On 8 November 1987 Gordon Wilson and his daughter Marie, a nurse, were injured by an exploding bomb planted by the Provisional IRA in Enniskillen, Northern Island. Marie died later in hospital. Gordon was interviewed by the BBC and ended by saying,
‘But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.’
The BBC later described the bombing as a turning point in the Troubles. Pivotal to the change in attitude was Gordon’s reaction to the death of his daughter. Especially significant was that he publicly forgave those who had planted the bomb and said he would pray for them. He also begged that no one should take revenge for Marie’s death. Historians reflecting on the Northern Ireland conflict, report that his words had a more powerful and emotional impact than any others in helping to bring resolution and peace even though it took another 11 years.
That illustrates how powerful forgiveness can be.
But what is forgiveness and how can it have such a stunning effect?
Forgiveness relates to how you respond to hurts. It might be when someone tells lies about you or takes advantage of you. You might have suffered hurts because of a burglary or road traffic accident. Some hurts may be physical injuries while others may be emotional but all cause stress. Your normal emotional response to such a hurt is anger, a desire for restoration at the perpetrator’s expense, justice and retribution. Some hurts are inflicted deliberately but often it is accidental or at least without the perpetrator’s awareness of the full extent of the harm they have inflicted.
In an ideal situation such hurts will receive a response from the perpetrator that acknowledges that what happened was unfair or wrong. An apology should be made and you respond by forgiving the perpetrator. That is, you no longer hold the perpetrator to account for what happened. In such an ideal situation the apology will be accompanied by an explanation and if the hurt has caused significant harm it will be followed by the perpetrator voluntarily making restitution so that whatever has been lost is recovered. If that is not possible some form of recompense will be made.
Forgiveness is an early stage in the journey toward reconciliation whereby a former relationship is restored as near as possible to what it was.
Justice is about accountability. Hurts are assessed and appropriate punishment is dispensed and recompense and retribution are apportioned. This is a separate and more public responsibility of the community whether the family or neighbourhood, cultural organisation or nation, depending on the circumstances. There is no controlling role for the sufferer though they should have a significant input into the process. It needs to be considered separately to the more personal actions of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Consider what happens if a minor incident occurs. Someone bumps into you in a crowd and immediately says sorry. You recognise instantaneously that it was unintended, say ‘no problem’ or perhaps just smile or nod. The person who bumped into you may not even realise what happened in the crowd. They have passed on – but you accept what happened as an accident, perhaps realising that on another occasion the roles could be reversed. These thing happen. All is forgiven and forgotten. However, note what happens if you do not accept their apology or their apparent failure to acknowledge the incident. You might shout at them for being clumsy or not looking where they were going and/or complain to someone either then or later about what happened. You will be disturbed and irritated and may have a sore toe or side. This may remind you of similar incidents that have happened previously and that adds to the sense of hurt and injustice. It will not be easy to forget. You may become more cautious about walking in crowds. Do you recognise this description? Notice the key role that forgiveness plays in enabling you to come to terms with the incident and move on.
A bigger hurt will cause a commensurately bigger reaction for forgiveness does not come easily. It is not a natural response to being hurt. The more natural response is for you to want an apology, redress and compensation. If that is not easily forthcoming you are likely to be angry, to brood about what happened, to feel sorry for yourself, to complain or to look for justice and recompense. You might start planning revenge. It is likely that your relationship with the one who caused the hurt will change irrevocably. Trust will be replaced with suspicion and in one way or another you will cut them out of your life. There have been some tragic stories in the news media about, for example, a parent who murdered their own children to ‘get back’ at a partner who had left them or about neighbours quarrelling about trees or fences and incurring tens of £1000s in legal fees to maintain their point of view. Even if you would not go to such extremes, it is no different in principle to belittling someone who has hurt you or being pleased when some mishap affects them.
Whatever the wrongs you have suffered or the unfairness of your treatment it seems that if you do not forgive you will suffer. Forgiveness is primarily therefore for your own benefit and only secondarily is it a step on the journey toward reconciliation if the particular circumstances of the hurt warrant that eventuality. The personal benefit explains why forgiving someone who is unknown or has died is still crucial – but more of that in due course. Brooding about past hurts causes emotional scars that can damage other aspects of your life and spoil your relationships with other people who had nothing to do with the original hurt. Unresolved hurts are like cancer that grow inside you insidiously. The damage can take time before it marks you significantly so you get used to it and may even see it as ‘normal.’
Forgiveness then fits in, to refer back to where this started, as one of the tools for dealing with a significant hurt. This will prevent or minimise the development of a stressful reaction to such a hurt. However, it is not the first thing you do, unless the hurt is minor and easily understood. It takes time to forgive. To summarise the points made so far about how to handle a significant hurt:
Meet the perpetrator
Discuss what happened
Listen to explanations
Apologies are offered (possibly from both parties, though one may be more significant than the other)
Apologies are accepted
Forgiveness is given and accepted
The perpetrator offers redress or compensation, if appropriate
This is agreed and made
Then there can be a start on the journey to restore normal relationships.
