The Guest Speaker on July 26th, 2015 was Lakewood parishioner, Claire A. Stiles, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, Human Development, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, FL.
The title of her talk was Getting to Forgiveness: A Return to Wholeness. To listen, right-click HERE and select the save link option and play the downloaded file with your computer’s media player. If you have a one-button mouse (on a Mac), press and hold the “Control” key and click the link and select the save link option.
What follows is the written text of that audio.
Getting to Forgiveness: A Return to Wholeness
Claire A. Stiles, Ph.D.
Adaptation of Paper written for
The Council of Faculty Fellows Seminar
Center for Spiritual Life at Eckerd College on February 21, 2007
Presented to Lakewood United Church of Christ on July 26, 2015
Good Morning. I am humbled to be able to share some ideas with you in Pastor Kim’s absence, and although I can only scratch the surface on this topic, central to Christianity and our faith tradition, I hope some of the ideas will be of value to you personally and to all of us as a faith community. I am reading an adapted version of a paper that I wrote as a member of the Council of Faculty Fellows Seminar for the Center for Spiritual Life at Eckerd College in February 2007. Six faculty members were selected to be fellows during the 2006-07 academic year, and each of us wrote a paper from our own disciplinary perspective on the topic of forgiveness.
As a professional in the behavioral sciences, my intention was to bring a social science perspective to the topic of forgiveness. In doing so, I hoped to further clarify the process of forgiveness not directly addressed in the sacred scriptures of the Judeo-Christian religious traditions. The questions before us today are: How do those who look for guidance within this religious tradition find the path toward forgiveness and a release or healing from the experiences of real or perceived victimization? How do we “get to forgiveness” and return to a state of wholeness? Can modern science fill in the gaps and point us toward a practical method of raising the probability of actually being able to forgive ourselves or others? And finally is forgiveness always the best choice in every circumstance?
Just what is forgiveness? Many definitions can be offered but one description by Enright, R. D., Freedman, S., & Rique, J. (1998) as cited by Whitbourne on January 1, 2013 is
Instead of revenge, resentment, and judgment, you show generosity, compassion, and kindness. In forgiveness, you don’t forget that the offense occurred nor do you excuse it. You substitute your negative with positive feelings, thoughts, and behavior. (para. 1)
Beaumont (2009) tells us that “When you forgive someone, you make the choice to give up your desire for revenge and feelings of resentment. You also stop judging the person who caused you the hurt.”
He also lists the following that might be part of forgiveness:
- The decision not to seek punishment for those who have harmed you.
- A decision to release yourself from anger, resentment, hate, or the urge for revenge despite the injury you suffered.
- To let go of hope of a different past.
- A change of heart; ceasing to hate.
- Responding to unjust hurt with compassion, benevolence, and empathy.
- Moving beyond bitterness.
- Cancelling a debt.
- Choosing not to act on vindictive passions.
- Discharging—removing the obligation for—a debt owed to you.
- Ending estrangement and letting go of resentment and the urge for revenge.
- Surrendering feelings of animosity and hatred when others harm us
- Peace and understanding that come from blaming less that which has hurt you, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story
Regardless of the specific definition, as so well expressed by Jim Andrews in his children’s sermon, we all have within us the power to forgive.
When seeking answers to life’s difficult and painful challenges, like those of forgiveness, many of us in the Judeo-Christian traditions frequently first turn to the Bible and other spiritual or church-based readings. We often rely on our faith-based solutions when we are perplexed, discouraged, frightened, or overwhelmed by the demands of our relationships, family, jobs, finances, health, and even national and world events. During these distressful times, we often feel a loss of well-being, and we long to return to a state of balance and wholeness. As we face the stresses of modern life in the 21st century and our own unique life experiences, we search for insight into how to resolve our difficulties and live a moral and satisfying and even joyous life while being true to our personal values and to the core tenets of our faith.
