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A 4-step Forgiveness Plan

I wanted to write more about Christian nationalism, but after the inauguration last week I felt more hopeful. I was really surprised at how emotional I was when first Kamala Harris and then Joe Biden took the oaths of office. I expected to breathe a sigh of relief, and that morning at my pottery class I did warn my friends that I might get teary-eyed. Nope. I sobbed. When VP Harris was sworn in my shoulders actually shook. When the oath was administered to President Biden all the sound in the studio stopped - wheels stopped, conversation stopped, no one was slapping clay around. Tears streamed down my face and I prayed - prayers of thanks that we survived the last four years, prayers for hope and healing, and prayers for success for the new administration. I came home and watched the virtual parade and the Celebration for America and loved it. I felt like it highlighted the best of America, when what we have seen over the last weeks and months highlighted the worst.

Now the serpent of hypocrisy is showing its ugly head again. It's forked tongue is flicking with calls for unity, healing, and not pouring gasoline onto an inferno. I think it is time for me to write about forgiveness.

I have done a lot of work around forgiveness. With the help of my pastor friends, my therapist, and my husband and children, I have come to a new understanding, and I can say with 100% certainty that I have forgiven. Here is my "4-step plan to forgiveness."

First, the backstory. This is a long, long story, but the highlights (lowlights?) are that my three sisters and I did not see eye-to-eye on the care of our parents. Dad died three years ago this past November, and Mom died three months later - just three years ago today. I was the executor of their very complicated estates. That is when the real disfunction appeared, and ultimately one sister sued me and the others said nothing. My therapist has helped me to recognize patterns that were established in our family years ago, and lets just say that I had a lot of forgiving to do. This is the abridged version of a sermon I gave at our church a year ago (before COVID).

I didn’t struggle with whether I could or would forgive. I was afraid that I hadn’t done it right, or incompletely, or was kidding myself and hadn't really forgiven, because you know the sayings:

Forgive and forget.

Forgive as God forgave you.

If anyone has a complaint against you, go and be reconciled.

I believe that this is what the Republicans in Congress are asking us to do, but more on them later.

I should tell you that I don’t believe in hell. I think God’s mercy is vast and beyond what we can comprehend. That said, it is human to desire punishment for those who have wronged us. That eye for an eye sounds really good. Thinking concretely, if someone wrongs us, that person should be punished. If we are powerless to exact retribution because the wrong is too huge, or the person literally or figuratively gets away with murder, it is comforting to believe that the perpetrator will suffer eternal torment. This is very human. But God is abstract and we cannot put our human needs and desires into God’s mind. That’s why I don’t believe in hell. I won’t argue the point, because how do I know? I believe that God forgives all of our transgressions.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us to “put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph 4:31)

Yeah, so this creates a few problems. First of all, being human, I was very bitter and angry that one sister, in particular, had slandered and shown malice to me, and no one told her to stop. And as a friend studying social work pointed out, if I continued to be kind and tenderhearted and pretended everything was fine, nothing would change. She, or they, would do it again.

I wanted to forgive, but if I didn’t feel kind and tenderhearted and ready to move on, had I forgiven?

Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (2006), says that the first step in forgiveness is naming the behavior for which forgiveness is required. He acknowledges that this requires assigning blame. It makes sense – if the person we are trying to forgive is blameless - because, for example, the hurt came from an accident - then forgiveness is not necessary. In my case, it was difficult to name the behavior, because I had been taught over many years to assume that I was at fault. Surely there was something that I had said or done to warrant the treatment I was receiving. Barring that, I must have been overreacting, or misinterpreting.

I went into counseling for help coping with my grief over the loss of my parents. It took the counselor no time at all to zoom in on the relationship between my sisters and me. And over months, she helped me name the behavior: abuse. The attorney helping me to settle the estates also called it abuse. I was not physically abused, and did not suffer verbal abuse every day. It was abuse nonetheless, and now I knew what I needed to forgive.

Step 1: name the transgression.

The second step came one morning, as I was doing my devotions. I considered forgiving my sisters. I didn’t think I really wanted to – I was still too hurt, and too angry. But when I thought about what I would like to happen, I realized that I did not want anything bad to happen to them. I did not want disfiguring disease, financial destruction, home loss – the worst thing I could think of would be for one of their kids to become sick, or worse: die. I did NOT want any of that. I want them to grow old with their families around them, financially secure, and in good health. OK, I thought. If that is what I want for them, I have forgiven them. (Side note: what they did was not illegal).

Step 2: wish the perpetrator well - even if they need to be convicted and punished for what they did.

I was still so hurt.

I had long conversations with my sisters in my mirror, or while I was in the shower. I came to realize, with the help of my counselor, that there was no conversation I could have with them that would not end up with me being defensive and them zeroing in on some perceived slight. I could not talk to them, and decided that if one were to call, I would not answer the phone.

This did not feel like forgiveness. It felt like I was punishing them for abandoning me. And before you ask, yes, some months prior, I had told the two sisters not suing me how devastated I was that they chose not to say anything when the third accused me of stealing.

