by Dr. Preston VanLoon
Forgiving is difficult. So is carrying the weight of undeserved hurt and pain.
Michele Knight was one of three women held captive for 11 years in the Cleveland home of Ariel Castro. According to various reports, Knight endured repeated sexual abuse during her years of captivity. She found strength and coped through her faith in God and prayer.
While Knight initially hated Castro for the terrible offenses he committed, with therapy and prayer she came to understand Castro as a sick person, in need of help and her forgiveness.
Making the decision to forgive can be challenging. Depending on the severity and nature of the offense, some hurtful actions can be more difficult to let go of than others. Victims may seek help through self-help books, family and friends, counseling, or even silently carry their pain for years. Others find help through prayer and their faith, or from the forgiveness they received from God.
Many times we don’t forgive because we see our offender only through the “eyes” of the offense we suffered. We refer to the person who hurt us as a cheater, liar, thief, or some other label. The person who caused our pain may also be someone who is hurting from terrible life experiences. We may think that the person who hurt us does not deserve forgiveness because of the terrible wrong that was committed.
Forgiveness is a gift, something none of us deserve. During the season of Lent we are reminded of how God offered all of us forgiveness through the death of Jesus on the cross. As difficult as forgiving sometimes is, I do not believe that Jesus would tell us to forgive if we were not capable of doing so. No one has forgiven more than God.
Forgiveness is an internal decision, or choice, that we make freely from the heart (Matthew 18:35). We forgive because we want to, out of our own desire. We cannot change the past hurt we suffered, but we do have a choice how we will move forward. That which we feed our time, attention, and energy will shape and affect our future.
While walking home from a friend’s house, Janice’s 17-year-old son was fatally shot. For many years she had no idea who took her son’s life. After his death, Janice struggled in her life and experienced physical, emotional, and spiritual distress. She suffered a stroke and became angry with God.
Years later Janice found out who killed her son and came face to face in court with his murderer. Janice explained how, at that time and after much suffering, she was ready to offer him forgiveness with all of her heart. When she did, Janice felt a great weight lifted that she had carried for many years.
When we forgive we are not condoning, excusing, or pardoning the behavior of our offender. Nor are we just putting up with or making excuses for the unjust offense.
Forgiveness is choosing to let go of the negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors we have from being unjustly hurt and transforming our negative energy into healing through the practice of compassion, empathy, and kindness, even though our offender does not deserve them.
When we choose not to forgive, our focus tends to be more on our pain and suffering rather than the healing we need. Withholding forgiveness hurts us twice; first from the actual offense we suffered and second by holding on to painful thoughts and emotions which affect the quality of our life and others whom we love.
Matthew struggled with making the choice to forgive when his wife of 10 years was raped and murdered. Prior to the charges being read against the individuals who perpetrated the horrible crime, Matthew said that everything in him wanted to hate, be angry, and slip into despair.
Instead of pursuing a negative and destructive path, Matthew chose the path to forgiveness, grace, and hope. He learned from the years he spent with his wife that allowing emotions to drive his decisions was a recipe for hopelessness and a poor outcome.
We find strength to forgive when we realize that the past does not need to define our future. Forgiveness sets us free from our pain and hurt so that we can experience peace in the present and have hope for a better future. We may even find a new direction and purpose in life.
Forgiveness is not something we do selfishly, or to only make ourselves feel better. God did not forgive us for His benefit, but for ours. To truly be a gift and an act of compassion, forgiveness must come from the heart. At its deepest level, forgiveness is an expression of mercy toward our offender.
By showing kindness to the person who hurt us, we also benefit and receive grace. When we commit to living a lifestyle of forgiveness, we better understand the need for mercy in our life and the forgiveness that we need from others.
Dr. Preston VanLoon is a chaplain, counselor author, and much-sought inspirational speaker who has presented domestically and internationally on a variety of topics, including interpersonal forgiveness. He is currently completing the book “The Path to Forgiveness: Moving Forward with Healing and Hope One Day at a Time.”