Turning to the Holy Bible (1989), can we find a prescription for the restoration of well-being and a return to wholeness, especially when faced with the pain of wrongdoing against the self or significant others? Here we find some guidance as forgiveness is presented as the character of God and of the Christ. Examples from scripture include the story of the return of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15 and the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” (Matthew 6:12). Other verses confirm the forgiving nature of the divine, e.g., “Then the Lord said, ‘I do forgive, just as you have asked.’” (Numbers 14:20); and “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’” (Luke 23:34).
In numerous places the Bible directs us to forgive, e.g., “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses,” (Mark 11:25); tells us why we should forgive, e.g., “For if you forgive others their trespasses, our heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” (Matthew 6:14); who we should forgive, e.g., “but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you;” (Matthew 5:44); and even how often we should forgive, e.g., “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18:21-22). Forgiveness, thus, is a basic precept of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
However, as inspiring and clear as the Bible is about our duty to forgive, it does not reveal the exact process leading to forgiveness. Fortunately, we have access to additional resources to help illuminate the path. For the modern human in a world where the scientific method has unraveled many mysteries of the natural world, we find a wealth of potential in the research and literature of the social and behavioral sciences. Turning to the field of psychology and counseling may provide strategies for coping with this dilemma and, along with Biblical wisdom, help to find the path to forgiveness and a return to wholeness.
A major source of human stress and suffering, the experience of having intentional or unintentional harm inflicted on ourselves or one’s loved ones by the other, e.g., an individual, a group, or an institution, can wound us at a deep emotional level. This experience of victimization usually involves a significant loss that may be physical, psychological, social, financial, or a combination of losses. The death of a loved one may be one of the most devastating losses of all. Based on the disruptive effect on our lives and the extent of readjustment necessary afterwards, the pain we experience upon the death of a beloved one can be even more devastating when the loss was caused by someone else’s violent or irresponsible behavior.
Regardless of the nature or severity of loss, if we perceive that the cause of the loss was harm inflicted, deliberately or unintentionally by another, and that we were powerless to control it, our anger, grief, or fear can lead to a burning desire for revenge or punishment, depression and a sense of futility, an acute traumatic stress reaction, or a debilitating longer term post-traumatic stress disorder when the trauma experienced was profound, e.g., battle stress, homicide, terrorist attack, childhood abuse, and domestic violence (APA Help Center, 2004). Witnessing harm to another or even hearing the stories of harm from someone known or unknown to us, can also create a vicarious trauma experience with a similar emotional reaction even if we are not the victim. Take for example the emotional effects on children of witnessing violence. We also know from veterans of war the emotional impact of witnessing battle field horrors and the torture of fellow POW’s. Clearly victimization with its subsequent flood of painful emotions is a widespread problem. From the sexual abuse committed by Roman Catholic clergy against children to the senseless killing of Amish children in Pennsylvania, to the brutal revenge murders televised daily from the Middle East, and to the racism and violence on our streets towards African Americans, we are awash in news reports of victimization and trauma.
What is a possible antidote for healing of this victimization and the emotional fallout from the real or imagined deep offenses against oneself or another? One such antidote in forgiveness although some would also say that justice plays an important part as well. In exploring the social science literature, the first thing we note is an increase in the number, frequency, and diversity of research studies on forgiveness since 1985. This explosion of research and theory suggests both the acceptability of this topic as a research topic and the urgency to understand how forgiveness and reconciliation occur in order to help break the cycle of anger, grief, pain, and desire for revenge experienced by so many people in the world. We even see increased funding by major philanthropic organizations like the John Templeton Foundation and other donors who support programs like the Campaign for Forgiveness Research led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pulitzer Prize winning author Dr. Robert Coles, community activist Ruby Bridges Hall, and former US President Jimmy Carter. Campaign for Forgiveness Research alone between 1999 – 2005 resulted in an upsurge of studies investigating forgiveness at all levels and under many different circumstances, e.g., from individual and family forgiveness to among nations, and from forgiveness and its relationship to health to forgiveness after sexual, alcohol, or drug abuse, trauma, grief, loss, or violence, and in place of revenge.
