I was facilitating a discussion in a group of people who have survived emotional and physical damage as children, including me. We were talking about how important forgiveness is to our emotional wellness. The discussion was not going well. Some in this group are rooted in fear and anxiety because of what others did to them when they were helpless; they have no interest in trying to forgive what seems unforgivable.
I told them that forgiveness and apology have not been my first instincts. When I hurt someone, overwhelming guilt choked an apology. When someone hurt me, my thought was: “They should pay for what they did.” As an example I told two stories from my life – one as an 8-year old child who refused to forgive and one as a forty-something woman who couldn’t forgive.
In the first story, a group of kids and I were playing with a thick strand of twisted rope in a neighbor’s back yard. I can’t imagine what we were doing with it, but when a younger kid from across the street wandered over and wanted to play, I didn’t want him around. When he persisted, I whipped the rope at him to make him go away. It hit him in the face and he let out a scream. All of us were scared when we saw the red welt on his face; we took off running.
By the time I got home, the boy’s mother was on our front steps. She and my mother were looking at the crying boy’s face. I tried to escape into the garage, but my mother saw me. She told me to apologize. I refused. “I’m not sorry,” I said. The upshot of our (loud) conversation was that I could not come in the house until I apologized. Finally, hours later (after dark) I was still sitting on the front step when my mother came out and let me in the house. I never could make myself apologize.
This stubbornness continued into my 40’s when my very wise counselor told me that I needed to forgive my mother for her role in our very poor relationship or I would never be emotionally healthy. After several weeks of continued discussion, I finally came home from yet another appointment, sat on my bed, and yelled at God, “I don’t want to forgive her, so if you want me to, you’ll have to do it!” Years later I realized that God had done just that work in my heart.
And then, just this week, I read this true story about an incident of grace told to Walt Wangerin, pastor and writer. A woman had been raped for years by her father as a small child. When he finally stopped, her brothers took over. Years later she was leaving a church service trying not to be noticed. At the door, the pastor took her hand and said gently, “I’ve seen how you sit crumpled in the last pew.” He asked if he could visit her the next day. She eventually revealed her story of despair. He looked kindly at her and said, “Diane, I think that you haven’t reached [an important part] yet. Forgiveness.”
She responded with the same reaction I had when my counselor recommended forgiveness: “But what if I can’t forgive?”
“You don’t have to,” the pastor said. “Forgiveness is a free gift freely given. Its source is the crucified Lord Jesus. Listen, now. This is very important. If forgiveness is forced on you, if churches demand that you forgive someone, then it becomes a law that must be obeyed. It isn’t freely given. You see? I don’t doubt that the one who sinned against you needs forgiveness. But he is the one who disobeyed. So let him go straight to the source of grace. Let him go the cross and fall down before it and confess his sin.”
Retelling this story to Walt Wangerin, Diane said, “It’s the not having to that set me free. . . . . The morning of the twenty-third of December – I will never forget the date – I woke up so lighthearted I was like a feather floating in the air. And I knew why. I had actually forgiven my family! Can that happen in my sleep? Why not? Even that is a gift” (Walt Wangerin in Wounds are Where the Light Enters).
I plan to share Diane’s moment of understanding with my friends in the group: forgiveness is a free gift, freely given by Jesus. All we have to do is be open to receiving the gift and sharing it as needed. I hope this understanding will be freeing for them as well.