowed a gun and shot him as he stepped through the prison gates.
Amazingly, the man survived. The girl’s father, however, was arrested for attempted murder. At his trial he confessed that he had wanted to kill his victim, and that the only remorse he felt was that he had not succeeded in his bid to avenge the death of his daughter. In spite of this confession, he was acquitted. The jury found the driver – who had never once shown the slightest sign of remorse for the life he had taken – so repulsive that they delivered a unanimous verdict of ‘not guilty’ for the attempt to murder him.
Even this was not enough for the girl’s parents. For them, the issue was still far from resolved. As the months and years passed, rather than finding release from their bitterness through the retaliation they had already exacted, they became yet more consumed with the thought of revenge.
So it was that almost a decade later, the girl’s mother was askedon national television if she wished that her husband had succeeded in his attempted murder. “No,” came her surprising, but equally chilling, reply. “I need to pull that trigger myself. I need to watch him die in front of me, and know that I’m responsible.”
The act of forgiving is one of the toughest challenges any human being ever faces, but, however demanding, it is also one of the most liberating. Lack of forgiveness chains us to the anger of the past. “Whoever opts for revenge, should dig two graves,” says the old Chinese proverb. To put it in the words of a farmer from the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, whose daughter was taken hostage and killed at the local school in 2006, “The acid of hate destroys the container.”
Holding on to anger and resentment has a disastrous impact on our wellbeing. It’s like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode inside us. There is substantial evidence to suggest that bearing a grudge aggravates illness, undermines health and destroys inner peace. Put bluntly, people who bottle up their resentment are far more susceptible to suffering than those who are able to defuse it by translating their emotions into acts of forgiveness. Though it is counter-intuitive, only forgiveness brings freedom; freedom, not only for the recipient of our forgiveness, but also for ourselves.
In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches his apprentices to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. But the question is – is that possible? Psychologists Robert Enright and Everett Worthington Jr have identified two types of forgiveness: decisional and emotional. They define decisional forgiveness as a deliberate, conscious commitment to control negative behaviour, even if negative emotions continue. Though decisional forgiveness promises not to act in revenge, it doesn’t necessarily make the person who chooses this action feel more benevolent towards those who have wronged them.
In calling us to forgive rather than retaliate, Jesus wasn’t asking his followers to go ‘all gooey’ about their enemies. Instead, he was calling them to a determined act of decisional forgiveness. Though a decision to forgive does not mean that bitter feelings would automatically or instantly be erased, emotional transformation is more likely to follow.
Emotional forgiveness happens when negative emotions – resentment, hostility and even hatred – are slowly replaced by positive feelings. Thus, forgiveness is both a short term act and a long term process of transformation.
A commonly held misconception is that granting forgiveness is really a matter of fairness. Because of this, many believe that we can contemplate forgiveness only after justice is done, once we have ‘got even’. True forgiveness is, however, the act of pardoning the deliberate wrong that has been done, without seeking punishment, compensation or even apology. Furthermore, where possible, it also involves embracing and being reconciled to the person responsible. Forgiveness of this kind is not ‘fair’. It is an enormous challenge. But it is also immeasurably worthwhile.
Though forgiving is sometimes seen as an occasional, noble act, its true benefits are discovered as it becomes a continuous attitude of life. Forgiveness is the wisest approach, not just to life’s major hurts, but to the ongoing, minor, repetitious irritations of everyday life as well. Indeed, it is our response to these everyday ups and downs that slowly but surely shapes our character.
It was CS Lewis who pointed out how we often confuse ‘forgiving’ with ‘excusing’. He reflected that people often talk about forgiving someone else by excusing what they did: on the basis that they couldn’t help, or didn’t mean, what they said or did. But he pointed out that if someone is not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. Genuine forgiveness only begins when there are no excuses left.
‘Real forgiveness,’ he writes, ‘means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the person who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness.’
Forgiveness does not condone the wrong. It does not deny the pain inflicted. It gains power over the evil we have experienced by choosing to leave it behind. Though we may remain deeply wounded, we choose to forgive through a conscious act of will. This is precisely the type of forgiveness that we are offered by God. Apprentices who know they have been forgiven so much are called to offer mercy to others who have offended them. Or, as Paul phrased it, in his letter to the Christian community at Colossae, to learn to: ‘Forgive as the Lord forgave you.’
A teacher asked his apprentices how best to judge whether the darkness of the night had ended and day had dawned. “When you see the first eagle take to the sky?” volunteered one apprentice. The teacher shook his head. “When you see the mist lift from the field?” suggested another. The teacher lowered his eyes. “Tell us then,” said the apprentices, “Is there any sign that we can trust?”
“When you can look into the eyes of any man or woman and recognise them as your brother or sister, only then dawn has come,” replied the teacher. “If you cannot do this, then however bright the sun is shining, it is still night."