Like a bee, we distill poison from honey for our self-defense—what happens to the bee if it uses its sting is well known.
On New Year's Eve in 1995, my mother was murdered in her home by a young burglar. Even today, my pain still occasionally bobs to the emotional surface.
When I received the call from Mike, my brother, on New Year's morning, I was stunned. "Something terrible has happened," he said. "Mama's been murdered. There was blood on the carpet, the walls..."
As I got ready to drive from Richmond to Knoxville with my sister, Kathy, and her husband, Damian, I threw clothes in a suitcase, hustling furiously to and fro, numbing my feelings with the narcotic of action. After I packed, I sat at the table. Kirby, my wife, was reading to teenage Becca the children's stories that Grandma used to read her. Preteen Katy Anna walked by, face wet with tears. I reached out to comfort her. Her hugs broke through my defenses, and I wept.
On the drive to Knoxville, Kathy and I recalled many of the good and the bad times with my mother. I remembered doing a radio call-in show with a station in Knoxville only months before. At the end, the interviewer said, "We have time for one more call. I think this is a special one. Go ahead." I then heard the slow, soft, East Tennessee voice of my mother. "Sonny"—she drawled my childhood nickname through four diphthongs—"I've been listening to you. I wanted you to know. You're a good boy, Sonny." I was forty-nine at the time.
Mama was a comfortable grandmother, enfolding our children in her arms, hugging them to her soft and cuddly body. She liked to sing to my kids. She read books, bought them toys that Kirby and I couldn't afford, and had a stash of M&Ms and sweet breakfast cereal that kept our kids on a sugar kick throughout our visits. Ever since my dad had died of cancer five years before, Mama had seemed more vulnerable.
Now she was gone. I wouldn't feel her arms again. I wouldn't hear the music of her East Tennessee mountain drawl. My mind could sort of grasp the loss, but my heart wouldn't accept it.
After arriving in Knoxville, my brother, my sister and I sat in Mike's back room amid the seventeen loaves of bread, twenty pies and five plates of cold cuts—Southern comfort food that generous neighbors and friends had provided. We talked about the details of the murder that we knew only because Mike had discovered Mama's body. "I called Mama all morning to wish her Happy New Year," said Mike. "When she didn't answer, I got worried. I thought she might have fallen."
Mike had bundled eight-year-old David into the car and chugged over to the house. "I opened the front door. When I stepped into the living room, I couldn't believe the mess. I stumbled with David at my side toward the hall. As I stepped into the hall, I saw the blood-splattered wall. Then her body.
"I slapped my hand over David's eyes and pulled him with me as I walked out to phone the police. The violence in the house, the blood and the position of Mama's body made it clear she was dead—beaten with a crowbar."
Mike told us the facts the police had shared. Apparently a burglary had gone awry. The police suspected that two youths were involved.
Mama had been smashed three times with a crowbar. Blood was everywhere—on the door, on the walls, soaked through the carpet. The assailant had also violated her with a wine bottle, and then he and his accomplice had completely trashed the house. All mirrors and reflecting surfaces in the house were ruined.
Rage spewed forth. I heard myself say, "I'd like to have him alone in a room with a baseball bat for thirty minutes. I'd beat his brains out."
Kathy said, "I'd take just ten minutes."
Mike added, "I'd take two hours so it would last a long time."
We were furious.
That night, sleep was impossible. I roamed my room. I stormed about, rehearsing scenes of violence and anger, replaying the death scene as I imagined it in the late-show reruns of my mind, seeing the blood in my mind's eye.
I confess that during most of that night, forgiveness never entered my mind. But as I wrestled the covers and paced a path in the carpet, I began to ask myself questions. Can I ever forgive this? Is it good to forgive? What if the police catch the youths? Will I want them to get the death penalty? I was eyeball to eyeball with my convictions—carefully thought out in times unclouded by emotion. But the impact of this death and the horror of my images of what my mother must have experienced were an in-your-face confrontation. They rocked my sense of identity. I thought I knew my own character. Yet someone once said, "Character is who we are when no one is looking." Well, who was I in that bedroom when no one was looking?