Based on this research, what do we know about getting to forgiveness today? Mostly we have many different perspectives on everything from a) WHAT IS FORGIVENESS, i.e.,the definition, conceptualization, and measurement of forgiveness, b) WHAT IS THE REAL GOAL OF FORGIVENESS, i.e., the optimal endpoint or goal, c) WHAT FACTORS INFLUENCE OUR ABILITY TO FORGIVE, i.e., the influence of personality variables and contextual factors, and d) WHICH APPROACHES TO FORGIVENESS ARE VALID AND EFFECTIVE to resolve anger and pain. Just as in all academic fields of study, we find many brilliant minds hypothesizing, reasoning, debating, and finding evidence to support a particular understanding of any phenomenon. The methods may vary but the search for truth drives all of them. So what is the truth about getting to forgiveness and is there only one truth or one way?
Well, what we do know is that according to an extensive and recent review of the forgiveness literature in psychology by Strelan and Covic (2006)
- Provides mental health benefits such as increased hope and self-esteem, decreased anger, and alleviation of depression
- Reduces physiological stress and coronary heart disease
- Varies according to an individual’s disposition and personality as well as environmental factors
The literature is unclear in describing how people actually come to a point or a time where they have forgiven a wrongdoer, including themselves, in their lives. Of the 25 models reviewed by Strelan and Covic (2006) in their ground-breaking article, all of them describe “an individual’s progression through a series of interdependent (though not necessarily linear) phases, each consisting of mental, emotional, and behavioral responses or intentions” (para. 6). An individual proceeds in a basically sequential manner, performing certain cognitive, affective, or behavioral tasks or actions before moving on to the next stage. What these models share is agreement that the following stages are part of the process:
- Initial feelings of hurt and anger accompanied usually by shock and sometimes disbelief
- Ongoing negative, painful, or discomforting emotional and mental consequences
- Realization that one’s efforts to cope with these responses is not effective
- Decision to forgive or consider forgiving
- Understanding of or empathy for the offender
Where the models differ is on the exact order of steps, the transition between stages, and the what triggers movement to the next stage. The importance of the social nature of the process versus the internal characteristics and perspectives of the victim, and even the final goal or endpoint of the process also differ in each model. Finally, models are religious or secular in that some include or place emphasis on the role of God’s forgiveness in this process and some do not.
One example of this process of change that recognizes the role of the divine can be drawn from the life of the Reverend Frank Windom. This United Methodist minister who presided over Action Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia, was shot by a mentally ill stranger in May 1999 at a gas station in Decatur (Montgomery, 2006). After recovering physically from a near death encounter, Reverend Windom struggled emotionally, mentally, and spiritually to regain his equilibrium and live up to his Christian commitment to forgive. He suffered from several years of post-traumatic stress and was plagued by irrational fears of strangers. Over time he became determined to change and credits his faith in God with helping him overcome the ordeal. From what is reported, this man spent at least a year in the process of coping with his feelings and thoughts of victimization before he was “able to forgive in his heart the deranged stranger who shot him and find peace” (p. D1). We can surmise the likelihood of his working through the five stages listed above even as he relied on his religious faith for support to get to this heartfelt act of forgiveness.
A more secular example is that of Bud Welch, father of Julie Welch, one of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh in April 1995. He admitted in an interview (A father’s struggle to forgive, 2001) that during the first month after his daughter’s violent and tragic death, his anger, pain, and hatred was so intense he could understand the desire to kill the perpetrator. By the end of that year he was drinking heavily and smoking excessively because he was stuck emotionally on the events of his daughter’s murder. He then knew he had to do something about his emotional state when he realized that he would not feel any better once the murderers were executed. At this point he became an advocate against the death penalty by traveling and speaking nationwide about his opposition to capital punishment. The real turning point for Bud Welch, however, came when he visited Timothy McVeigh’s father and met Timothy’s 24 year old sister, Jennifer. When he saw Tim’s high school graduation picture in the family home and made a positive comment about it, Bud Welch and the McVeigh family broke down and shared real grief, compassion, and empathy as they realized that they were all deeply connected by the terrible tragedy of April 19, 1995. At the time of the interview, Welch stated, “Forgiving is not something you just wake up one morning and decide to do. You have to work through your anger and your hatred as long as it’s there. You try to live each day a little better than the one before. I do have setbacks, even when I’m sure I want to forgive. That’s probably why I can’t handle that word ‘closure.’ . . . How can there ever be true closure? A part of my heart is gone.” After McVeigh was executed, Welch continued to campaign against capital punishment and said, “About a year before the execution I found it in my heart to forgive Tim McVeigh. It was a release for me rather than for him” (The Forgiveness Project). Welch came to understand McVeigh’s mind-set of revenge against the US government and even though he believed the bombing was horrifically wrong, Welch realized that the cycle of violence must stop (Welch, 2001).
