5 Steps to Forgiveness

how to forgiveWe talked about forgiveness in Sunday school last week.  The paschal mystery invites us to experience newness of life, and releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness is one way to say “yes” to that invitation.  A couple participants asked me for my presentation material and notes, so I thought it might be timely to recycle an old post on the 5 Steps to Forgiveness.

Step 1: Name the Action
I am looking for action verbs, here. Putting a name to the wrong done against me sets that action apart as unacceptable. It establishes a healthy boundary defining what is and isn’t ok with me. In the process of pinning down the exact action that upset me, however, I might realize the offense wasn’t so bad. Maybe hunger or fatigue exacerbated my response. Maybe my offender made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory. Realizing this gives me an opportunity to look deeper within for the true source of my resentment. It also allows me to release resentment for one who meant no harm.

Step 2: Name my Feelings
The key here is a simple, blame-free statement. “When you X, I feel Y.” Most things that upset me result less from malicious intent than people intent on their own agenda, oblivious to repercussions. Showing someone the unintended consequences of his actions creates the opportunity for genuine remorse. Even genuine remorse might not pry the lid off my resentment if I fear being hurt again. A candid conversation about how to prevent repeat performances can restore trust. Sometimes wrongdoers have good ideas for that.

Step 3: Own my Actions 
There’s no question that the absence of remorse makes forgiveness hard. The thing I do here is take the unremorseful offender out of the matter and focus on my side of the street instead. I take a cold hard look at how the wounds I received played a role in the wounds I inflicted, and I take responsibility for my impaired response. This is not victim blaming. It’s control claiming. Confronting my misdeeds leads to the realization that I stand in need of forgiveness, too.

Step 4: Seek God’s Forgiveness
We act out our relationship with God in how we treat others. Recognizing how I treat God in the face of how God blesses me fills me with remorse and desire for renewal. When I can honestly say I care less about what my offender deserves than I care about restoring my relationship with God, I’m on the home stretch to forgiveness.

Step 5: Respond to God’s Grace
It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what my offender deserves but as a response to God’s grace towards me!

Join the conversation. Which step do you think is the hardest? Which helps the most?
Copyright 2014 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Prisoners of the Past

past wounds and forgivenessLast month in the county jail we were working on healthy communication, but we had one of those sessions where we never got to the class material because some issues needed airing out.  This is where group therapy gets its potency.  The women’s honesty and courage in sharing their experiences raise everyone’s self-awareness and understanding.  Here’s what came out.

Lauren (name changed) forgave her abusive mother.  It happened in a worship service a local congregation provides for inmates on Sundays.  Lauren described feeling lighter, as if chains wrapped around her ankles had fallen off.  Her mother died years ago, but Lauren’s experience was as powerful as if she had spoken to her mother directly.  Without the blinders of anger and resentment obstructing her view, Lauren could see her mother suffered the same kinds of child abuse to which she had exposed Lauren.  Lauren can now see the threads of both victim and perpetrator weaving through the complex tangle that was her mother’s life.

Lauren said something I lingered over.  Seeing her mother as an abuse victim didn’t allow Lauren to release resentment.  Releasing resentment allowed Lauren to see more clearly the reality of her mother’s complicated situation, and finally, to have compassion for her messed up life.  Forgiveness came first.

Christa (name changed) had a tough week.  With several new inmates in the pod, the environment gets loud at times.  It’s driving Christa crazy, and she’s struggling to contain her anger.  In the jail we talk about anger as a secondary emotion, like the visible part of an iceberg floating on top of emotions hidden under the surface.  Christa had no hesitation in identifying the emotion underlying her anger.  It’s loss of control.  In childhood, Christa endured rampant sexual abuse by her father, brother, uncles, “pretend uncles,” and anyone else to whom her family made her available.  It started at an age before she knew it was wrong.  There was no protection for Christa.  And no control.

Christa drags feelings about loss of control from her childhood like chains wrapped around her ankles into her present situations.  “It’s all connected,” she lamented wearily when examining the origins of her recent anger.  Indeed, it is a worthy lament.

