Tough Paths Lead to Beautiful Destinations: Choose Forgiveness

I was asked to give the message at my church, Canyon Lake United Methodist, Rapid City, SD, and what follows are the stories and words I shared to express why forgiveness is a life-giving practice. If you wish to listen to the service that was focused on forgiveness follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRz3CsyYg_A or check out CLUMC’s website or Facebook page.

Have you ever noticed that in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” follows right behind “give us this day our daily bread?” I think it’s because forgiveness and bread are both life-giving and both are needed daily.

I know I make mistakes and do things I wish I hadn’t or wish I had on a regular basis. If I can’t forgive myself, or others, for simply being human, I’ll waste a lot of time and energy being angry and ashamed. Forgiveness allows us to spend more time smiling than frowning, being relaxed instead of tense, moving forward instead of backward.

I personally know how life-giving forgiveness can be and I chose to research forgiveness for my doctorate in psychology. I did qualitative research, meaning I analyzed stories and looked for patterns and themes in those stories. I interviewed people from different sacred belief systems who had forgiven a major transgression and looked specifically for what their stories had in common. I feel very blessed because I was led to people whose stories were insightful and their stories continue to inspire me today.

Forgiveness means different things to different people, so I like to start by explaining what I mean by forgiveness. First, forgiveness is NOT excusing, condoning, or ignoring bad behavior. It’s the opposite. It’s like Micah 6:8. We’re to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Forgiveness means balancing justice and mercy and remaining humble as we walk with our loving God.

It means having the courage to uncover and confront destructive thoughts and feelings so we can let go of our shame, anger, bitterness, and resentment. That takes time, but it’s worth it because when we experience genuine, deep forgiveness our health improves, our relationships become healthier, and we learn and grow spiritually.

The forgiveness experiences of the people I interviewed had four things in common that helped them forgive, and I call them the 4Cs: connections, courage, compassion, and creativity.

Connections

I first want to talk about connectionsbecause connections make the other 3 Cs possible. Connections are what led the people I interviewed from being victims to becoming forgiveness heroes. None of them were able to forgive without help. They all described spiritual, religious, or social connections that gave them two main things: support and guidance.

So how did their connections support them?

First, they did not pressure anyone to forgive. Pressure to forgive can backfire. Why? Because it can make someone feel worse. If you’re struggling to forgive and someone tells you, “Just let it go,” they’ve added to your shame, to your angst – because deep down you can’t do what they want you to do, what you may think a “good” person is supposed to easily be able to do. If you want to please someone, maybe even God, you may pretend to forgive and deny your genuine feelings. But holding your pain inside and trying to please others will add to your stress and hurt your health.

After I did a talk on my book, Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness, a man came up to me and said he appreciated the book and he surprised me with why. He was struggling with forgiveness issues and it reassured him to hear that genuine forgiveness of something major is difficult and takes time.

Connections are important because they provide support and also because they provide guidance. They show us the way through the forgiveness process and serve as role models.

One of the stories in my book is about William (pseudonym), who was Lakota and grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He and his family had experienced horrible acts of prejudice and trauma; William became resentful and as can happen if we’re filled with bitterness, he took his hurt out on others. His major turning point came when he heard Black pastors speak about their painful experiences, which he felt were even worse than his. One had helplessly watched his sister be set on fire and burned to death by prejudiced people who were never punished. “How were you able to forgive?” he asked them. And they said, “You talk about it, and you pray about it.” When William had trouble forgiving, he thought about the Black pastors, read the Bible, prayed, talked to his pastor and the people in his church.

We don’t have to do forgiveness alone, and that’s what helps us with the second C, courage.  

Courage

Forgiveness work takes courage because it means becoming vulnerable. It means uncovering and confronting things that may be shameful, embarrassing, humiliating, traumatic.

One of the people I interviewed, Katherine, said, “Before I discovered forgiveness I wasn’t open enough and willing to admit mistakes. I would have unknowingly kept secret certain things that would have been the heart of what needed to be heard and I wouldn’t have been able to get to the healing part. I wouldn’t have been able to see another’s viewpoint because I would have been too busy protecting my ego. Now I try to remember that it’s not all about me.”

Katherine had a strong connection to God and could feel the Holy Spirit within her. She said, “I’m always praying for the courage and strength to face forgiveness issues because I know that even though it’s scary, I will feel so liberated, relieved, and joyful to be a part of something that is healing.”

Sometimes we need the courage to listen to a perspective that’s different from our own and may seem threatening. At other times, in order to forgive, we may need to have the courage shown by the first person I interviewed for my research, a woman I called Esther, who taught me the importance of standing up for yourself and setting boundaries.

