The Shape of Forgiveness | Part 4 of 4
“We do our forgiving alone inside our hearts and minds; what happens to the people we forgive depends on them.”
“Forgiving happens in three stages: We rediscover the humanity of the person who wronged us, we surrender our right to get even, and we wish that person well.”
Lewis Smedes in The Art of Forgiving (Moorings 1996)
I’ve never found public or required displays of forgiveness helpful. I’m relieved that Lewis Smedes makes this a personal issue. Neither my father’s presence nor his acceptance of my forgiveness is necessary.
And so, given Smedes’ three stages above and the work I’ve already done, including naming what my father did and why it’s blameworthy, I’ve already forgiven my father.
- What I discovered about Dad’s humanity was heartbreaking; he and I were more similar than I like to admit. I feel compassion for him every time I think about his life—not just as a child, but also as an adult struggling with his own trauma. He, too, was a survivor of childhood abuse. Sadly, he never sought healing.
- Sometimes I made small, symbolic attempts to get even with Dad. These included behaviors that helped me feel ‘better’ or ‘safer’ around him, even though I didn’t. I maintained my distance physically and emotionally while seeming not to be distancing him. I thought I was inflicting small punishments on him, getting even for his punishments of me. I was not. Today I have no desire to get even with him.
- Finally, though Dad died several years ago, I still wish him well. How so? I don’t know what life is like after death. I do, however, know that if our Creator offers ways to grow into life after death, I wish my father well. Especially as the daughter who is most like he was.
From the cross, Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
He didn’t forgive his tormentors directly. He left that up to God. Instead, I see throughout the gospel narratives that Jesus understands the humanity of every person with whom he deals.
I also notice Jesus’ refusal to try to get even with those who opposed him. He spoke hard truth, sometimes with anger. Yet he didn’t grasp at his right to get even. Not in life or in death.
Finally, Jesus wept and prayed over Jerusalem, despite what he suffered from the hands of those in power who thought they knew better. They beat him, mocked him, paraded him in public as an ‘example,’ and hung him up to die. Still, he wishes them well.
Though Jesus doesn’t forgive his tormentors directly, he prays for them from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the prayer I pray for my father.
I’m not responsible for offering him forgiveness. That’s God’s business. I am, however, responsible for the three steps at the top of this post if I mean business about forgiving him.
I’ve forgiven my Dad. Nonetheless, I can’t say this is a done deal. Forgiveness isn’t an event. It’s a process with a beginning and openness to whatever comes next. Childhood trauma has a way of bringing things to the surface when the learner is ready for more healing.
God forgives each of us daily. This is an act of stunning creation, not just for us individually, but for the families and communities in which we live. I want to be part of this ongoing spirit of forgiveness because I want to be part of God’s creative act, not part of the destructive problem.
And so I remain open to forgiving my Dad as often as needed.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 8 April 2017