We all do that.  Whenever anger flares, the source of the flame is rarely the immediate situation.  The present situation is merely a spark igniting something that was already there deep within us.  Unresolved hurts from our past – feelings of betrayal, abandonment, humiliation, or shame—lurk within us like invisible explosive gas.  For me it’s hurt pride—feeling put down, belittled, or disrespected.  Even being ignored can be felt as a form of disrespect.

We may think we’re hiding our feelings or that we have reconciled ourselves to past misfortunes.  Here’s the test.  If a seemingly innocuous situation can send us into a fiery fit of anger, then something lies unresolved within.  And we drag that tinderbox of past emotions into every new encounter.  Christa protested, “But forgiveness is hard.”  For someone with her past, I honestly cannot fathom how hard.  Nonetheless, forgiveness remains the only way I know to free us, once and for all, from the chains of painful pasts.

Join the conversation.  When your anger flares, what underlying emotions fuel the fire?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com

How to Forgive in 5 Steps

how to forgiveIt wouldn’t be terribly helpful to ponder why forgiveness is hard without considering what exactly we can do to overcome the obstacles. It seems to me there is a lot written about the healing power of forgiveness but very little about how actually to do it. Here’s where spiritual conditioning can help us do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. These are the steps that help me.

1. Name the Action
I am looking for specific action verbs, here. Putting a name to the wrong done against me sets that action apart as unacceptable. It establishes a healthy boundary defining what is and isn’t ok with me. In the process of pinning down the exact action that upset me, however, I might realize the offense wasn’t so bad. Maybe hunger or fatigue exacerbated my response. Maybe my offender made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory. Realizing this gives me an opportunity to look deeper within for the true source of my resentment. It also allows me to release resentment for one who meant no harm.

2. Name my Feelings
The key here is a simple, blame-free statement. “When you X, I feel Y.” Most things that upset me result less from malicious intent than people intent on their own agenda, oblivious to repercussions. Showing someone the unintended consequences of his actions creates the opportunity for genuine remorse. Even genuine remorse might not pry the lid off my resentment if I fear being hurt again. A candid conversation about how to prevent repeat performances can restore trust. Sometimes wrongdoers have good ideas for that.

3. Own my Response
There’s no question that the absence of remorse makes forgiveness hard. The thing I do here is take the unremorseful offender out of the matter and focus on my side of the street instead. I take a cold hard look at how the wounds I received played a role in the wounds I inflicted, and I take responsibility for my actions. This is not victim blaming. It’s control claiming. Confronting my misdeeds leads to the realization that I stand in need of forgiveness, too.

4. Ask for Grace
I believe we act out our relationship with God in how we treat others. Recognizing how I treat God in the face of how God blesses me fills me with remorse and desire for renewal. When I can honestly say I care less about what my offender deserves than I care about restoring my relationship with God, I’m on the home stretch to forgiveness.

5. Respond to God’s Grace
It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what my offender deserves but as a response to God’s grace towards me!

Join the conversation. Which step do you think is the hardest? Which helps the most?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

5 Reasons Forgiveness is Hard

forgive and forgetHas anyone ever told you to “forgive and forget” or “just let it go”? They make forgiveness sound easy, as if it’s an automatic response to deciding forgiveness is in our own best interest.  But releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness can be monstrously difficult, even when we genuinely want to leave old episodes in the past. It helps to see clearly what holds us back from the forgiveness we desire.  Here are five things that make forgiveness hard.

1. Misconceptions
Sometimes what forgiveness is NOT poses obstacles to forgiveness. Forgiveness does not condone the offense, liberate anyone from consequences, or restore trust. Forgiveness does not compel anyone to forget anything, to tell anyone they’re forgiven, or to stay in relationship at all. If I’m laboring under the misconception that forgiveness requires any of these things, I might quite understandably find forgiveness impossible to do. Fortunately, forgiveness is simply the release of resentment and claim to retribution—no more and no less. It is possible to release resentment and then end a relationship or return to a different kind of relationship with less trust.