Forgiveness must be genuine
Forgiveness as described above is given verbally but it is clearly based on understanding and expresses a willing attitude. Forgiveness is not forgiveness if it is only a form of words. If it is not genuine the stress reaction will be exacerbated and not eased at all.
Sandra remembers as a child being made by a teacher to tell another child she forgave them. She did it to satisfy the teacher but it was not heartfelt. She believed it was unwarranted so she was still upset, harboured anger and was looking for revenge. 40 years later it was one of the memories that she sometimes brooded over when such memories resurfaced during times when she was feeling low and sad.
Forgiveness is a gift
Forgiveness must be genuine if it is going to be an effective tool for managing stress. Think of it as a gift that you give both to the one who has hurt you and to yourself. Giving a gift is a personal choice. If it is forced by one means or another it is not truly a gift.
As with any gift forgiveness involves letting go. You cannot give a gift and still keep it! So you let go of the hurt. That means you refuse to brood about it or talk about it. You will choose to refrain from retaliation or even thinking about it and will not focus on seeking compensation even if that is warranted in the circumstances, though you will not necessarily refuse it. If the hurt is still active because of seeking compensation or a pending enquiry or prosecution the bad emotional experiences you have been through will recur as you are repeatedly reminded of the incident. You will, for example, feel angry and be unable to sleep as you are busily brooding about how badly you have been treated or are planning revenge. The memory will trouble you and if you persevere, you can become even more emotionally damaged. In fact, sometimes you may cherish a hurt and snuggle up to it. It becomes an emotional crutch. Tragically it can become a reason for living.
Theresa was crossing the road when she was hit by a passing car. She suffered a broken leg and whiplash injuries to her neck. Her leg healed satisfactorily but her neck pain persisted. Physiotherapy was recommended but she refused to attend even though she had persistent pain that disturbed her sleep. She attended her doctor regularly but all she was interested in was talking about the anger she felt toward the driver of the car and her desire to see him prosecuted and punished for what he had done. The doctor advised Theresa that delay in having her neck treated properly could mean she would have prolonged problems and perhaps even a permanent disability. He suggested she should try to forgive and move on, he even offered counselling but that was dismissed with disdain. Theresa was making her suffering worse by her obsession with ‘justice.’
What if the perpetrator is unknown or dead?
The stressful and painful experience may have occurred a long time ago and the perpetrator has died or on another occasion they cannot be identified. Alternatively, you may not wish to meet them. Whatever the situation, the personal benefits of forgiving a hurt suggests that all such perpetrators still should be forgiven. At its heart forgiveness is something you do within yourself. It does not depend on having a continuing relationship with the perpetrators of your hurt.
Forgiveness and justice
Forgiveness does not mean the perpetrator can no longer be held to account for what they have done. If you have been robbed or abused you may be able to forgive the perpetrator but may still want them to be prosecuted. Now, though, it would not be an act of revenge. Instead it might be based on the principle of justice (the law has been broken so the law must take its course). It might be out of a desire to teach them a lesson, or perhaps to demonstrate a lesson for others who may be tempted to behave similarly. The key to this is about motivation – the reason you want a certain action.
And what about if the hurt has been less severe, when no serious loss has been sustained and there is no thought of criminal or civil legal action? There are other ways you can obtain revenge for your hurt and ensure those who have hurt you are ‘punished.’ For example, it can be tempting to talk about what happened. This will help you gain sympathy and perhaps be a warning to others but it does mean you focus on what went wrong in the past. You may perhaps build up what happened to be more significant than it deserves and inevitably this backward-looking focus will hinder you moving on into the future. And could you be ‘punishing’ the perpetrator of your hurts by leading others to think badly of them? The following story illustrates how a lack of willingness to forgive and work toward resolution of a hurt can rebound causing an escalation of stress and trouble.
Miranda was disappointed with the quality of her wedding photographs so started an online campaign of abusive accusations. It was so effective that the photographer eventually went out of business. However, a court found there was no substance in the accusations so Miranda had to pay many £1,000s in damages.
It can be helpful if the decision to prosecute is not in your hands, even though you will be distressed if the legal system does not fulfil your wishes. In some countries justice requires the one who has sustained a hurt, or their family, to prosecute a wrongdoer. This inevitably leads to abuse of the justice system by those who are powerful, rich and well connected at the expense of the poor and vulnerable.
Forgiveness as a way of life
Forgiveness is becoming a feature of normal life. It is reported in the media. It is on the United Nation’s agenda in its plans for establishing peace and reconciliation between warring factions. In the last few decades this teaching about forgiveness has been included in university undergraduate courses in departments such as psychology and social sciences. Comparative research projects have demonstrated that there is statistical evidence that forgiveness leads to the development of positive attitudes such as empathy, compassion and understanding toward the person who caused the hurt. There is also a reduction in personal anxiety, depression and the risk of developing major psychiatric disorders, as well as reducing the risk of heart disease, and improving the outcome for people with existing heart disease. As a result psychologists have developed training programmes to help people learn how to forgive.
