Forgiveness Muscles

A little over a week ago, Mim and I and my sister-in-law Bonnie went to a half-day conference on the subject of forgiveness. The title of the conference was “A Time to Forgive.” The speaker was Dr. Robert Enright of the Department of Educational Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison and founding member of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. The conference was sponsored by MOSES (Madison Organizing in Strength, Equity, and Solidarity for Criminal Legal System Reform). The speaker was excellent. The conference prompted me to start thinking a lot more about forgiveness.

The next day, in the car, Mim asked me, “Do you find it hard to forgive?” I thought about her question for a full minute before I answered. “Not really.” And Mim responded, “I didn’t think so. You really take that Bible verse you learned as a child to heart.”

I knew which verse she meant. Ephesians 4:32. “And be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” I smiled. Even though that has been my favorite Bible verse for most of my life, I’ve always focused on the first part – the “be kind to one another” part, not the forgiving part.

After Saturday’s forgiveness conference, maybe I need to think a little more about the forgiving part. After all, every church I’ve ever attended has the congregation pray the same prayer every Sunday, part of which is “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (or “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”).

In his first presentation at the conference, Dr. Enright defined forgiveness as having three components:

  1. We have been treated unjustly by a person or persons.
  2. We strive to get rid of the resentment.
  3. We strive as best we can to offer goodness of some kind to the one(s) who have hurt us.

In his second presentation of the day, Dr. Enright tried to teach us how to forgive. He described four phases of forgiveness.

  1. Uncovering Phase: Examining the effects of the injustice against the forgiver.
  2. Decision Phase:  Making a commitment to try forgiving.
  3. Work Phase:  Thinking about the one who engaged in the offensive behavior and working on new feelings toward the person.
  4. Discovery Phase: Discovering what the forgiver has learned from going through the forgiveness process. Discover how the forgiver is growing as a person.

Dr. Enright emphasized that this Forgiveness Process is not a “do it once and you’re done” process. Instead he compared it to working out at a gym to build muscles. Your “forgiveness muscle” is developed over time. He encouraged us to start learning to forgive by choosing someone who has hurt us a little bit and trying to forgive them. We shouldn’t start with the person or institution who has harmed us the most. We need stronger “forgiveness muscles” before we tackle that.

Dr. Enright concluded his two presentations by noting two paradoxes in forgiveness:

  1. The forgiver, who was hurt by the other person, gives a gift to that person rather than punishes that person who was unfair.
  2. As the forgiver reaches out in mercy to the one who acted unfairly, it is the forgiver who experiences emotional healing.

As I’ve been thinking over these ideas about forgiveness throughout the past week, my mind keeps going back to an incredible story in the national news that happened in 2006. You may recall the story, as well. A 32-year-old milk truck driver entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania. He ordered everyone out of the schoolhouse except for ten girls. Then he shot the ten girls, killing five of them. Then he killed himself. What makes this terrible story so memorable is how the Amish community reacted. Here’s one account of their reaction:

On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another Amish father noted, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.”  … [A neighbor] explained “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”

Wikipedia, “West Nickel Mines School shooting”

Obviously, the members of this Amish community had very well-developed “forgiveness muscles.” They quickly moved through the “Uncovering Phase” and the “Decision Phase” of the Forgiveness Process, and almost immediately went to the “Work Phase” of figuring out how to help the family of the perpetrator of the horrendous crime. The “Discovery Phase” is still going on as people all over the world, including myself, are remembering the impact of forgiveness in this event.

Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors to thank them for their forgiveness and kindness.

Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.

Wikipedia, “West Nickel Mines School shooting”

Kindness, the first part of Ephesians 4:32, sometimes can be a byproduct of the forgiveness described in the rest of the verse.

And be ye kind one to another,
tender-hearted, forgiving one another,
as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.

6 responses to “Forgiveness Muscles”

  1. Marian, you are a better woman than I.

    1. Thanks, Lynn. Glad to hear from you. I may question the accuracy of your statement, but thanks for commenting. As you know, growing up with a brother provides ample opportunities to work on developing our forgiveness muscles.

  2. Not everyone will attempt to forgive on this level, but if we can at least find acceptance that can be healing, too.

    The response of the Amish families is very powerful

    1. Thanks, Mary, for your comments. I am always delighted to read comments from life-long friends. You raise a good point – that total forgiveness is not the only way to healing. Acceptance can also be a powerful pathway. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  3. Thanks Marian for true words of wisdom. Forgiveness goes along with anger management–and is essential to personal happiness. I’m reminded that being angry with someone for some perceived slight does nothing to them, but damages only me. –And the only person with control over anger and forgiveness is myself. Your insight is wise and invaluable.

    1. Thanks for sharing your insights, George. A major point that the speaker Robert Enright emphasized was just as you stated – “the only person with control over anger and forgiveness is myself.”

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