“Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Step 8 & 9 of the Twelve Steps
(This post is the 9th in a series based on a book by Richard Rohr, Breathing under Water, which focuses on the relationship between spiritual formation and The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Look for past posts in the Category “Breathing Under Water” on the right sidebar of this blog.)
When I was about 10 years old, I was playing with a group of neighborhood kids one late summer afternoon when one of them, Billy, did something I didn’t really appreciate. I have no memory of his sin against me, but I surely do remember my sin against him. I whipped a heavy rope at him which left a large red welt on his cheek. He ran home in tears. Somehow my mother learned of the incident and angrily called me home. She met me on the front steps and made it very clear that I couldn’t come in the house until I apologized to Billy.
I told her that I couldn’t apologize because I wasn’t sorry; he deserved it! Of course that made her angrier and she went inside and locked the door. Now, my mother and I had many battles of will before then (and many after this), so she should have anticipated what would happen. I stayed on the front porch until dark (about 4 hours), until she finally let me in. I never did apologize.
Making amends was not part of my lifestyle as a child. And, I am chagrined to admit, it has only been in the last decade of my life that I have put into action the process described in steps 8 and 9 in the Twelve Steps – because it hasn’t been until now that I really understood forgiveness.
In Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr says, “God fully forgives us, but the ‘karma’ of our mistakes remains, and we must still go back and repair the bonds that we have broken. Otherwise others will not be able to forgive us, will remain stuck, and we will both remain a wounded world. . . . our family, friends and enemies are not as kind or patient as God. They need a clear accounting to be free and go ahead with their lives.” (This was surely true for Billy and me; we never did play together or even talk to each other again.)
Rohr then mentions that “nothing just goes away in the spiritual world; all must be reconciled and accounted for. All healers are wounded healers, as Henri Nouwen said so well. There is no other kind. In fact, you are often most gifted to heal others precisely where you yourselves were wounded, or wounded others . . . . You learn to salve the wounds of others by knowing and remembering how much it hurts to hurt” (p. 69).
So after we have taken a moral inventory, become ready to have our character defects removed, and asked God to remove them, we are now ready to deal with people we have harmed and to “become willing” to make amends. It is important to note that this step is about a process; it acknowledges that our spiritual journey is “the process of becoming conformed to the image of Christ” as M. Robert Mulholland explains. And if it is to be authentic, it is a process we cannot rush. “To offer an apology in a way that can heal takes wisdom and respect for others,” Rohr reminds us. “Apologies that sound more like wanting the person to know how wonderful and Christian you are to forgive them” rather than a genuine expression of a “softened heart” take some “clean-up work inside” (p 71).
The 9th Step reminds us that making amends must be direct, done face-to-face but only if the amends will not” injure them or others.” Amends are not made to help us feel better, but to bring healing to the relationship. If not done in this manner, an apology can actually make the problem and the hurt worse. Rohr gives this advice:
not everything needs to be told to everybody
- “total disclosure” is not always fair or even helpful. Just because it is factually true does not mean that everyone can handle it or even needs to handle it. Pray and discern what the other needs to hear and also has the right to hear.
- the other person(s) “may need to talk it through, hear our understanding and often our sincere apology. Usually they need to offer their understanding of the situation and how it hurt them. Neither side needs to accuse or defend, but just state the facts as we remember them, and be open to hear what the other need, heard, or felt”(p 70).
Finally, Rohr reminds us in an unforgettable image that “the geometry of the cross should tell us that we need both dimensions, the vertical and the horizontal” (p. 71). We need to confess to our Heavenly Father and make amends to those here on earth.