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Father Knows Best: Why should I forgive someone who has stolen from me?

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Hey Readers!

Here’s a question that SpokaneFAVS’ intrepid editor, Tracy Simmons, found via one of the other Faith and Values sites — thanks for sending it on to the FKB mailroom, Tracy! The question is:

 Why should I forgive someone who has stolen from me?

-Forgiving on FAVS

Thief trap photo

Thief trap photo

Dear FOF:

When I was in high school, I had a teacher who behaved in a pretty erratic and aggressive way. She was sometimes cutting and sarcastic, sometimes furious and confrontational, sometimes strangely withdrawn, sometimes inappropriate in the personal information which she disclosed. Knowing what I know now, I see a lot of clues to alcoholism or another addiction in her behavior. But, back when I was sixteen, all that I knew was that I dreaded attending her class.

Eventually, mercifully, I graduated. But, for a long time – for close to two decades after I left high school – the impotence and anger and fear of sitting in that teacher’s classroom continued to burn inside me and to surprise me with its intensity. What made my lingering hurt even harder to bear was that it embarrassed me. Surely, I thought, the petty humiliations of high school are something that I ought to be over by now. Surely I should be more mature than this. Surely I shouldn’t be making this into such a big deal.

It wasn’t all that long ago that things changed for me. That was when, for the first time, I fought through my embarrassment and gave a name to what took place in that teacher’s classroom. That was when I said out loud that what happened to my classmates and me under her tutelage was abuse.

Now, you might imagine that this act of naming would leave me furious. But, actually, quite the opposite happened. Naming the abuse that happened all those years ago was transformative and freeing. That naming allowed me to release my hurt. And, in a way that I can’t entirely explain, it allowed me to find reconciliation with my teacher.

It allowed me to forgive her.

Naming, releasing and reconciling. These are the elements out of which forgiveness is built. Let’s spend a little time with each.

First, naming. Naming is about bringing a wrong out into the light, about looking at it directly. Naming does not involve saying that the wrong was okay, that it wasn’t a big deal, that we were mistaken to be angry, that we were in some way responsible for it, that we need to be friends with the person who hurt us. To the contrary, naming is about rejecting the cultural pressure to “get over it.” It is about truly and totally acknowledging our hurt. Sometimes naming necessitates opening old wounds so that, as Desmond Tutu says, “we can cleanse them and prevent them from festering.”

Second, releasing. Releasing flows out of naming. Despite the somewhat passive term that I have chosen to describe it, releasing is actually all about claiming our agency; it is about deciding that, even as we acknowledge our wounds, we will not permit them to define us, that we will not carry their weight, that we will not live in fear of them. To give but one example, the native people who endured Canada’s Indian residential schools have engaged in a humbling and inspiring act of release by choosing to describe themselves not as victims but, rather, as survivors.

And finally, reconciling. Insofar as I understand the big mystery which is reconciliation, it is about consciously inviting the limitless love, which is God, into our hurt. It is about asking God to heal something that we often can’t heal ourselves. Forgiving on our own is hard. Sometimes, it borders on the impossible. (How, for instance, can we forgive someone whose negligence or selfishness results in serious harm to a child?) In these instances, there is nothing to do except to turn to God and say, “I can’t forgive him; you do it.” As a wise friend of mine says, that is a prayer that God will always answer.

Jesus spent his life naming and releasing and reconciling. In my small and seriously imperfect way, I do my best to do likewise. And, even if it took me almost twenty years, I forgive my teacher.

Why forgive the person who stole from you, FOF? Because it’s good for you. Because forgiveness will set you free. Because forgiving helps us to see ourselves as loved and forgivable, not as the person who was so worthless that we could be stolen from, abused and abandoned. And, more than that, because forgiveness is good for creation. Every act of naming and releasing and reconciling helps to invite God deeper into this broken world. Every such act helps to create a reality in which, even in the midst of profound pain, people forgive.

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