Forgive and Live
Last week during the children’s time, Janet Shortall, our guest preacher, told the story, “What If No One Forgave?” It is a story that I told back in the spring, so it may have been familiar. Basically, the tale is about a little town called Grudgeville where everyone held on dearly to every personal slight or injury ever done to them. A stranger comes into town and teaches them the magic words, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” And suddenly all the people are relieved of their burdens. That is, of course, very simplified; but it pulls in the essential pieces. The image that I think captures the imagination of most adults is that of the citizens of Grudgeville all hunched over by the weight of all their grudges.
Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity. I could be wrong about that, but it seems to me that religion is less about beliefs and more about relationships – or at least that is how it should be. I recall that Emile Durkheim’s work uncovered the realization that religion at its earliest was less about connecting humans to God and more about connecting humans to each other. Over the ages, one of the startling characteristics of human interaction is that all too often we have trouble connecting to one another. Honest and open human interaction is not easy, and we usually mess it up in lesser and greater degrees. Forgiveness is the process for repairing damaged relationships and it the process of transformative change in an individual. The word Religion, at its roots, is re-ligare, to bind together. Thus I find the topic of forgiveness to be centrally important to living. Forgiveness is such a deeply religious topic with which most people typically have very little familiarity.
Let me tell you a second story now, describing with a different metaphor, the effect of carrying a grudge. This story comes from the writings of a Sufi mystic named Hadrat Muinudin Chishti.
A man was in dire need of funds, and the only way he could acquire them was to sell his house. He did not wish to give up the entire house, so he came to terms with the purchasers by which he retained unrestricted use of one room. He was permitted to store there any of his possessions. Initially, he kept only small items there, and he came from time to time and caused no disturbance. When he changed occupations, as he did occasionally, he brought his tools to the room also. The new owners made no protest to all this. Finally, the man began to keep [small dead animals] in the room, and because of the stench from the decomposition, the whole abode became uninhabitable. The new owners went to court for redress, but the judge ruled that the man had not breached the contract. The owners ended up reselling the house, at a tremendous loss, [back] to the original owner.
Carrying a grudge against another person is like renting out a small room in your soul for someone else’s garbage and filth. You just tuck it up there inside yourself. One small but powerful issue left unaddressed can sap your entire spiritual growth. It stinks, but what are you able to do about it, you’ve rented the room out. The good news is, you don’t have to turn over the whole house. There is something you can do.
And perhaps metaphors are not your cup of tea, fear not. There has been scientific research into this issue, seriously! There has been a considerable amount of scientific research done lately in he field of forgiveness, so much that for a few years forgiveness was considered a field of study rather than a a theological idea. Sir John Templeton was a primary funding source for the Forgiveness Project which housed several research projects studying the psychological and physiological effects of forgiveness. 46 studies according to the website, actually. The studies ranged from marital and parenting problems to victims of violent crimes to national situations such as the one in South Africa a short while ago. Most of the studies were in connection with individuals, they found that the issues surrounding forgiveness were similar at the national level but greatly complicated by institutional and political considerations.
For the research into the more personal levels of forgiveness, researchers found it was a hot topic of interest for participants, and often were flooded with interest. The researchers at one school, however, found they had plenty of female participants, but very few males.
To attract more male participants for a study of forgiveness, Stanford psychologists were forced to adjust the wording of the project. [Researchers] said the word “forgiveness” easily attracted women to participate, but men weren’t calling. In an effort to figure out why, [they] randomly asked a group of men about it. The consensus was the word “forgiveness” is too soft and acquiescing, like a doormat or someone who turns the other cheek. The men suggested the psychologists use the word “grudge” instead, since it’s harsh and seemed more masculine. [The researchers] took their advice and created flyers saying “Got a grudge?” and the calls from men began pouring in.
The general conclusion so far indicates show that the person who forgives is happier and perhaps even healthier. While the goal of forgiving may be noble, the effects are concrete. For example, a study completed at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, indicates that unforgiving responses can erode health, while forgiving responses can enhance it. That is a little vague. Another study done at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, found a strong correlation between unforgiveness and the illnesses associated with high blood pressure. This becomes a little more specific.
There was one study of newlywed couples done by Dr. Worthington which involved electronically monitoring for signs of high stress
“It turns out there is a psychobiology to forgiveness. Transgressions are stressful, you see, and when a trauma happens such as a betrayal, the brain secretes cortisole which burns a memory,” Dr. Worthington explained. “The idea to forgive and forget is crazy! Your whole body is telling you to remember this trauma, so it won’t happen again. People who don’t forgive, though, have a build up of cortisole,” he continued. “This puts the body under stress, and every time they think about the wrong done them, there’s even more stress. I always say, ‘learn to forgive because it’s good for your health.’”
And one more, I just have to share with you, is the conclusions of a Stanford study of forgiveness done by Dr. Luskin, who says, “Forgiveness is about how you handle [frustrations about how things in life never seem quite aligned. A common choice is to blame it on someone else.” Blaming others causes more suffering because people rarely change, he says. It’s better to break the habit of blame and accept the way things are. For those who cause us grievances, Luskin suggests: “Rent them a small room, not the whole house.” Well, sometimes, renting your grudges a small room is a step forward; and sometimes it is what holds you back. You’ll need to sort out which is true for you. And it seems that scientist will occasionally drift into the use of metaphor.