2. Accountability
Most of us expect a little recognition for good deeds and to be held accountable for our mistakes. When someone does us wrong, we want that person held accountable. It flows from our sense of justice. If our offender appears to be waltzing off scot free, with no one holding her to account for her wrongdoing, we naturally feel drawn to fill that void. Thus, our desire for justice and accountability can work against releasing resentment.

3. Superiority
Being the victim of someone’s harmful choices can have several consequences. It can really hurt of course, but being the victim can have subtle payoffs as well. Recognizing another’s moral failings can make us feel better about ourselves, or at least better than the moral flunky who did us wrong. In addition to feeling superior, we might feel entitled to something from that person. Our attachment to superiority or entitlement pulls us away from releasing resentment.

4. Connection
In a badly tattered relationship, resentment may be the only thing left between two people. If it’s someone I think I need in my life, I may cling to the resentment because it’s all that’s left. This phenomenon sometimes plays out in parent relationships with adult children. A parent might cling to resentment for adolescent behavior as her only connection to a time when her child needed her. That desire for connection is at odds with releasing the past.

5. Remorse
The big kahuna of forgiveness obstacles is a lack of remorse. Genuine remorse on the part of our offender gives us a sense that forgiveness is complete. Without it, forgiveness feels one-sided and unfinished. Sometimes offender remorse is impossible, though. An addict deeply in denial, for example, doesn’t have the capacity for remorse. In the case of long past childhood wounds, the offender may have died. Even in stubborn cases without any offender remorse whatsoever, there are steps we can take to lead us to the healing power of forgiveness.

Join the conversation. What has made forgiveness most difficult for you?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual Gifts: Justice

reconciliation and forgiveness with shadow selfThere are a few questions I can count on when I do forgiveness workshops, whether I am working with church parishioners, teens or women in jail.  One is, “Do I have to tell wrongdoers I forgive them?”  Despite a genuine desire for forgiveness, there’s a part of us that wants to keep them on the hook.  Resentment is such a powerful idea, we want the ones who did us wrong to think they’re under a cloud of resentment even if they’re not.

One of the reasons forgiveness is difficult, and there are many, is that our sense of justice craves accountability.  People should be held accountable for their bad deeds.  If no one else is holding my wrongdoer to account, if it appears she is waltzing off scot free, then forgiveness challenges my sense of justice.  I may feel I deserve release from my own poisonous resentment, but he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.  I may want retribution for him but restoration for me.

Wrath—vengeful anger with a claim to retribution—is one of the seven deadly sins.  It’s what happens when our natural desire for justice veers towards retribution rather than restoration.  The spiritual disciplines of engagement and abstinence that bring our desire for justice into alignment with God’s will are fellowship and solitude.

In fellowship, we discover, are annoyed by, and eventually appreciate the great diversity of gifts and graces possessed by fellow souls.  Befriending others sustains the community, which in turn, sustains us.  The mutual care is an antidote against by-standing when justice demands we take a stand.  Moreover, when we endure irritations and aggravations, we discover just how nourishing the tokens of relationship can be—not despite our failings, but because of them, because God is present there.

In solitude, retreat from people allows us to appreciate them in new ways and to consider whether we treat them right or love them enough.  Retreat from secular influences and responsibilities inclines us to prioritize God’s will.  Creating space for solitude affords a perspective that reveals the primacy of relationship, though fraught with human frailties, because God is present there.

Reconciliation—whether between people, between groups of people, or within oneself—requires surrendering attachments in order to restore relationship.  Our most persistent attachments are our ideas about our own identity, but we can also have powerful attachments to anger and resentment, to ideas about who deserves what and to particular behavior patterns.  Anyone who has tried salvaging a relationship with an addict can attest to the wreckage visited on relationships due to the inability to surrender attachments to drugs or alcohol.  When I search myself in preparation for the sacrament of reconciliation with God, I find ideas about myself that are past their expiration date.  They’re tough to surrender, even after I see they’re obstacles to my relationship with God and my own inner peace.

It takes spiritual conditioning to be able to recognize the primacy of relationship and, moreover, to have the spiritual fortitude to surrender attachments that get in the way.  The spiritual practices of fellowship and solitude can strengthen our spiritual condition.