So who was I? I was a Christian. Was it wrong for me to indulge my rage? Was it wrong to want both the law and God to punish that assailant? Christianity is the cross where justice and mercy intersect. At that moment I was happy to seek justice, even the wild vigilante justice of raw revenge. I wanted my hands on that murderer. I did not even want to consider mercy.
I was a counseling psychologist. I had seen people deny experiences, stuffing their worst feelings deep inside. Was it wrong to think of forgiving while I was so angry and sad? I knew that if I sought too quick a resolution to trauma by denying anger, fear and sadness, I could arrest the grieving process. Was it wrong to try to calm myself when feeling intense, legitimate anger that was normal? But I was in a quandary. I didn't want to deny my negative feelings, but I knew that denying my positive side, my morals and my self-control, was just as bad. I dared not just rage. Not only psychology, but also Mama, had taught me that. I was a researcher who, ironically, studied forgiveness. I had read philosophical, religious, devotional and literary accounts of forgiveness. I had pored over psychological studies of forgiveness. Yet throughout most of this day I hadn't even thought the word forgiveness. Perhaps I heard the whisper of the word at the door of my consciousness, but each time I kicked the door shut.
I had helped numerous couples and individuals to forgive. My colleagues and I had developed an intervention that helped people forgive if they wanted to forgive. To further the irony, only a couple of weeks before the murder, Mike McCullough, Steve Sandage and I had delivered to InterVarsity Press the manuscript for To Forgive Is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past. I knew forgiveness might be possible, but did I really want to forgive?
Questions. The poignant question that pierced my heart was this: To whom did my life's work—teaching people to forgive—apply? Was it for other people but not for me? Or did it include me too?
Forgiveness requires both letting go and pulling toward. A forgiver must release the resentment, hatred and bitterness of unforgiveness. A forgiver must release the desire to avoid or to seek revenge against the perpetrator. But the act of forgiving—of reaching out toward the perpetrator—is sharper. It pricks the heart. A forgiver replaces unforgiveness with a sense of agape love. A forgiver wishes the perpetrator well. A forgiver could even enter a relationship with the perpetrator if it were safe, prudent and possible to do so. Forgiveness means giving a gift that embodies freedom and love. Should I offer this gift? Should I forgive?
"Don't you dare forgive!" I'd heard many arguments against forgiveness. Jesus said, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him" (Lk 17:3). The youth who attacked my mother certainly had not repented. So I didn't need to feel bound to forgive, right?
Some argue, "If you forgive, it will reduce your motivation to catch the perpetrator. Forgiveness obstructs justice." Yet I knew that any forgiving I could give would be my act, my gift. The justice system could consider pardon. God might someday grant divine forgiveness. Those were out of my hands. Whether I forgave or didn't, legal crime, punishment and pardon were not at stake. The murderer should be incarcerated so he would not kill again. To protect others from violence is simply good sense. It did not affect whether I ought to forgive.
I'd heard people argue that unforgiveness is beneficial. "Unforgiveness empowers people to do good," said a bitter man whose child had been murdered. "Because I refuse to forgive, I also help other victims of crime." Righteous anger can motivate acts of charity. Betty Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, was angry about mines planted during warfare that ambushed people long after the war ceased. She organized a campaign to remove those mines. She saved lives, reduced pain. But I can be angry with HIV/AIDS and work to stamp it out without bitterness, resentment and hostility. Righteous anger is not the same as bitter, resentful, hateful, hostile, ruminative unforgiveness.
"If you forgive, it's cowardly," I've heard. Having faced a major hurt and struggled with whether to forgive, I can't buy that. For me, it's harder to forgive than to hate. It's not cowardly to want to give up the hatred that makes a person feel powerful (and makes us wish the perpetrator were weak). It takes courage to grant love that can help both people feel stronger and better as people.
Take Chris Carrier, for example, whose story has been told in Reader's Digest. I heard him when we appeared on the same day on television's Leeza. At ten, Chris was abducted. He was stabbed in the chest and stomach with an ice pick and shot through the temple and eye. Left for dead in a Florida swamp, he awoke later. Chris forgave the man.
Then came the acid test. When Chris was an adult, he heard that the man who had done these things to him was dying. Chris went to the man and comforted him during his final days. Chris's forgiveness was refined into pure love. Was that cowardice? No. It was courage personified.