Every month, in our United Methodist Church communion service, we heard the line that says, “If anyone has a complaint against you, go and be reconciled.” I felt that I had tried to be reconciled. I could forgive, but this reconciliation – well, that takes more than one person. I couldn’t do it alone. But the Bible says go and be reconciled. If we aren’t reconciled, have I forgiven?

I thought about sending them a note saying that I had forgiven them. But then I imagined how I would feel and what I would think if I got a letter from one of them forgiving me for my role in this whole situation. I would have been furious! How dare they? Forgiveness extended clumsily can do more harm than good. And I don’t believe the three of them think THEY have done anything wrong, so for me to write or call and say that I forgive them, when they haven’t asked for it? I think that would make a bad situation worse. At best, it wouldn't have done any good.

So how to be reconciled to people who were dangerous to me? More hard work and I came to my answer: I can’t be, because every imaginary conversation I had ended up with me backed into a corner, accepting blame for everything that had happened. I can say that if they were to come to me with a sincere apology, accepting their parts in the breakdown of our relationships, I would listen, and we could be reconciled. But without that? I’m not so sure.

Two people can be reconciled; one cannot. One can forgive.

Step 3: differentiate between forgiveness and reconciliation.

Several years before my parents passed away, one of the sisters called and said something, I don’t remember what, that left me in tears. I told our pastor that I was trying to forgive, but I couldn’t forget. “That,” she said, “is not actually in the Bible.” But in Free of Charge, Volf writes that Jesus calls us to forgive as God forgives. That requires forgetting, because with God, our sins are wiped away. Back to the wrestling mat I went.

How could I forget? My counselor looked at me like I had two heads when I said I needed to forget. “If you forget, what is to keep them from doing this again?” Indeed. Even Volf said that it might be dangerous to return to a relationship with an abuser – and I was just deciding about whether to take a phone call that might or might not come! How could I forget when I was still having imaginary conversations?

Ultimately, my sister chose to settle her lawsuit and withdrew her objections against the estate and me. We settled with prejudice, which means she cannot sue me for this ever again. I felt like myself for the first time since my father became ill – maybe even longer. Suddenly, I thought maybe I could answer the phone if one of them calls. I’d still like that apology, but maybe if it never comes I can still be friendly. A friend that I have seen twice in 35 years came and had lunch at my house. We had a delightful visit but could barely scratch the surface of our lives since we became friends all those years ago. I could be that way with my sisters. They can be people I used to know – pleasant, nice to catch up with, but not close. Maybe Facebook friends, but never close.

And then one morning, again during my devotional time, it hit me. Was this the forgetting part? I cannot forget that one sued me and two abandoned me. But I can forget just how much it hurt, and I can forget how angry I was. I am holding them accountable because I won't continue to put myself in their arena. They have lost my love and relationship unless and until they apologize - sincerely and humbly. I could now forget most of the hurt - not that it did hurt - but I could stop dwelling on it.

Step 4: Demand accountability, whether from a sincere apology, a separation and/or dissolution of the relationship, or legal repercussions as appropriate.

People talk about the Amish families who forgave the shooter who killed some of their young girls at school one day. Some months ago, Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer who killed Botham Jean in his apartment when she mistook him for an intruder in hers, was convicted of murder. At her sentencing hearing, Brandt Jean, Botham’s brother, hugged and forgave the woman who had taken his brother’s life. We talk about the extraordinary forgiveness shown by these people, and hold them up as examples of how we should forgive.

But do they forget? Well, how can they? The Amish daughters are not at their dinner tables. Botham Jean will never answer the phone, celebrate a holiday, hold a nephew or neice. They cannot forget. But they can forget the desire for vengeance. They can move past the hurt.

In his letter to the Colossans, Paul wrote, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col 3: 12-14).

Here is the thing – God forgives, truly and completely, and wipes the slate clean. I am not God.

God also imposes consequences. Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden. Moses never got to enter the promised land. David’s infant son died because of David’s adultery and murder of Bathsheba’s husband. The unforgiving servant (MT 18:23-35) was handed over to be tortured, and Jesus admonishes that if we don’t forgive our brother or sister from our hearts, God will do the same to us.

Sheesh! But I believe that I have forgiven. I wish them well. It is safer for me, and probably for them, for me to love them from a distance. If they wish to talk, I will talk, but I cannot pretend that nothing has changed.

My journey feels complete, but every now and again I get out that metaphorical photo album and remember. Then I must forgive again. Peter asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive, - “seven times?” Jesus said, Not 7 times, but 77 times. (Mt 18:21-22) My 77 times have come and gone and I know that I have at least 7 times 77 times more to forgive this. The day will come when the imaginary conversations stop, and the photo album is on some back shelf gathering dust. Perhaps I will have reconciled with my sisters and perhaps not. But I know that I have forgiven them, and I know that I need to continue to do so.

