Paul Prather

Paul Prather: The act of forgiveness requires more than saying 'I forgive you'

Paul Prather
Paul Prather

In past columns, I've extolled the virtue of forgiveness.

But more needs to be said about this misunderstood subject.

Recently, I read an op-ed piece on The Daily Beast website by Candida Moss and Christa Grace Watkins, who examined the Christian commandment to forgive.

Pope Francis had said he understood when victims of church sexual abuse and their parents were slow to forgive pedophile priests.

The writers, Moss and Watkins, expressed relief at the pope's remarks. Too often, churchgoers are pressured to forgive perpetrators "in a public way and on an accelerated time line," they said. Pressuring victims leaves them with the sense they're supposed to help their assailants feel better, which undermines their recovery.

I agree.

I do, however, have a slightly different spin.

Immediate expressions of forgiveness sometimes constitute what Christians might call statements of faith, not of sight.

People might say "I forgive" because they believe in forgiveness — and hope that eventually the Lord will enable them to achieve it, although they don't feel it yet.

For instance, Moss and Watkins also mentioned the merciful statements offered by members of Charleston's Emanuel A.M.E. Church, where Dylann Roof allegedly killed nine worshipers.

Just two days after those killings, Felicia Sanders, mother of a victim and a survivor of the shooting, showed up at Roof's bond hearing, along with other victims' family members, to proclaim forgiveness for him.

I wrote about that at the time, praising those Christians. I praise them still.

That said, I'd agree that standing up a few days after such a trauma and saying, "I forgive you," while remarkable, probably doesn't tell the full story. These same people might continue to wrestle with rage; that would be normal.

Without miraculous, divine intervention, reaching genuine forgiveness — even for far less tragic wrongs than the Charleston shooting — can take time. For most of us, forgiving is a process, not an instantaneous breakthrough.

And that's OK.

We might say the words today almost as a religiously induced reflex: I'm a Christian; therefore, I forgive. But we might not mean it in our souls for decades.

Let's consider how forgiveness occurs in a more common, less dramatic situation than molestation by a priest or mass murder.

Let's say you're the adult child of an alcoholic dad who was mean and emotionally absent. You seethe with bitterness.

At 25, you undergo a religious conversion. You're faced with the spiritual command to forgive those who've trespassed against you. You say, "I forgive my father." You want to mean it. You pray for help.

You find you still can't stomach the jerk. The memories are too raw.

You go home only for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then only to visit your saintly mother, who helped you survive your childhood.

You pray more. But you get worse.

Because next you find you're not crazy about Mom anymore, either. What was wrong with her that she'd marry such an idiot? Why did she stay with him? Why didn't she protect you? Wasn't she his enabler?

Now you shun both parents.

You keep praying.

Maybe the next step is this.

You get married yourself. You have a kid.

Ten more years down the line, your start to view your mother in a softer light. You realize how little you knew about your spouse until you were married. You see how tough it is to sort out marital problems and also hold a job and also meet your kid's emotional needs, even in the best of situations.

Maybe you find it possible, then, to understand that your mom wasn't the hero you once believed, but she's not a villain. She was a victim herself. She didn't know what she was getting into when she wed your dad. She didn't know how to escape. She tried her imperfect best.

When you start to look at things that way, then maybe, over more time, you start seeing your dad differently, too.

Maybe he didn't set out to become a drunk. Maybe you learn he was self-medicating because he suffered from mental issues. Maybe you learn his parents were raging alcoholics — he was reenacting toward you the only parenting model he knew. Maybe you discover he came home from the war with PTSD.

You start to see even him as a kind of victim — of a fallen world, if nothing else.

Maybe you get angry again now. At yourself. You recall how smug and dismissive you were toward your parents, remember your insulting outbursts, start ruing the lost years when you might have built a healthier relationship with them but didn't.

Finally, you even manage to reconcile with yourself.

You recognize you are but dust, too. You accept and forgive your own flaws, just as you've forgiven Mom and Dad. You discover grace for yourself as you discovered grace for them.

You wake up one day at 40 years old — or 60 or 80 — and you're able to say, "I forgive," and fully mean it. You're free.

You've achieved what you proclaimed by faith at 25, and more.

What you said back then wasn't a lie: You do forgive your dad. It's just taken a few decades to appropriate it and to do other spiritual work besides.

Ideally, the struggle to forgive is a struggle for self-awareness and maturity and wholeness and mercy. By forgiving, we win all around.

We go into the process wounded. We eventually come out healed, and as healers.

It takes a while, but it's worth the effort.