"It's not my place to forgive," said one man whose child had been kidnapped and murdered. "My child was harmed. She is the only one who could forgive. But she's dead and can't forgive. Murder is unforgivable."
I understood his pain. I wanted to ask him, "If the murder was not also a sin against you, how can you hate? How can you be unforgiving?" It seemed to me that his child's murder had hurt him too. If he could hate, why couldn't he forgive? His forgiveness wouldn't pardon the killer. It wouldn't do away with all of the killer's guilt. But it would introduce an element of good, and perhaps someday even redemption, in a horribly bad situation.
"Forgiveness short-circuits grief," some say. Yet forgiveness does not deny that a true offense or hurt occurred. It doesn't deny the pain and sadness of a true loss. In fact, forgiveness works hand in glove with grieving to help resolve grief faster and more thoroughly.
"Forgiveness is loving toward the wrongdoer but not the victim," some people argue. As Cynthia Ozick has recalled, "The rabbi said, 'Whoever is merciful to the cruel will end by being indifferent to the innocent.' Forgiveness can brutalize.... The face of forgiveness is mild but how stony to be slaughtered." Yet once a wrong is done to a victim, does it help the victim if we seek punitive justice? If the wrong involved property, fair restitution is indeed kind. But my mother had been murdered, and no restitution could restore what the locust of death had devoured. Whether I forgave or not would not affect Mama. But I could honor her memory by living out the values of love and mercy she had bequeathed to me.
Don't you dare not forgive! I also knew some of the counterarguments made by apologists for forgiveness. I had heard four arguments that said that we should forgive for our own sake.
First, I knew the Scriptures. Jesus instructed the disciples to pray:
Forgive us our debts
as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Mt 6:12)
He even made God's forgiveness of us conditional on forgiving others (Mt 6:14-15). Jesus said, "Love your enemies" (Lk 6:27). But I didn't feel like forgiving or loving my enemies. If I forgive and still feel hatred, I thought, won't I still be unforgiving in my heart? Yes, I knew about the fact-faith-feeling train, but somehow, simply declaring forgiveness in spite of my rage seemed hypocritical. Doesn't God care about truth? I wailed internally. Of course he does, I answered myself. Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6).
Second, "You can't hurt the perpetrator by being unforgiving, but you can set yourself free by forgiving." I had made that argument myself to psychotherapy clients and friends. It is true to some degree, but I knew from research that it wasn't as simple as it sounds.
Third, "Unforgiveness is a heavy burden to carry." True. Resentment, one of the core elements of unforgiveness, is like carrying around a red-hot rock with the intention of someday throwing it back at the one who hurt you. It tires us and burns us. Who wouldn't want simply to let the rock fall to the ground? Harry Emerson Fosdick said, "Hating people is like burning down your own house to get rid of a rat."
Fourth, "You'll be healthier and happier if you forgive than if you stew in your unforgiveness." I knew the research literature. Maybe I would be healthier. Evidence suggests that hostility causes cardiovascular problems. Chronic stressfulness leads to poor immune system functioning. However, at that time, research on forgiveness was so new that researchers could not make strong statements about its effects. Forgiveness probably reduced health risks, I thought. But that wasn't nearly as well supported back in 1996 as it is now.
Maybe I would be happier. "Forgiveness can help reconcile damaged relationships," some argue. Forgiveness can indeed give me more joy with a partner, friend or coworker than staying bitter. Forgiveness is a conduit of love from person to person. Yet again, research on forgiveness in relationships was in its early stages in 1996. I didn't want to claim the matter as fact. Besides, I didn't have a relationship with the youth who killed my mother. So, the jury was still out about my health and happiness if I forgave.
I knew both the do-forgive and don't-forgive arguments. As I paced the bedroom, I didn't know which to listen to.
Why did I try to forgive? Lots of thoughts flashed through my mind that night. I didn't evaluate them like Mr. Spock or Data. I considered point and counterpoint, but my thoughts were jumbled. On the whole, I thought that I ought to forgive. Even the mental picture of a blood-soaked carpet could not dislodge that conviction.
Honestly, though, I did not want to forgive. Even if I came around to wanting to forgive, I did not know if I could forgive.