Join the conversation.  What steers your conceptualization of justice towards retribution or towards restoration?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Healing from Shame


The tentacles of shame can reach through decades of a person’s life, wrapping around seemingly unconnected events and wrenching the joy from life.  I have friends whose shame originated in childhoods in which they never felt up to grade.  They always felt deficient in some significant and identity shaping way.  For some it was a constant stream of criticism.  For others it was as seemingly benign as a home focus on appearances rather than on the truth, subtly but unmistakably suggesting that the truth is never good enough.

I also have friends whose shame reaches up out of childhood trauma.  That trauma might have been the sudden loss of a parent or, as the Penn State abuse scandal tragically highlights, more often than we want to acknowledge it is child sexual abuse.  The child is made to feel that he is in some way culpable for his own abuse, or in an insidious distortion of logic, the child believes the fact that the trauma happened stands as proof that it was deserved.

The truth, though, is that shame has little to do with the bad things that happened to someone or the bad things someone did.  It has everything to do with the lies that someone started believing about himself when he tried to make sense of a bad situation.  Believing a lie—that the truth is never good enough or that children are responsible for adult actions against them or that you are not credible and no one will believe you—keeps the tentacles of shame alive and strong.  Even incredibly successful people suffer from shame.  In fact, it is their unending need to prove to themselves that they are good enough that propels their success.

While some lies are memories from a long past childhood, or “childhood tapes,” other lies get constant reinforcement.  Many messages propagated in our media, particularly those that connect one’s worth to appearance or wealth, are lies.  Anyone with a TV is constantly exposed to them.  When thinking about parents who won’t forgive, I realized that elderly parents can perpetuate shame lies also.  In the case of forgiveness, people may hold on to resentment because it is the only connection to another person they think they need in their lives.  Paradoxically, the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection.

Similarly, disapproving parents might ache for the time when their kids prized their parents’ approval.  As kids grow up, they find their satisfaction not from parent approval but from the mark they are leaving on the world—in their careers, relationships or communities.  Parents may perpetuate criticism hoping against hope that the adult child will respond by seeking the parent’s approval again.  In any case, it is a lie.  More specifically, it is a manipulation designed to elicit a certain response rather than an honest observation grounded in reality.  The notion that one needs a parent’s approval is a lie as well.  Is it nice to have?  Certainly.  Is it necessary for happiness and joy?  By no means.

Healing from shame doesn’t happen magically when we recall the events that triggered it.  It is when we call out those lies and speak the truth about ourselves to ourselves that true healing begins.

Join the conversation.  Are there lies that you believe about yourself?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

When Parents Won’t Forgive

A woman struggling with forgiveness made a profound impression on me once.  I met her in a reconciliation workshop, and her struggle was with her mother.  Although her mother was in her 90’s, she refused to forgive her daughter for hurtful episodes in adolescence.  The daughter, elderly herself, had expressed sincere remorse and asked for her mother’s forgiveness repeatedly through the decades, but her mother refused.

Recent posts examined reasons for clinging to resentment rather than choosing to forgive.  One reason mentioned is thinking I need to keep someone who did me wrong in my life somehow, and if the relationship is badly damaged, my anger and resentment may feel like the only thing left between us.  Have you ever had a romantic relationship that intellectually you knew was over even though your heart still ached for intimacy?

That doesn’t describe the woman’s relationship with her mother, but it may come closer than it appears at first glance.  Adolescence is an exquisite time in parent-child relationships.  Parents embrace their children as the young adults they are becoming, and simultaneously their children still depend on them heavily.  It makes for an intense kind of intimacy.  The challenges of adolescence only amplify the intensity.  One could make the case that it is the most challenging and most intense stage of relating in a parent and child’s entire lifetimes.

And where does it go from there?  Adolescents grow up.  Maybe they move away for school or a job.  They become independent emotionally and financially.  They find partners and perhaps start their own families.  Along the way, emotional bonds to parents make way for stronger emotional ties to new people in their adult lives.  A parent who aches for intimacy and intensity with her long grown child might cling to resentment, as misguided and destructive as it sounds, because it is the strongest connection back to a more intimate time that she can lay her hands on.