With Bud Welch we see stages in the process of forgiveness starting with Welch’s initial feelings of hurt and anger (Stage 1), followed by ongoing negative, painful, and discomforting emotional and mental consequences, i.e., excessive drinking and rumination about the bombing (Stage 2). Finally, Welch realized that his efforts to cope with these responses was not effective (Stage 3), and he decided to consider forgiving or at least not seeking revenge toward McVeigh (Stage 4) A year after the execution, Welch, in understanding the mind-set of McVeigh and his motivation behind the heinous act, actually felt empathy for the offender and forgave him (Stage 5).
Of course, the process does not necessarily unfold in a neat linear progression nor does it always take a long period of time for everyone who has suffered from wrongdoing. In the recent case of the nine church members of the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC murdered by a young man who had been welcomed into their midst at a prayer meeting, we see the almost immediate offering of forgiveness to the killer. The Christian faith of members of the victims’ families and friends clearly led them to state their forgiveness of him publically. We can only hope that after the shock and horror of these losses begins to fade and as the realization of the violent and hateful intent of the murders comes into sharper focus, that these deeply bereaved people of faith are able to continue to feel forgiveness in the privacy of their own hearts. In Jeanne Safer’s book, Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It’s Better Not to Forgive we learn that despite persuasive evidence that not forgiving can be mentally and physically stressful, pressuring people into forgiving can be harmful as well. Deciding to let go of angry thoughts and not seeking revenge is one form of forgiveness Decisional Forgiveness, but replacing negative feelings with love, compassion, and empathy or Emotional Forgiveness can only be encouraged not coerced. Some people reach one level but not necessarily the heart forgiveness level.
Despite the popularity of the stage models, they are limited so alternative models have been proposed. One particularly effective model is derived from the stress and coping research done by Lazarus and Folkman (1984) and also favored by Strelan and Covic (2006). This model helps define forgiveness and the actual coping mechanisms involved in the process as well to advance theory and research about the forgiveness process in the future.
According to Lazarus and Folkman (1984), our reaction to any stressor is determined by our subjective evaluation of the stressful situation. First we evaluate or appraise the degree of harm or threat of harm done to us or our loved one, i.e., a primary appraisal, and then we evaluate what resources within ourselves and in our environment we have to cope with this harm or threat of harm, i.e., a secondary appraisal. . Believing that we have the resources to manage this harm allows us to cope with it and reduces the negative emotions and their accompanying physiological reactions. If, however, we believe that we do not have adequate resources, we respond in two different ways, by using either or both emotion-focused coping and problem-focused coping. Emotion-focused coping helps us regulate the intensity of our feelings and disturbing thoughts associated with the stressful event, e.g., expressing our emotions of grief and pain, praying or meditating, reading inspiring or faith-based texts, or reinterpreting the situation. Problem-focused coping is also used when we try to bring about a change to the situation and resolve it, e.g., seek more information, plan, or take action for justice or change. In situations which cannot be changed, we tend to use more emotion-focused coping, but most often a combination of coping strategies is used as the stressful situation evolves.