In the end, however, it was not relentless reasons or even Christian conviction that tipped the scales against ugly unforgiveness. I merely became weary of struggling against hatred. My emotions drove me to try to forgive.
At the emotional crest of that excruciatingly dark night, I wanted relief from my anger. I needed a rock that would steady my reeling views of the world and myself. I wanted to know and do what God wanted me to do. But Scriptures seemed to line up on both sides. My head and heart were spinning. I wanted to forgive if it would help me deal with my pain, anger, hurt and sadness. If only I could forgive, I thought, I could have peace. I wanted a powerful base that could neutralize the acid of hate and rage that gnawed at me.
Even as I thought of being free of my struggles, I recalled our research programs for helping people forgive. We helped people who wanted to forgive but had tried and failed—often for years. We usually compared two conditions, which we called a self-benefit condition and an empathy-based condition.
Forgiving is for getting. In the self-benefit condition, we asked people to forgive for their own good. We detailed the likely health effects of chronic unforgiveness. We suggested positive health effects of forgiving. We told them, "Forgive. You'll be free. You'll be able to move on with your life." We showed people how to use imagery, let go of anger, release resentment, cut the chains that bound them to the person who had hurt or offended them. We helped people relax. We taught them how to lower the stress of unforgiveness. In short, we appealed to the same motives and emotions that cried within me: Forgive so you'll feel better.
I remember a person I'll call Marci. Marci wanted the freedom of forgiveness. She was forty-five years old, but she felt at least sixty. She knew that she should forgive. But knowing and doing are different.
Her difficulties began with a little thing. Her husband's car was rear-ended by a city bus. The car wasn't damaged much, but Bruce, her husband, continued to have pain in his neck. Finally, his physician suggested that surgery might repair the damaged disks between the vertebrae. During the operation, something went terribly wrong, and the surgeon cut the spinal cord. Bruce had not walked for eleven years.
Bruce's injury put an enormous burden on Marci and their two children. Every day Marci cursed the bus driver who hadn't paid attention, the physician who had recommended neck surgery and the surgeon who had botched it.
Now Marci was getting sick. She felt run-down. The demands of caring for Bruce and rearing two adolescents never ended. Her stomach was always upset. Her mother, herself a crotchety sixty-five-year-old, called Marci "old before your time." Marci knew her mother was right. Bitterness was poisoning Marci and had stripped her of happiness. But she didn't seem to be able to do anything about it. She wanted to forgive the targets of her hatred because she wanted to feel better. Forgiveness was the royal road to health, she thought. Our self-benefit intervention would have been tailor-made for Marci if she had only known about it.
Forgiving is for giving. In the empathy-based condition, we asked people to forgive because the perpetrator needs forgiveness. "You are the only one who can give him [or her] what he [or she] needs: forgiveness." We appealed to people's altruistic motives to give a gift of forgiveness because the other person needed it, rather than in order to get relief from unforgiveness.
Frankly, this is a difficult sell. When people are angry, resentful and bitter toward a person, the last thing they want is to do something nice for that person. Yet most people, if they hang with us, change their hearts. They come to see that anger, resentment, hostility, rage and hatred destroy. They know that, while destroying a hated object can feel good for a while, lasting satisfaction comes more often with creating.
Before Kirby and I married, I lived alone in Boston far away from Tennessee where she was in school. I was in love with her and very lonely. I would sit in Storrow Park along the Charles River and watch happy lovers laugh and talk with each other. I wrote poetry. That urge to fill the hole of sorrow was born of a longing to experience something more in my life. I could have raged against fate, circumstances or a hateful God that kept Kirby and me apart. Instead I wrote poetry. I created something that had not existed before—poems that expressed my love and passion. I was proud of my creations. I was pleased to show them to Kirby.
An amazing change took place. I put a piece of myself into creation, yet I was not diminished. In fact, I somehow felt I was more than what I had been. By creating, I used a piece of my heart to bless someone else. Yet my heart grew larger within me. I did not write poetry to grow a larger heart. I wrote to share a piece of my heart and to bless the one I cared about. The surprise was, I grew in the process.