What can the adult child do about it?  Not much.  A post a year ago examined Jewish wisdom for seeking forgiveness, but ultimately, forgiveness is at the sole discretion of the one holding the resentment.   The unforgiven child has choices, too.  Setting appropriate boundaries is healing.  The boundaries may inject more emotional distance, but they may also allow the adult child be present to the parent’s angst.  Recognizing that the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection—may open a new window of compassion on a parent living in an angry past.  That awareness doesn’t compel anyone to endure to an occasional vituperative rant, but it does allow one to see the rant for what it is and to cherish the holy spark of love buried deep in it.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever found a holy spark buried deep inside a painful episode?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgiveness: Do I Have to Tell?

The last post considered whether true forgiveness requires us to tell the people we’re forgiving that they are forgiven.  The question arose out of a conversation with women in the county jail, and they shared several thoughtful observations.

One said that telling the person who had wounded her that she forgave past wrongs was an important point of closure to her painful past.  What if the person who did wrong is dead, someone pondered.  How do you get closure and healing then?  One inmate created a memorial on paper to signify her forgiveness and peace with the past.  It served to remind her that forgiveness was the demarcation between a past in which her choices were limited by her woundedness and a present in which she is free to choose who she wants to be.  The memorial provided closure and healing without facing the other in person, something appreciably more difficult when one is incarcerated.  Another inmate hoped that forgiveness would be a way to hold onto love, even if there was no way to hold onto the abusive relationship.  There was also discussion about what to do if the forgiven person doesn’t have the capacity to receive forgiveness.  Initiating contact with a violent abuser deeply mired in denial and blame, for example, can compromise one’s physical emotional safety.

This question comes up every time I lead a forgiveness workshop, and here’s my answer.  No.  You don’t have to tell the people who caused you harm that they are forgiven.  Forgiveness is not a simple intellectual decision.  Holding a grudge is sometimes described as eating rat poison and expecting the rats to die.  As logical as that sounds, forgiveness involves more than logic.  Resentment has tentacles that reach deep into our emotions and psyches.  The tentacles wrap around our sense of fairness and cling tightly to our desire for accountability.  The process of extricating them in forgiveness is a journey, and the journey most certainly takes longer when the offender lacks sincere remorse and has made no effort to amend past wrongs.  Previous posts have described the process in five steps to forgiveness.  When people ask me whether they have to tell, I encourage them not to worry about that but simply to take the next step on the journey.  I promise that the question will look different at the end of the journey than it does at the beginning.

The truth is once resentment has truly been released—when we have let go of what we hoped for but never came to pass, our claim to hold the other to account, possibly trust or even the relationship itself—we care a lot less about what the offender thinks or knows.  That’s because the process of forgiveness takes the offender and what he deserves out of the center of the matter and puts our spirituality there instead.  When we can honestly say we care more about our own spiritual reality and our personal relationship with God than we care about what our offender deserves, we are on the home stretch to forgiveness.

Join the conversation.  What difference has forgiveness made to you?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

A Question about Forgiveness

A question came up when I was listening to a group of women in the county jail talk about forgiveness last night.  It didn’t surprise me.  The question comes up every time I have led a forgiveness workshop.  It is particularly meaningful to those being honest with themselves about whether they really want to forgive the one who did them wrong.

“Do I have to tell the person I’m forgiving that I have forgiven him?”

Several different motives can give rise to the question.  Sometimes we cling to our resentment because it is our only connection to someone we think we need in our lives.  If we let go of our anger or our claim against the person, there would be nothing between us at all, and that can be a painful reality to accept.  Even when we have known intellectually for a long time that a relationship is over, letting go of the relationship on an emotional level by releasing resentment can be much more difficult.  Other times we hold on to resentment because we don’t want to let the one who wronged us off the hook.  We want those people held accountable, and perhaps no one else is stepping up to that job.  Our sense of fairness tells us those people deserve harsh consequences, not forgiveness.