Esther was working in construction with men who didn’t appreciate women and she was being taken advantage of and disrespected. She grew resentful and extremely angry, and at first, she kept it inside. But one day she’d had enough and set some firm boundaries. I asked her how that helped her forgive. She said, “Once I set my boundaries and felt safe, I experienced an expanding of space. I started being able to see more deeply into my offender’s situation and I could better understand him. Releasing my fears allowed me to open up and have compassion.”

Once Esther felt safe, she could see her offender as a human being, instead of an object of hurt.

At a church conference this summer one of the speakers said, “I supported my addiction by blaming my parents.” He had what everyone would consider horrible parents, but he knew that he couldn’t serve God and help others unless he  accepted his imperfect childhood and figured out how to move beyond his past.

We may be a victim of oppression and someone else’s bad behavior and that’s awful. But we’ll never become empowered and liberated if we get stuck in victim status. To get unstuck, sometimes we need to set firm boundaries or possibly even walk away from a relationship that is harmful. At other times, we may need to swallow our pride and have the courage to really listen to perspectives that are uncomfortable. Those forgiveness issues are tough and require not just courage, they also require the third C, compassion.

 Compassion

Courage and compassion are best buddies because it’s hard to be kind when we’re in pain. It’s hard to be loving and grace-filled when we’re hurting.

But opening our hearts and minds to compassionately understanding ourselves and those who hurt us is a key to forgiveness.

Martin Luther King Jr. said:

He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us, and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

We sometimes like to think of ourselves or others as either all good or all bad – it’s simpler that way – but that leads to forgiveness problems. We may refuse to believe anything good about someone who’s hurt us. When we do something hurtful, we may blame others because we are afraid our wrong action means we’re a bad person. Or we may retreat in shame and miss the opportunity to share our gifts and talents.

A Muslim man I called Basil forgave the person who tortured him and it definitely wasn’t easy. But he had compassion for his torturer, and that helped. He said, “I felt like he was a poor guy. I looked at him like he really, really needs help. From my experience with him, he was always worried, always wondering. He had this weird feeling he was not safe, and he wondered which one of his friends would betray him.” Basel was physically tortured in prison, but Basel realized his torturer had created a personal prison in his own mind and was letting his paranoid, fearful thoughts torture him.

When people hurt us, it’s natural to become bitter and resentful. But I remember the words of the Lakota woman I interviewed who had amazing compassion and forgave the people who murdered her mother and pregnant sister. She said, “No one can make me hate.”

I love that because hate isn’t good for us. Hateful, unforgiving thoughts can torture us. They keep us from experiencing the life Christ wants for us. I asked one of the women I interviewed why she thought God wanted us to forgive. She said simply, “Because it’s good for us.”

Forgiveness frees us and helps us give to others. Have you noticed that the word forgiving can be separated into for and giving? Forgiving is for giving because when we break free from the chains of bitterness or shame we can give more to others.

But forgiving a major transgression isn’t easy because it requires us to write a new, improved chapter in our life story. We need help from the fourth C, creativity.

Creativity

Forgiveness is about learning from our painful experiences. It’s about adjusting our perspective and transforming our thoughts so that we can create a healthier, more peaceful and joyful way of being.

James, brother of Jesus, experienced tough times with a great attitude. In James 1: 2-4 he advises us:

Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

Wow, that’s awesome inspiration, though I must admit I think considering trials of any kind nothing but joy seems a bit over the top.  I do agree that what makes forgiveness possible is knowing that tough paths lead to beautiful destinations. I don’t know why some of our best learning experiences involve humiliation, embarrassment, disappointment, and pain, but if we can accept that inconvenient truth, I know we are on the road to more joy, love, and peace.

We’re all on a journey and we’re all at different places on our journey. I often remember the words of Valerie, one of the woman I interviewed. She said, “We’re all on our own paths.” That’s so true, but often so hard to accept. Her words remind me to focus on compassion versus judgment. To relax my expectations and need to control, take deep breaths, and “Let go and let God.” 

When forgiveness is really tough, thankfulness and gratitude are more important than ever. During my toughest times, being grateful for the beauty of nature, acts of kindness, music, good books, friendly dogs, the ability to laugh at myself – those things have given me the positive energy I need to create something good out of something painful.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul, no stranger to adversity, counsels:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Why? Because gratitude shines a light for us, so we can see what path to take.

Some of the people I interviewed described forgiveness as a cleansing of the heart, and the forgiveness process as a way to scrub your heart clean and experience a liberating rebirth. David in the Bible saw it in a similar way. Listen to the words he uses when asking God for forgiveness in Psalm 51: 10 -12

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

I pray that we feel the Holy Spirit within us as we strive to shine a light of love and grace for our world.

Overcoming Trauma Through Forgiveness

Have you had experiences in your life that were extremely disturbing and still cause you emotional sadness or fear? Do you belong to a group that has been, or is currently being, oppressed or victimized?  If you answered no to both questions you are uniquely blessed.