Jesus, of course, understood all this nearly 2,000 years ago so forgiveness has always been a central aspect of the Christian faith. Jesus teaching is truly true to life and warrants some consideration.
For example, Peter, a disciple of Jesus, asked him how many times he should forgive his brother, ‘up to 7 times’? ‘No,’ Jesus replied, ’not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’ Peter’s question gives the impression he thought he was being exceptionally generous so he must have been gob-smacked with Jesus’ answer. It is a feature of the Bible’s teaching that the reader has to think as well as read, for the Bible often expects us to put two and two together and work out the implications. For example, Jesus does not explain what he meant by 77. Did he expect Peter to keep a strict count? And does this relate to 77 separate incidents? What about when I forgive but then forget and allow the memory of a hurt to recur and make me upset and angry all over again, and again, and again? When does it stop? And does this mean God keeps a count of the times I need his forgiveness? Does that too have a limit? Rather than explain in minute detail as we expect of teachers nowadays Jesus told a story to illustrate his meaning and that helps us understand the implications of his teaching. This was never intended for our intellectual interest or amusement – it is intended to be core teaching on which we build our lives. It seems Jesus expects us to keep on forgiving and not to keep a count. One particular example of this is when you are reminded of a former hurtful incident because something like it recurs, or you hear of a similar incident that happens to someone else. You will recall not only the incident but also your emotional response so your anger, and distress recurs. Jesus teaching suggests you should forgive them afresh.
Sally was very angry about this teaching about forgiveness. She had been raped by a relative who took advantage of her vulnerability. ‘Forgiving him is like saying it did not matter,’ she protested, ‘Or even that I was somehow to blame.’ Her counsellor agreed with her. She pointed out that Jesus was talking about forgiving a brother. That is, someone of equal social standing. There is no suggestion here that this teaching applies in every circumstance. The counsellor reminded Sally about the Bible’s description of Jesus crucifixion. Jesus was powerless in the hands of those who crucified him and Jesus did not forgive them. Instead, he prayed, ‘Father God, you forgive them.’
That was a powerful example for Sally and it can be for you too. If you are in a position of weakness and are raped, abused or otherwise ill-treated by someone with authority or power over you the idea of forgiving can feel cruel and adds to the hurt you have suffered. So maybe you can consider following Jesus example and hand over to God the person who has abused you.
You might be tempted to add to the prayer and ask God to punish them. But can you trust God to know what is best? The Bible is full of promises that God knows when you are suffering. He feels your hurt. He is angry about the evil and wickedness in the world. He is working to a plan that will change all this. But God is God. He is in control. He does not need you to tell him what to do. But then, who are we to tell God what to do? Have not all of us in one way or another failed to be the people we ought to be?
Actually, there is something God wants to do for you before you forgive.
Jesus first wants to deal with your hurts. Jesus said:
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’
Once you have released your pain to Jesus and experienced God’s healing power then, and perhaps only then, you can forgive others as wholeheartedly as Jesus expects. For that is when you experience God’s strength to do what is right. It lifts the stress that comes from depending on your own strength and willingness.
It is not that forgiving suddenly becomes easy. It takes time. You may first need to pray:
‘Help me to want to want to forgive.’
In time that can become,
‘Help me to want to forgive.’
‘Help me to forgive.’
‘Help me to carry on forgiving.’
This is an aspect of stress that you may particularly like to have some guidance about how to pray.
How about this:
God, heavenly Father,
Thank you for Jesus, for his life and example.
Thank you especially for his death that he died for me, to forgive me and make me whole.
I bring to you the suffering/pain/trouble/abuse I have been through because of X.
I hand over my hurt to you and I receive your healing.
As I have been forgiven,
[either] so I forgive X
[or] I ask you to forgive X.
(and if you feel able)
I pray for X that you will bless them. Help X to know your love and healing.
(and then conclude)
And please continue to heal me.
In Jesus name.
What does all this mean for you and your stresses?
Do any incidents come to mind where forgiveness is needed?
This is especially one of those moments when you need to take plenty of time to reflect on what comes to mind and then move on to sort out any issues you have with other people where blame and guilt play a part and there are hurts that need to be healed.
This is primarily for your own sake. Remember, forgiveness is a tool to help manage your stresses.
It is a tool that not only helps with the presenting stress of a personal hurt and conflict but also with the underlying stress that is connected with brooding about a hurt. That may then lead to an unhealthy and unwholesome expectation of further hurts and disappointments and a focus on planning revenge. Unresolved hurts may even be the core stress that underlies much of what has gone wrong in your life and makes subsequent stressful events and situations such a challenge to your coping skills.
Take your time. Do not move on until you have recovered a measure of peace of mind, comfort in your spirit and a few nights sound sleep.