That sense of justice or fairness is, ironically, what can help us break through a stubborn case of resentment and be free to forgive.  When it seems our offender lacks appropriate remorse or is not suffering the consequences he deserves, we can take a cue from Sister Helen Prejean.  She was the nun behind the movie Dead Man Walking, and movie trailers quoted her saying, “The question is not whether death row inmates deserve to die.  The question is whether we deserve to kill.”

Like Sister Helen, instead of focusing on what my offender deserves, I can take a cold hard look at what I deserve.  No one escapes emotional wounding of one kind or another, and for all of us, those wounds impair how we treat others.  My first response to an angry friend cannot be reaching out in compassion if my first response is protecting myself.  Only one can be first.  In ways that are subtle and blatant, the injuries we sustained get tangled up with the injuries we inflict on others.  In forgiveness, we cannot escape looking honestly at both.  When I take a searching and fearless look at the ways I allowed my wounds to impair how I treat others, I come into awareness of the forgiveness I need.  This is not victim blaming.  It is control claiming.

Whether you think of this inner inventory as taking responsibility for the footprint you are leaving in the world or as healing your personal relationship with God, it is a spiritual exercise.  Take your offender out of the middle of the situation and put your spiritual reality in the center instead.  It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what an offender deserves but as a response to the grace we have received.

Join the conversation.  What frees you from dwelling on what your offender deserves?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual But Not Religious: Forgiveness

Forgiveness just might be the most difficult spiritual work that we do in life.  There are other spiritually difficult tasks, such as putting our trust in a spiritual reality greater than ourselves.  Letting go of attachments to ideas, habits or people that give us sense of security (often a false sense of security) is another difficult one.  Forgiveness requires both trust and letting go.

Forgiveness is the release of resentment and claim to retribution.  It takes a certain emotional energy to keep tabs on what we resent and why.  Sometimes we release resentment because we just don’t have the energy to keep nursing the resentment.  An offender’s expression of sincere remorse can defuse the resentment, making it easier to justify redirecting energy to other things instead.  Forgiveness gets more difficult in the absence of remorse, like if the offender has died or is emotionally incapable of remorse.  Forgiveness is most difficult when it feels like the subject and predicate have flip-flopped.  We may want to be released (passive voice) from the hold the offense has over our psyche rather than releasing (active voice) resentment for it.  How can we reclaim the active voice?

All religious traditions have teachings of one kind or another on forgiveness.  Some practices such as Jewish atonement celebrated at Yom Kippur and the Christian sacrament of reconciliation focus on seeking God’s forgiveness, for which getting forgiveness from others and forgiving others are, respectively, prerequisites.  In my study of how different spiritual traditions approach confession, I was struck by one difference between these religious traditions and the Twelve Steps.  The Fourth Step searching and fearless moral inventory and the Fifth Step admission of wrongs to God, ourselves and another human being are primarily focused not on getting God’s forgiveness but on getting God’s help to change.  That seems immanently more pragmatic to me.

Ultimately, I believe it is also what allows us to reclaim the active voice.  As long as we focus on our resentment, we keep putting the offender in the middle of the situation.  Our injuries impair the way we treat others, and our impaired responses keep dragging our wounded past into our present circumstances.  When we take the offender out of the center and put God there instead, taking responsibility for how we respond to others becomes more important than what an offender deserves.  When we can honestly say we care more about our relationship with God or the footprint we are leaving in the world than what our offender deserves, we are on the home stretch.  Getting to this stage, though, requires trust in a spiritual reality where each person bears responsibility for his own actions.  The act of forgiveness is a response to that spiritual reality, not a response to what our offender does or does not deserve.

Forgiveness also requires us to let go of several things: what we think our offender deserves, what the offender owes to us, and perhaps the relationship with the offender entirely.  Sometimes we hold onto resentment because it is the only thing connecting us to someone we think we need in our lives.  Letting go of ideas, habits or even people may be our most important step towards healing.

Join the conversation.  What helped you let go of a stubborn case of resentment?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.