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.

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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.

Addiction and Child Sexual Abuse: One Man’s Story of Healing

 A reader responding to my post on Releasing Resentment touched me deeply with this powerful story of healing and life change. It is my fervent hope that anyone locked in a bitter struggle to overcome child sexual abuse or addiction will find his words and, in doing so, will find the courage to stare down his or her demons.  

[In the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous,] I stalled on step 2 [came to believe that a Higher Power could restore me] because I did not want to do step 4 [searching and fearless moral inventory]. I had a feeling that something in step 4 had me stuck in a self destructive pattern, but I was not sure what it was. In denial, I thought I had resolved and closed the scars of child sexual abuse, but when you’re in denial that you are in denial it tends to cloud the picture. 

During an AA general discussion meeting, I don’t recall the topic, but I do recall the comment that “I had to always look for my part in a situation. If I’m wrong, make an amend. If someone else is wrong, forgive them.” This comment along with “keeping my side of the street clean” was enough to have me leave the meeting in tears.  In the parking lot after the meeting, I was so full of anger, bitterness, and resentment that I unloaded my rage on a trusted friend. I asked him just how the “heck” was I supposed to put all these nice ideas into practice when I was the victim of child sexual abuse. I told him that this might work for every other category of resentment but not for this sort of thing. Before he could answer me, I also told him not to insult me further by telling me that “it didn’t happen to me, that it just happened.” 

As tears filled my eyes, I paused to hear my friends answer. My friend paused as well. It seemed like an eternity before he spoke. As I waited for his response, I could not believe that I had shared with him my secret. I also could not believe the level of denial I was in that caused all of those emotions to finally burst to the surface.  Finally, when my friend began to speak, as he wiped a tear from his eye, he told me that I was not responsible for the abuse, but I was responsible for allowing it to destroy my life. 

For me, this is when my true healing began. I needed time to revisit steps 1-3 that I summarize as “I can’t, God can, and I should let Him.”  Once I admitted my part, I was able to move to accepting my part. Once I accepted my part, I was then able to clear the wreckage from the past based on the various ways I allowed child sexual abuse to keep me in bondage to a self-destructive pattern.  In other words, this is how “keeping my side of the street clean” allowed me to move past the self-destructive cycle of resentment, worthlessness, self-condemnation, self-hatred, and many other manifestations of self rooted in child sexual abuse.  Finally, I was able to understand the part of the serenity prayer of accepting the things I could not change, changing the things I could, and knowing the difference between the two. 

My story would not be complete if I did not share with you how during an AA men’s meeting, a third of the group shared that they had also experienced child sexual abuse. That meeting was so powerful and so much healing took place.  Several months later, a friend shared with me some dark secrets he carried related to his addiction to internet child pornography. Although he was now in recovery, he explained how it was still a struggle. 

The most amazing thing about this situation is because healing and forgiveness had taken place in my life, I was able to look at my friend with compassion and encouragement to help him on his journey through recovery.  I absolutely love the last paragraph in the appendix on the Spiritual Experience in the AA book. This paragraph states “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” – Herbert Spencer

Had I shown contempt for my friend, prior to investigation, I would not have been able to reap the benefits of additional healing by placing a face on my child sexual abuser. Additionally, the sharing of my experience with my friend was able to offer him additional healing by placing a face on his internet addiction. 

Praise be to God for this courageous survivor, and may God make steady the footsteps of all who seek healing through him!  

Join the conversation.  Would you consider sharing your story of healing and allowing God to act through you to offer hope to someone in pain?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

5 Steps to Forgiveness

This post rounds up the highlights of the last several posts about what forgiveness is and isn’t, and it outlines steps to release a stubborn case of resentment to clear a path to healing.

One:  Name the Offense

Forgiving an offense does not suggest the offense is acceptable.  It actually does the opposite.  Naming an offense as worthy of forgiveness marks it as unacceptable, and that alone can be a powerful step towards validation, protection and healing.