In our empathy-based groups, we appealed to people's altruistic motives. "Empathize with the one who hurt you until you can identify with his or her humanity," we would say. "Then consider whether you have ever hurt people. We are connected to all people. We all do despicable acts at times. So in that way you are similar to the one who hurt you. Now consider whether you would like to do something good for the one who hurt you. There's a wonderful gift that only you can give: forgiveness for that injury to you."
The comparison: for getting or for giving? When we compared people's responses to the self-benefit and empathy-based conditions, we found consistent results. One study involved brief one-hour programs. The other involved eight-hour programs. When we compared one-hour programs, people who forgave in the self-benefit condition achieved more immediate forgiveness than did those who forgave in the empathy-based condition. Even when we followed up with people weeks later, we found the self-benefit program had produced twice as much lasting forgiveness as the empathy-based program.
In the eight-hour program, though, things were different. The amount of forgiveness in the eight-hour self-benefit program was the same as in the one-hour program. However, the forgiveness in the eight-hour empathy-based program was three times as large as in the self-benefit program.
Also, weeks later when we retested the people in the eight-hour programs, the people in the empathy-based program were about five times as forgiving as those in the self-benefit program. My conclusions from these two studies are clear. If a person had little time to consider forgiving, the person would probably forgive more easily to benefit his or her own physical, mental and relational health. But if the person was willing to spend more than four hours trying to forgive, then forgiving in order to bless the person who hurt him or her would produce more and longer-lasting forgiveness than forgiving just for the person's own benefit.
We've all heard "Forgive and forget," but forgiving seems to be for giving, not for getting. When we forgive, we get a quick jolt of personal peace. If we practice forgiving over a lifetime, chances are we will be healthier in the long run. Our immune systems may function better. We may have less risk of cardiovascular disease. If we forgive, we can also give a gift of peace to the person who hurt us—and we might repair the relationship and therefore have more harmonious social support systems. If we forgive, our entire community might focus less on revenge, avoidance, unforgiveness and past problems and focus more on future possibilities. Away from hurt and toward healing.
Forgiveness does benefit us. But if we forgive mainly to get, we get just a trickle of benefits. If we give a gift of forgiveness to a needy perpetrator, though, we receive freedom, peace, health and relational repair. Forgiveness gushes like water from a fire hose. It washes us clean. It frees us.
In a way, forgiveness is like air. If we close our fist, trying to grasp air, it squirts through our clutching fingers. But if we simply breathe deeply and exhale, then we can get oxygen plus warm those whom our breath passes. In the same way, if we try to clutch the benefits of forgiveness for ourselves by forgiving because we want better health, because we want more peace, then we seem to contaminate the source of the power of those benefits. We get a discounted version of the benefits. But if we try to bless others by forgiving, then paradoxically we ourselves are flooded with blessing. Forgiving is for giving, not for getting.
I already knew many of these things about forgiveness when I found that Mama had been murdered. That event rocked me. I questioned what I knew and what I believed. I wrestled with my emotions. Since the murder, I have changed and grown through my struggles, and I will tell you some of those struggles as we move through this book.
Now, over seven years later, I want to share with you my journeys through personal experience and scientific study—through the heart and science of forgiving. I will show you how to forgive those events and people you might have tried to forgive but could not. You'll learn how to pursue reconciliation if you are in relationships with damaged trust. You'll be able to practice a more forgiving lifestyle. And you'll be able to do all this while acting consistently with Scripture.
If I am successful with this book, you may understand and experience forgiveness and reconciliation differently than ever before. I hope to gently challenge the story of self-focus that, in our culture, we seem to have adopted to explain the miracle of forgiveness. I hope to reconcile the tension between biblical commands to forgive and encouragement to forgive from the heart, so that there is not as much distance between the head and the heart when it comes to handling transgressions. I hope to arm you with new ways to handle transgressions. I hope to help you never look at or practice forgiveness the same way again.
I experienced such a change in perception one day. It was a July summer day in Richmond, Virginia, and the temperature was about 104 degrees Fahrenheit. A brief thundershower had just ended, and the steam was rising from the pavement in waves that distorted vision. Traffic had become snarled in one lane, perhaps because of a fender-bender down the street somewhere, and the second lane was barely moving.