We can see the similarities between the forgiveness process and the coping process described above when we note that 1) the forgiveness process is an attempt to reduce the stress reaction to being wronged or harmed, 2) individuals make both a primary appraisal of the extent of the harm experienced and secondary appraisals about what one can do (retaliate, demand justice, withdraw, or express anger) as well as the availability of one’s resources to cope when an injury has been experienced, 3) both emotion-focused and problem-focused coping strategies describe what people actually do during the forgiveness process, 4) the effectiveness of coping processes varies and can change over time, e.g., rumination over the transgression appears to be a barrier to forgiveness (McCullough et al, 2001), emotion-focused coping may be effective immediately after an incident but not as effective if no action is taken later, for instance, developing empathy for the wrongdoer may be a key in the long term resolution of the process, 5) both coping and forgiveness involve internal mental processing and interpersonal processes (communication and interaction with others) as well as situation-specific factors unique to each incident, and 6) forgiveness, like coping with any stressor, is a dynamic, unfolding process with both positive and negative responses occurring and reoccurring over time (Strelan and Covic, 2006).
The more we explore the process of forgiveness, the more clear it becomes that for most people, most of the time, forgiveness is an challenging process with no certain or even unanimously recognized endpoint attainable by all. However, whether we rely solely on Biblical scripture or seek knowledge and guidance from the social sciences, we can be assured that the process of forgiveness, even if it does not result in closure, is a worthy one. Whether we view forgiveness as the restoration of our original human nature or, more specifically, restoration of our lost or underlying unity with God, with others, and with ourselves (Foltz, 2006), or a psychological process determined by internal and shared coping strategies, the way to forgiveness does clearly involve a process of transformation or change that restores us to our wholeness or, as expressed in the language of faith, to our original unity with the spirit of God dwelling within us.
Whether our inspiration to make the difficult journey toward forgiveness comes from the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition, or from the social sciences, we can be heartened by stories of unexpected role models. When we hear and identify with the ordinary person facing extraordinary circumstances, who finds the strength and courage to move through a painful cognitive, affective, and oftentimes behavioral process to achieve wholeness, we are lifted up and offered new hope. Indeed, from those who have experienced even the most difficult life circumstances, we learn that the way is steep and the pain at times unbearable, yet perhaps, as The theologian Marcus Borg tells us, “we can midwife the process” (p. 120) by turning to our faith and our reason to truly find a return to wholeness. Our willingness to approach this task and the intentionality we bring to it is the work of all who would seek forgiveness.
I would like to end by saying a few final added words about self-forgiveness which may be the real key to forgiveness.
In many ways self-forgiveness allows us to release the hurt and pain of real or imagined wrongdoing for which we blame ourselves or take responsibility. Could be something we said, felt, or did or avoided saying, feeling, or doing when we thought we should have done so.
As we already know, self-forgiveness is a process – begins by accepting where we are even if we don’t like where we are Kind, gentle, and compassionate acceptance sets the stage for what is to come next. No predictable timetable – varies with individual and what he or she would like to forgive. Needs patience and faith that things will change – you will change, the situation will change, and your receptivity to change will change.
Forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others is a healing process that takes time and occurs on many levels of our consciousness. We may feel ready to forgive on a conscious, rational level, but not on another more fundamental unconscious or trans-rational level. Intellectually we may want to forgive, but emotionally we may not yet be ready. Honoring and respecting our readiness without judging or chastising ourselves is essential while at the same time doing the inner and outer “healing work”.
What is that healing work? Again this varies for individuals but some ideas are contemplation, meditation, prayer, journaling, affirmation, visualization, reading of inspirational texts, sharing your heart with a trusted others, and making amends if possible may all be part of this work. Trusting the process, not rushing it, going forward gently, and recognizing that we will experience ups and downs, that the process is not linear or straight forward is helpful to know too.
And so each of us can begin this process by taking small steps on a daily basis to learn the habit of self-forgiveness. And so by building the habit of compassion and forgiveness of ourselves, we also lay the foundation for the habit of forgiveness of others.
I might suggest starting by affirming verbally or in writing that “I love and forgive myself (name) for ______________________(whatever I think I did wrong.”)
And I will begin by stating aloud that I love and forgive myself, Claire, for perhaps trying your patience with a rather lengthy treatise on forgiveness! And I hope you will forgive me as well!
Thank you and God Bless.
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