Human history is full of trauma. I’m an educator and experienced at teaching world history. My students loved studying the wars, especially the dramatic world wars when humans were traumatized on a global level. Sometimes we think of history as studying one war after another, as if all we humans do is kill each other in the name of some grand or greedy cause. One student told me she couldn’t do a report on the recent history of Brazil because Brazilians hadn’t been in any wars during the last fifty years.

Survival as a human has rarely been easy. Prehistoric humans faced dangers like wild animals, food scarcity, and harsh weather conditions from which they had little protection. Fast forward to the last millennium and we find our hardships continuing.  

Europeans who had been traumatized in their home countries – by oppression, famine, homelessness, persecution of some kind – came across the ocean to what they referred to as the New World and inflicted trauma on the Indigenous people and the Africans they subjugated as slaves. Females have been viewed as property and had little recourse against rape or domestic abuse. Alpha males have made other males their pawns and directed them to kill and be killed for questionable causes. Kings, queens, and autocrats were constantly in danger of being beheaded or falling prey to some other sort of horror as those around them competed for power.

What has all that trauma done to us? It has indeed sharpened our survival instincts. We are equipped with an emotionally reactive amygdala that is powered by fear. It can override the rational, decision-making part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, because it’s programmed for quick, life-or-death protective action. Sometimes the amygdala is a hero, saving us from dangerous predators and accidents. But at other times, it destroys relationships and causes high blood pressure.

We have evolved to automatically focus on negatives because we need to be ready to defend ourselves against the perils of the world. But too much fear over long periods of time causes overexposure to the hormone cortisol, which disrupts our body’s natural processes and increases our risk of health problems like heart attacks and headaches.  

Grouping people into “good” and “bad” categories and perceiving the world as a place where it’s “us against them” has protected us from harm as we banded together against them. But whether we like it or not, we are all connected. Viruses don’t honor national borders, and combatting the negative effects of climate change will take a global effort. Nuclear weapons have the capacity to destroy all the humans in the world, but I’m guessing cockroaches will somehow survive, as fossil evidence indicates they have for around 300 million years. 

Why have cockroaches survived? It’s not because they are extremely fearful and have developed ingenious ways to punish and kill each other. It’s because they are good at adapting to changing and difficult conditions. They “overcome.”

Overcoming trauma, for humans, requires the ability to calm our instinctual fears and use our prefrontal cortex to adapt to whatever environment we find ourselves in.  Scientist Marie Curie advised, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Understanding helps us overcome our fear, heal from our trauma, and adapt to whatever situation we find ourselves in.

Fear can take the form of what Lakota writers have called Iktomi, the trickster. We must be careful because we can be tricked into harmful behavior unless we are self-aware and able to understand what we fear. That’s why Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. ‘”

All the major religions recognize self-control and forgiveness as virtues because fear, negativity, and demonizing “others” can lead to destructive decision making. We need to quiet down our amygdala and convince it to hand over control to what psychologists call our “executive function” – the part of our brain that can reflect and effectively problem solve.

A Bible verse, 2 Timothy 1:7, reads “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.” 1 John 4: 18-19 tells us that love — genuine love for ourselves, for each other, and for God — can overcome all fear. But self-control isn’t easy, nor is loving without conditions. It’s something we must genuinely desire and strive for.

“Moral injury” is a term psychologists use to describe a wound to our inner soul. It’s a type of trauma and it happens when our actions, or the actions of those we have admired and followed, runs contrary to our deeply held moral beliefs. This may happen in war, a time when survival instincts are on high alert, or anytime our foundational beliefs of goodness and truth are shattered. Our spirit suffers.

Forgiveness means letting compassion and grace heal us and set us free. Coming to terms with our own humanness, as well as embracing the humanity of others, allows us to let go of our fears and our bitterness at all the unfairness and cruelty in the world. We still work for justice and kindness, but with the guidance of that part of our being that directs us forward with hope and love.

Orson Scott Card wrote, “When you really know somebody, you can’t hate them. Or maybe it’s just that you can’t really know them until you stop hating them.”

That advice goes for knowing ourselves as well. We can shed our shame and resentment by accepting our humanness and forgiving ourselves for not being everything we assume we should be. We can reject a culture of blaming and liberate ourselves from fear. We don’t have to hide from the truth or distort it to feel in harmony with the world.

Deeply distressing, disturbing experiences – traumas – are hard to overcome, but it’s worth the effort. Forgiveness helps us heal, making life a little easier and bringing joy and light into our darkness.

My favorite Native American dance is the hoop dance, and it inspired me to write the following words.

Great people don’t spend their time jumping through other people’s hoops.

Great people don’t spend their time creating hoops for other people to jump through.

Great people learn how to dance with hoops and create circles that inspire, include, and enrich others.

 Photo courtesy PDPhoto.org –  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=868316