As I walked down the street, a drama unfolded before my eyes. I saw a man in the lane that was barely moving almost literally go crazy. He pounded on his horn furiously, slamming his hand onto the steering wheel again and again. The car in front of him had stopped, and the driver had left the car in the middle of the lane of traffic, noxiously belching exhaust fumes, and was hustling toward one of the university psychology buildings. The steam coming from the pavement was nothing compared to the steam that seemed to be shooting from the ears of the irate driver behind the stopped car. He jerked open his door, fought his way out of his vehicle, kicked the door shut, and stalked toward the car in front of him. I thought I was going to see road rage. "Driver throws automobile two city blocks," the news anchor would say. "Details at eleven."
Just as the irate driver reached the abandoned car, the door to the psychology building opened and the driver of the abandoned car struggled out, holding a child in his arms. The child's legs were withered. She had braces on both feet. The man lurched toward the car as fast as he could, carrying his crippled burden.
When the irate driver heard the steps approaching from behind, he whirled with a scowl and almost took a step toward the driver who was carrying the child. Suddenly, the irate driver realized what was happening. His eyes widened. The squint softened. The jaw muscles slackened. He stepped back and, like a doorman at the Ritz Carlton, opened the car door with a flourish for the man to place the child inside the vehicle. I could almost hear his heels click.
This irate driver experienced a change in his view of the situation, making all of his old ideas irrelevant and setting him on a path of compassion because of his empathy for the man carrying the child.
If you follow my reasoning in this book, you may see forgiveness differently from before. I hope that you'll think of forgiveness as a way to give to others something they need. You may not believe it could happen, but I hope that by the end of this book you might even wish well to those who have offended and hurt you.
I was alarmed at the hatred, anger and bitterness that had suddenly revealed themselves in my own life. The violence of the attack against my mother had stripped away some of the tenaciously held self-delusion that kept me believing that I am habitually kind, loving and forgiving. Confronting my own unforgiveness was a powerful shock.
As a Christian, I long to live a virtuous life that honors Jesus, my Savior. Yet I know enough of my dark side to know that my motivations are always tainted. Looking back, I now see how—even as I was consumed by unforgiveness, fantasies of revenge, resentments at life and society, and the beginnings of bitterness—a small voice whispered for me to at least consider forgiving the murderer. We often underestimate our basic desire, born of the Holy Spirit, to have a virtuous character. Yet the small voice pulls us along if we but listen.
Pursuing forgiveness—not just as an act, not just as a response to a particular troublesome person, but as a character trait—is a goal for many people. Christians, out of gratitude for all God has done to bless us, want to honor God by reflecting his character. We are like mirrors that catch the rays of the sun and reflect them into dark places. We follow this path toward virtue. We find ruts, side trails that lead us into the bushes, landmarks that allow us to evaluate our progress, obstructions that block our way, widened parts of the trail that speed our progress in relationships, and even bridges that must be crossed.
The way of forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness isn't for wimps. In many ways, the destructive path of unforgiveness is much easier than the tough, steely pull of forgiveness. Still, if we follow forgiveness, we will become more loving.
In this book I tell my story, bit by bit in each chapter, as a way to help you forgive those with whom you are having difficulty. In part one, I consider why we forgive, including practical and theological reasons. In part two, I describe how we forgive—whether we are in a continuing relationship with another or whether the person is estranged, has moved away or is dead. Then in part three, I describe how to reconcile with a person with whom you want to or must continue to interact.
Both Christianity and modern culture have much to say about forgiving. I have learned from both. In this book, I concentrate on the aspects of how to forgive that are informed both by Christianity and by science, by the humanities and by our personal experiences. I believe that those voices blend in intricate harmony. So I try to combine the voices into the song I sing to you about how we can more deeply forgive.
Each step in the Pyramid Model to REACH Forgiveness is easy to understand. Each practical exercise is easy to do. Thousands of people have tried them. If you put these ideas into practice, you can forgive events that have troubled you for years. Yet do not be deceived. Forgiveness is as mysterious as love. I have forgiven some horrendous offenses in hours and nursed petty grudges for years.
I invite you to come with me as I describe my experiences—personally, as a counselor and as a researcher. If you have been devastated by a gaping emotional wound or if you have a nagging personal abrasion, let's walk this path together.