I do hope you noticed that at least one researcher specifically stated, and I got the sense in my reading that there was general agreement on this, that the “and forget” part of the old cliché is not a good idea. From the antiphonal reading we did earlier, it was the quote from JFK which said, “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” And none of the other quotes contradicted that. Forgiveness is not amnesia, or a glossing over of the transgression. Forgiveness is not a pretending that everything is back to right or that things are not the way that they are.
Forgiveness is about rebuilding and repairing a relationship that has been injured. It is extending an opportunity for better things to come. It doesn’t mean ignoring an injustice or letting someone treat you badly. It doesn’t mean you’re leaving yourself open to be hurt again. It means, accepting that what has happened has happened, but you are let it be so that there is an opportunity to rebuild. “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”
Much of that interesting research has been done from the perspective of the person who is injured, the one who holds the grudge, the one who would do the forgiving, the victim. And so, much of what is offered is how to deal with that end of it. Often, however, when a relationship has been damaged and forgiveness is needed, it is needed on both sides. Not always, but often.
I remember a sour relationship I had with someone I only see occasionally. Over the years I grew to accept who this person is, to empathize with her so that I was able to forgive her the hurts she had given me. It was a powerfully cleansing step for me. I no longer felt held by the burden of resenting her or carrying my grudge for her. Unfortunately, that was not the end of it. As I accepted her and empathized with her, I began to understand the events form her perspective and to realize that I needed to be forgiven as well. It had been so nice when I thought she was a mean person or at least a misguided one. It was so easy when I only saw how she had overreacted and had said hurtful things. All my friends agreed with me, she was at fault and I was blameless, or nearly so.
I thought I had reached a level of peace and release when I forgave her, but how much deeper a change was wrought when I saw my own contribution, took steps to correct that behavior within myself, and sought her forgiveness. I’ll not forget what happened and how I had been hurt, but neither will that memory stand in the way of the fact that people change.
So, how to do it? The reading from Fred Muir proposes four steps to forgiveness: remorse, resolution, restitution, and restoration. Over the years I have characterized forgiveness as having three steps: confession, atonement, and repentance. When I was younger someone taught me the line: “Make admission, make amends, then we all come back as friends.” Cute, isn’t it? But I bet you’re thinking, “Which one does he want us to remember? There are so many steps, so many different names to all these steps! Ack! How am I supposed to remember how to do this?” There are probably dozens of names for the steps, and dozens of suggested styles that have four or five or eight steps or maybe only two. The essence of it is that Forgiveness is a process of repairing relationships.
First you must admit you have made mistakes. There is a cliché that “confession is good for the soul,” and generally this is very true. And feeling a little guilty for your mistakes, or remorse, as Muir puts is in the reading, isn’t so bad. Guilt is not so bad if you really have hurt someone and you can take the steps to do something with the guilt. I’m certainly not suggesting that you hold onto your guilt; that can prove just as painful, though in a different way, as holding onto your grudges. But with guilt, at least, you can do something. Guilt is like pain. It is information telling you that something is wrong. We don’t want pain! We don’t want guilt! But it serves a purpose. All of us make mistakes; all of us unintentionally, and at times, intentionally injure others through word and deed. Pretending this is not so will not help. So, whichever set of steps or words you’re using, the first thing to do in the process of forgiveness is admit your mistakes.
The next part of forgiveness is to do something with this information. Like the information you receive from physical pain, you have things you can do: you’re your hand out of the very hot water. Don’t stick it in the hot water again. In the same way, information we glean from part one, admitting to mistakes and feeling bad about them, is information we can use to change what we’re doing: don’t say mean things just because you’re angry, and apologize for the mean thing you said just then when you were angry. Call up those people you have injured or hurt and say, “I am sorry.” Call up people who have hurt you and say, “I forgive you.” Apologies, resolution, atonement, amends, whatever you call it, this is the “I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again” phase, or at least, “I’m sorry, I don’t fully understand what I did that has hurt you, how can I make it up to you?”
Finally, the third step could be considered the result of forgiving or being forgiven, but I think of it as the last step to forgiveness, as do most of the “how to be forgiven” lists I looked through. We confess our faults and failings; we make amends with apologies and promises of improvement; and then we improve. We repent, we change our ways, we take to heart the concerns of the other, we begin again in love, we take one more step toward being our better selves. I didn’t say it was simple.
I’ll end by sharing with you this list compiled by one of the researchers (Richard Fitzgibbons) of all the benefits for the one who forgives:
- decreased levels of anger and hostility;
- increased feelings of love;
- improved ability to control anger;
- enhanced capacity to trust;
- freedom from the hold of events of the past;
- no longer repeating negative behaviors;
- improved physical health;
- significant improvement in psychiatric disorders;
- (and I would add, becoming a more loving and empathetic friend, spouse, parent, colleague, child, and overall person!)
On the other hand, one who cannot forgive may continue to suffer endlessly. One who cannot forgive just tucks that grudge up in that rented room inside the soul. As an old Chinese proverb puts it, “The man who opts for revenge should dig two graves.” This work is not only for repairing our relationships; forgiveness is the ultimate religious activity, for it allows you deepen and grow.
In a world without end,
May it be so.