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.