|Forgiveness is hard. Shoot, it’s hard enough when the offense is personal but no lasting harm has been done. I think it’s just human nature to find forgiveness difficult. First, we want the offender to be sorry, but not just sorry. We also want true acceptance of responsibility. Then, if we’re honest, we also want the offender to feel a little of the pain we felt–at least until the scales have been balanced a little. Sometimes we also want a little public airing of the harm we experienced and the offender’s acknowledgement of guilt in causing that harm. We feel somehow vindicated by the offender’s shame. Not in a smug kind of way, necessarily, but in a “just” sort of way–or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
Forgiveness is good for one’s soul. In fact, if the adage is true, forgiveness isn’t even for the offender; it’s for the offended, to release him or her from the further harm that comes from unforgiveness eating away at one’s soul. But I disagree. Forgiveness does help to free the offended from the destroying effects of bitterness, but forgiveness that also fails to seek the good, the restoration, the healing of the offender, is incomplete. No, forgiveness is not easy. It requires grit, grace, and generosity in levels that we are generally very uncomfortable with.
In a recent meeting of our Restorative Justice Club, the discussion of forgiveness was raised, and the painful baring of souls ensued. Many of the men expressed the reality that they have had trouble forgiving themselves for the crimes they committed. One man, clearly tortured by deep regret, declared that he didn’t have the right to forgive himself until he was forgiven by his dead victim’s family–a scenario he admitted was unlikely. So, in a form of self-inflicted penance, he tortures himself under the belief that he must remain unforgiven and condemned until he meets the family in eternity. As he gave us a glimpse into his tortured soul, I couldn’t help but wonder if the family hadn’t already forgiven him, yet for their own healing, not for his. Perhaps he doesn’t deserve their forgiveness for his own healing–after all, who actually deserves forgiveness?
No amount of prison time, or other form of punishment, will ever bring a life back. As a matter of fact, how can anyone quantify the necessary amount of time or punishment one must endure to make up for a harm done to another person? It seems to me that minor infractions may be easy to quantify, but the big ones? Those scales can never be balanced. Even a lifetime of doing good can never undo some harms. That’s why forgiveness, and even the chance at redemption–including a chance at freedom–is purely an act of grace. Some people will believe that those who commit the biggest crimes, who cause the greatest harms don’t deserve that grace, and they are right. But grace, by definition, is not deserved.
It is really hard to forgive others when they harm us, but when you’ve done terrible things, and come to understand the gravity of the pain you’ve caused, it’s almost impossible to forgive yourself. Even the thought of forgiving oneself is weighed down by the guilt; that forgiving oneself might seem like minimizing the impact of one’s crime. How can one balance taking full responsibility and forgiving oneself? I would argue that forgiving oneself brings freedom to make the biggest gains in taking full responsibility, for this new freedom allows one to begin seeking to heal others. That’s why extending forgiveness to the offender, for his own sake, is such an important part of forgiveness–and that includes forgiving oneself.
It is not always possible to directly address the harms one has caused to his or her victim, but by becoming a healer rather than a destroyer, the power of forgiveness begins to work its way through the offender’s life. This may or may not result in a restored relationship between offender and victim (or victim’s family), but by choosing forgiveness that also seeks the good of the offender, restoring broken relationships becomes possible. That’s the greatest, and most gracious power of forgiveness.
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Author: Bryan Noonan
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