In the process of naming the offense, we might realize what the offender did wasn’t really offensive at all, but that our reaction missed the mark.  The offender may have made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory.  Resentment might drain out of us immediately upon this realization.  If it doesn’t, we have an opportunity to look deeper within for the true source of our resentment.  It might be an older, deeper wound that we are reacting to.

Two: Name my Feelings

When my three tween-aged daughters feel wronged, I encourage using “When you X, I feel Y.”  It prompts the first two steps of forgiveness:  naming the offense and identifying feelings.  In many cases, the offender was acting out of self-centeredness—pursuing his own desires without regard to the impact on others—rather than maliciousness.  When confronted with the unintended consequences of his actions, the offender might feel genuine remorse for his choices.  This sets the stage for the two parts of forgiveness—the offender’s remorse and victim’s release of resentment—to be complete.

If the offender’s genuine remorse doesn’t help pry the lid off of forgiveness, ask if fear of being hurt again is playing a role.  If so, we can think about how to prevent future episodes.  Forgiveness does not obligate the victim to return to the relationship with full trust or even to return to the relationship at all.  If it is a valued relationship, a candid conversation with the offender about how to prevent repeat performances can mitigate fear.  The offender might have good ideas for restoring trust.

Three: Own my Part

The absence of offender remorse makes forgiveness harder.  The offender may lack the capacity for remorse or, in the case of long past childhood wounds, he might have died.  The thing to do here is to take the offender out of the center of the matter and put God there instead.

We all experience wounding, and for all of us, injuries impair how we treat others.  Taking an honest look at how the wounds we received played a role in the wounds we inflicted, and taking responsibility for the harm we caused others, is a step that is completely within our control.  It is possible that my offender was reacting to some harm I had caused him in the first place.  Or perhaps I turned around and treated someone else badly.  Maybe I reacted to my husband’s self-centeredness with a short temper towards my step-daughter when she trustingly turned to me for help.

This is not victim blaming.  It’s control claiming.  When we turn to God and confess those things we did that harmed others, we come into the realization that we stand in need of mercy.

Four: Ask for Mercy

We act out our relationship with God in how we treat others.  When I think about how I treat God and how God treats me, the chasm is so vast I fall to my knees.  When I can honestly say I care about my own relationship with God more than I care about what my offender deserves, I’m on the home stretch.

This is true even if the person I’m struggling to forgive is me.  When I assent to the idea that what God wants is more important that what I deserve, and if I can surrender to God’s unending desire for relationship with me, I’m on the path to healing and self-acceptance.

Five: Respond to God’s Grace

It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to our offender but as a response to God’s mercy!  If I am sufficiently focused on the abundance of God’s grace in life, I will drop the earthly resentment I’m clutching so I can stretch out my hands to receive more of his awesome grace.

The wall of resentment limits our vision, and without it we may come to see our offenders’ suffering in a detached way.  I might even see some of myself in my offender’s impaired actions.  Here, we can grow into compassion—not because the offender deserves it but because God has restored us—and pray for our offender to receive grace.

Join the conversation.  Which step do you think is the hardest?  Which helps the most?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Releasing Resentment

The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book offers guidance for starting the Fourth Step “fearless and searching moral inventory.”  Notably, the guidance does not start with contemplating one’s feelings of guilt or shame.  It starts with resentment.  The Big Book declares, “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender.  It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” So how exactly does one release resentment?

The Twelve Step tradition offers some insight and some stumbling blocks.  It guides recovery seekers with resentment “to keep their side of the street clean,” suggesting one might have put oneself in a position where injury or disappointment was possible or likely.  Some recovery seekers strenuously resist this idea.  Unrealistic expectations or a sense of entitlement may have set some up for disappointment, but a startling number of adult recovery seekers were innocent victims of child abuse.  These child victims had no culpability for the crimes committed against them.  Is telling addicted abuse survivors to keep their side of the street clean tantamount to blaming the victims?  Not exactly.  Being wounded sets in motion patterns that, subtly or blatantly, wound others.  Recovery seekers can take responsibility for the part of the wounded-wounding pattern that was in their control, and recovery seekers can forgive the part that was out of their control. 

