Since forgiveness is a core teaching of Christianity, which is a core belief system in America, why is it that so many Americans find it hard to believe that it’s truly possible to forgive? My friend Sidney Rittenberg recently asked me this challenging question. Sidney is a man who was falsely imprisoned in China for 16 years, yet at age 93 he is remarkably free of bitterness or anger toward those who mistreated him.
His question feels especially relevant today, after the news that ISIS militants have beheaded a second American journalist in the Middle East. Our first reaction – often – is to demand revenge. When someone does something that is brutal or “unforgivable,” it seems only human to respond with violence. When I read in the paper about a woman who forgave the man who killed her husband while stealing his cell phone, I found that hard to believe. I wondered: Did she just say that because she knows her religion teaches that, or did she truly forgive?
When I asked the nine women I interviewed for the book Warm Cup of Wisdom “Can we truly forgive?” I found that several of them gave similar answers. The point of forgiving, they said, is not to let the perpetrator off the hook – or excuse what terrible things he did. You forgive because you need to let go of past hurts in order to move on with your life. “Forgiving can be extremely difficult, but if you do it, it is totally freeing,” said one woman who managed, after great effort, to forgive someone who had abused her when she was a little girl. “It made me realize what a burden I was carrying by keeping such pain inside.”
Another woman agreed in principle but has not yet forgiven some terrible things done to her during her childhood. The word forgiveness, she said, brings up “a knot here in my gut.” “Healing needs to happen before forgiveness,” she said. “You shouldn’t rush into forgiveness.” She is appalled by people who counsel battered wives to “forgive and forget.”
Responding to violence with more violence is obviously not wise. Nor is rushing into forgiveness before you are ready – or putting yourself in harm’s way again, or letting criminals get away with the same crime a second time.
What do you think? Have you managed to forgive something that seemed unforgivable?