Essay, Faith

The mechanics of forgiveness

First published July 15, 2013. $400 bought my resentment and scorn.

Roadside flowers 2010

When I was in college, one of my roommates had a girlfriend who still lived in his hometown. He missed her a lot, and spent a couple hours on the phone with her every night. One day he abruptly quit school and moved back home to be with her.

The next phone bill was for $400. (Remember when we paid by the minute for long distance?) He’d left me no way to contact him, so there I was, left to pay this enormous bill. Oh my goodness was I ever angry.

After a couple months, he called and wanted to talk with me. With a huff, I said I wouldn’t take the call. He called a couple more times but I still wouldn’t have anything to do with him. But then he sent me a check for $50. Another small check followed, and later another, and then another, and after about six months he’d paid me back in full. And then I was able to let go of my anger. I forgave him, and I was willing to be his friend again.

And I had it all wrong. All wrong.

Roadside flowers

For those of us who follow God, it’s clear that God wants us to forgive and be reconciled when others fail us. Jesus even made it part of the model prayer: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. The whole point of Jesus going to the cross was so that God could forgive us and be reconciled to us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are simply core to the Christian life. Yet the Bible is maddeningly silent on why (other than because God said so) and, especially, how we should do that.

To fill in some of those gaps, I’m going to have to invoke the Nazis. Please bear with me.

When I lived in Terre Haute, a woman named Eva Kor was frequently in the news because she built a holocaust museum there. Terre Haute might seem like the last place you’d expect to find such a museum. But that’s where Eva ended up after she was liberated from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Eva had a twin sister, Miriam. When Eva’s family arrived at Auschwitz, the girls were separated from their family, whom they never saw again. They certainly all died in the gas chambers. Meanwhile, Eva was injected with something – bacteria, a virus, something deadly – and was left to die. This was the practice of Dr. Josef Mengele, who gathered twins in the camps to experiment on them. He would inject one twin and wait for death, then quickly kill the other and autopsy both bodies to compare them.

Hello, Spring!

Unexpectedly, Eva survived her injection. At about the same time, the camp was liberated and Eva and Miriam were freed. But can’t you imagine how Eva must have felt? Her anger, resentment, and emotional pain had to be off the charts.

Yet in time she chose to forgive. In 1993, Eva flew to Germany to meet with one of the doctors who worked at Auschwitz. They went together to the camp, which still stands as a memorial to the slaughter. And there, in front of reporters and cameras, she said it: “In my own name, I forgive all Nazis.”

You would not believe how angry this made many of the other concentration-camp survivors. Their pain and anger was just too deep for them to let go. But Eva Kor is certain that she did the right thing. She will tell you that her forgiveness does not mean she has forgotten what happened. She just chooses not to hold it against the Nazis anymore, so that she can be at peace.

Peace – this is why we should forgive. Holding on to anger, resentment, and bitterness harms us. Like a loving parent, God does not want to see us harmed. And when we harbor those feelings, it can lead us to treat others poorly, or to retaliate against the one who harmed us. God doesn’t want to see us harm any of his other children, either. Even if you don’t follow God, peace is an incredibly compelling reason to forgive.

First color

To forgive means simply to let go of resentment, to no longer hold something against someone. It means that you accept what happened to you. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that you agree with what happened or think it is right. It also doesn’t mean that you automatically have to restore the relationship with the person who harmed you. It means only that you take the hit, suffer the loss, bear the pain, and give up your right to get even. The pain will eventually subside, and you will be left with peace.

Sometimes it takes a very long time for the pain to subside. Consider Eva Kor, who announced her forgiveness almost 50 years after the fact. I haven’t had anything as monstrous happen to me as happened to Eva, but I’ve learned a few things about how to forgive, and here they are.

  1. Don’t wait for someone who has hurt you apologize or to make it right. They might never. Sure, it’s easier to forgive then, but if you wait for that, you will carry your pain until you do.
  2. Pour out your heart to God. Let him know the pain you feel. Ask him to heal you, to ease your pain. If you don’t believe in God, pour your heart out to a trusted friend.
  3. But try not to keep turning it over in your mind, because it can become a self-defeating bad habit. When you find yourself ruminating, distract yourself. Go to a movie, get out of town, call a friend – fill your mind with something else.
  4. Keep asking God to bless that person, to watch over and protect that person, and to lift that person up. Remember Matthew 5:43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Again, if you don’t follow God, then decide within yourself to always wish that person well.)
  5. Cultivate compassion for the person who harmed you. Try to understand why they may have behaved that way – what happened to them that made them behave so badly toward you? We all have a backstory that explains who we are and how we behave. This isn’t meant to excuse their behavior. It’s just meant to soften your heart.
  6. Some days you’ll wake up willing to forgive but as the day goes on your anger and pain will be more intense than ever. This is just how it goes sometimes. Forgiveness can be a day-by-day thing. When this happens, just get up tomorrow and decide to forgive anew.

Can you see how forgiveness is a process? The bigger the hurt, the bigger the loss that must be grieved, and that takes time and attention.

What do you do to forgive that I haven’t listed? Please share in the comments. And in my next post, I’ll talk about reconciliation – why it’s a separate step from forgiveness, and when it may not be a good idea, even though it’s God’s ideal.

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