Naming the offense in forgiveness, or demarcating what is not acceptable, can be a powerful step towards validation, protection and healing.  Conversely, sometimes in the process of naming the offense, we realize that what the “offender” did wasn’t really offensive at all, but that our reaction to it was miscalculated, out of proportion, or reacting to something that was not actually in the content of the offense.  The offender may have made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory.  In my family, we try to adhere to the “When you X, I feel Y” formula for naming offenses.  In the process for isolating “X,” I might realize the problem was really “Y.”  Recognition that the mess is on my side of the street allows me to release resentment and has a reconciling effect. 

Being on the receiving end of a behavior or trait that I myself inflict on others can be especially irritating.  It’s a burr under my blanket.  Paradoxically, if I am able to identify, in any small way, with a weakness in the one who hurt me, that is a significant advantage.  It can wedge a foot in the door to compassion for my offender.  Just to be clear, this is not an exercise in victim blaming.  This is an exercise in self-knowledge and claiming responsibility. 

When leading reconciliation workshops, there is one statement I hear repeatedly from people struggling to release resentment.  They don’t want to tell their offenders they’re forgiven.  They don’t want to give their offenders that satisfaction or to signal any of the things that forgiveness is not, e.g. that the offense is acceptable or that accountability for actions has been waived.  Or they just don’t want to let the offender off the hook, which of course, is precisely what releasing resentment and claim to retribution is.  There is no obligation to tell an unremorseful offender that she’s forgiven.  However, once resentment truly has drained out of us, the fact is we stop caring what the offender knows or thinks about forgiveness either way. 

Join the conversation.  What do you do about seriously stubborn resentments?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgive and Forget?

“Forgive and forget” is a mantra from my childhood.  I wasn’t particularly good at either but notably bad at the latter.  Is forgetting part of the forgiveness process?  What exactly constitutes forgiveness?

A man I met in a reconciliation workshop had survived child abuse and the wreckage of several family members’ alcoholism.  The depth of his 50-year struggle for forgiveness made an impression on me.  In the struggle, it seems that what forgiveness is not can present as many obstacles as what forgiveness is.

To forgive is to release resentment and claim to retribution.  To be complete, forgiveness is a two part process involving the offender’s genuine remorse for the offense and the victim’s release of resentment.  Forgiveness does not release the offender from accountability for her actions.  It does not erase financial, legal, physical, emotional, or any other kind of consequences.  Forgiveness does not make the offense permissible.  To the contrary, naming the offense as worthy of forgiveness marks it as unacceptable.  And forgiveness does not restore trust or repair the relationship.  A relationship might not be repairable, with or without forgiveness.   While restoring a relationship to full trust may be desirable, it is not always realistic.  The good news is forgiveness is possible without it.

Trust merits special consideration.  While forgiving is the moral choice, restoring trust might not be.  Should the parents of a child who has been molested by an uncle release anger and resentment for the uncle?   Eventually, yes.  Should the parents return to relationship with the uncle?  Maybe.  Should they trust the uncle?  No.  Evidence suggests molesters reoffend.  Neither family ties nor religious belief require anyone to ignore evidence.   Protecting a child is a parent’s moral obligation.  In this case, the moral choice is to release resentment and, if the uncle has genuine remorse, to return to a different kind of relationship without trust.  Note forgiving the uncle in this scenario would not absolve him of legal consequences for any crimes committed.

Forgiveness can be a struggle if one of the two necessary parts is missing.  This is true for the man in the reconciliation workshop.  His alcoholic brother is in denial and lacks the capacity for remorse, and the father who abused him died.  What can he do when there is no possibility of offender remorse?  Even without genuine remorse, there is hope for healing.

The hope starts with a journey inward–introspection.  Taking an honest look at how the wounds we received played a role in the wounds we inflicted, and taking responsibility for the harm we caused others, is a step that is completely within our control.  The very act of changing our wounded-wounding pattern severs the ropes that tie us to a wounded past.  Once free, we can release resentment and pray for our offenders, dead or living, to receive grace.  That does not make forgiveness complete, but it does create healing power.

Join the conversation.  How have you approached forgiveness when your offender lacked genuine remorse?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.