Consequences of Forgiving
Forgiveness is hard work. I sometimes refer to it as “surgery of the heart.” No one looks forward to the process of surgery, but when people look beyond the procedure to what lies ahead once healing occurs, it is easier to bear.
The process of forgiveness includes bearing pain and finding meaning in suffering. It requires pain, emotional pain, as we look directly at another’s injustice and struggle to see him or her as a person, just as I-the-forgiver am a person.
The joy comes, I think, in triumphing through a challenging process and becoming stronger once the process is complete. You stand stronger because you have not let injustice defeat you.
You stand stronger because you are now more capable of receiving the other back into your life, if he or she can be trusted. You may play a part in this person’s positively changed ways as you stand strong.
You stand stronger because you know you have a way of meeting the next injustice, and the next, and the next after that.
Having a new heart as a result of forgiving and becoming stronger and helping others get stronger is a cause for joy.
When we are treated unjustly by others, we slowly can become more apathetic about everything. Consider this quotation from G.K. Chesterton on the matter:
Forgiveness can reverse the apathy and the pessimism and increase our appreciation of situations and other people.
Lance Morrow: “Evil possesses an instinct for theater, which is why, in an era of gaudy and gifted media, evil may vastly magnify its damage by the power of horrific images.” If this is true, we need forgiveness all the more in our times.
Forgiveness is not justice and therefore focuses on effects, not direct solutions to injustice. When injustice reigns, it surely is the duty of communities to exercise justice to counter that which is unjust.
Yet, what then of the effects of the injustice? Will the quest for and the establishment of justice in societies suffice to cure the broken heart? We think not and this is where forgiveness is needed for those who choose it.
Is there a better way of destroying the damaging effects of evil than forgiveness? As a mode of peace, forgiveness is a paradox because at the same time it is a weapon, one that fights against the ravages of evil. By destroying resentment, forgiveness is a protection for individuals, families, groups, and societies.
In late August, my colleague, Gayle Reed, and I visited a maximun security prison to discuss forgiveness. The point was not to focus on those in prison seeking forgiveness for their crimes, but instead to help each of them to begin forgiving those who have abused them prior to their serious crimes. Many of these men have been deeply abused by others, but this becomes invisible as the focus is on their crimes and rehabilitating them for those actions.
Yet, this next point seems so little understood: Those who perpetrate crime so often have an anger, a hatred, a fury within because of the injustices they have suffered, often long before they lash out at others. If it will diminish, this kind of fury within needs major surgery of the heart. All the rehabilitation in the world, if it only focuses on their bad behavior, will do nothing to cleanse the heart of fury. Only forgiveness therapy will do that—and this idea of “only forgiveness therapy” came from one of the counselors at the prison, who supervised a forgiveness group for 6 months.
The day at the institution was special for us as we saw the men’s hearts melt at the realization (over 6 months of forgiveness therapy) that they have been deeply hurt by others, not only perpetrators of hurt onto others. They gained the insight that their own anger, rage, and fury built up to such an extent that it came roaring out onto others. As one man said, “Forgiveness is the enemy of hatred.”
Another man had this remarkable insight that anger, which is displaced onto unsuspecting other people, leads to the victim possibly passing that anger to another person, who may pass it on yet again. At some point, he reasoned, someone has to stop the passing on of anger and forgiving can do that job. He said this: “When another is in pain, they are on the hook. Then they put you on the hook. hen you put others on the hook.” He was clearly seeing that his anger was passed to his victim(s).
After our meeting with the men who took part in the 6-month forgiveness group, several of the men came up privately to me. Each one had tears in his eyes and whispered that he needs to forgive himself now. They are having a hard time living with themselves. The remorse was genuine and the pain real.
After 30 years of studying forgiveness and seeing the scientific results of a significant reduction in anger by those who forgive, I am confident that as the people in prison (both men and women) learn to forgive, their anger within the institution may diminish, making their prison home safer for everyone, including the officers and all who attend to them.
This is a new idea for corrections. May it be a standard idea within a decade.
As we forgive one person, look what happens: a) We start to forgive others; b) We embody forgiveness, wanting to give it away to others; c) We see each person as special; d) Because forgiveness is part of love and beauty, we begin to love more deeply and to see the beauty of the world more clearly.
Forgiveness does not lessen what happened; it alters how we view the person in spite of what he or she did. It can alter how we see the world and how we interact with others. Forgiveness can give us our life back. It can be an offer to those who acted badly to change their lives so that love and beauty are expanded in their world as well.