Lewis Smedes’ book, The Art of Forgiveness: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How was helpful to me. He says that the three stages of forgiveness are rediscovering the humanity of the person who hurt us, surrendering our right to get even, and revising our feelings toward the person we forgive. His advice: be patient – forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once. Expect some relapses (oh yeah!). Stay angry – and he adds if you are angry congratulate yourself because it is a sign that you are in touch with reality! You don’t have to like the person who hurt you. He says we need to forgive intolerantly – we forgive the person but just because we forgive an intolerable thing doesn’t mean we are going to put up with it. And finally, we all need help – from a friend, a pastor, a therapist.

And just a quick word about apologies - it may or may not be acceptable to request one. My husband and I have learned to request and give apologies when one of us hurts the feelings of the other, and those conversations deepen our relationship. But there are reasons not to ask for an apology - it is entirely up to you. If you are in an abusive relationship, it may not be safe to ask for an apology. If the person has already died you know you can't receive an apology. You can forgive anyway. Accept the disappointment that the apology won't come, and forgive. If an apology is offered, accept it. The typical answer from kids is, "That's okay." No - it is not okay, but the apology is accepted.

So to broaden this forgiveness journey, we need to name the abuse. Our president, Donald Trump, enabled and encouraged racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. Ultimately, he perpetuated a huge lie that the election was somehow stolen from him, and then fomented an insurrection on January 6. His allies and enablers never called him out on the lie and are refusing to hold him accountable.

We can wish Donald Trump and his people well - as they spend the rest of their lives far away from our governing bodies. President Trump may deserve prison for the insurrection - I am not a lawyer and do not pretend to have any expertise greater than my opinion. Republican officials should at the very least, in my opinion, be voted out of office, with the small exception of those who did call out Trump's lies. I do not wish to see them hanged, garroted, or shot. I just want them out of government so that they can do no harm. Hypocrisy furthers the harm.

This is why the cries for unity and healing are premature. The trauma suffered by the children at the borders is real. Many people have been physically injured, as were the people who were teargassed while peacefully protesting and those who were injured at the Capitol on January 6. Heather Heyer was murdered at the Charlottesville riots. George Floyd, Ahmad Arbury, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Michelle Cusseaux, Freddie Gray, Janissa Fonville, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Gabriella Nevarez, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and so so many others have died at the hands of police, and black and brown children are at risk every time they leave home. Five people died at the Capitol during the insurrection. I can say that I have suffered spiritually as I listen to those who claim to "know" what God wants as they enabled and sucked up to a man who dehumanizes anyone who gets in his way, and I know I am not alone. So many have been badly hurt, in so many different ways.

There is too much hurt and too little promise that this will never, never, never happen again. In fact, the behavior of those on the right demonstrates that we have not seen the last of this violence. We can forgive, but we cannot reconcile until there is accountability. So lets not talk yet about healing and unity. Lets talk about repentance and forgiveness - and accountability. Forgiving won't mean we forget, and one can be forgiven while in prison just as easily as in a seat in the US Senate. Acknowledging the harm that has been perpetrated would help. So would some humility on everyone's part.

God has forgiven each of us - our sins are wiped clean. So are the sins of those who have hurt us. We are human and live in our messy, angry, hating, loving, sad and joyful lives, doing our best to do what God asks of us.

None of what God asks of us is easy. As Theodore Roosevelt said, "Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty ... I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well."

We must forgive each other for our hate and hurts. We must somehow, someday, reconcile with each other or our great country will not survive. To be reconciled, however, we must hold the perpetrators accountable - even as we forgive them.

Four steps to forgiveness:

  1. Name the behavior that needs to be forgiven.

  2. Wish the perpetrator well. This may be very difficult but remember - life goes on in prison, if that is what is warranted. Wishing someone well does not mean that she or he gets everything her or his heart desires, retains power and prestige, and spends the rest of their life on a tropical beach drinking umbrella drinks brought on a tray by the cabana staff.

  3. Differentiate between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness requires one person while reconciliation requires at least two. Forgiveness must be done for the health of the victim; reconciliation may not be possible and THAT IS OK.

  4. Demand accountability. If justice cannot be served (I'm thinking of a crime that is never solved), do what YOU need to do to move on: seek help from a counselor, pastor, physician, or someone else who is well trained. Do not accept or internalize any blame or shame (thinking of the church, here). Be patient as this may take a long time.

I'm sorry if this is oversimplified for any of you who are experiencing extreme hurt. This is how I managed to get to forgiveness, and I hope it will be helpful.

If, by some chance, you happen to be one of my sisters, please consider this an invitation. Now you know where I stand on the subject of our relationships. It's up to you.

Chughtai, Alia. Know Their Names: Black People Killed by the Police in the US. Al Jazeera. Know their names: Black people killed by the police in the US ( Accessed January 28, 2021.

Image. forgiveness-2.jpg (1024×1024) ( Accessed January 28, 2021.

Smedes, Lewis. The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don't Know How. Ballantine Books. 1997.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Zondervan. 2006.

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