Forgiveness that liberates after decades

A woman named Kathy thought she had forgiven the high school classmates who had assaulted her when she was sixteen. Decades later, she realized she had more work to do.

Kathy told her story to Nancy DeMoss Wohlgemuth in an episode that was broadcast today on Revive Our Hearts.  “One of the things that had made it so painful was, it was done by boys who I thought were friends, and there was more than one boy. All of the years that I had buried this, I told no one. I thought, Well, it will go away. It will go away. I did bury it deep. For a long time, as a matter of fact, it did go away, but I would have flashes back. I kept remembering how I hated, how I hated them.”

Decades later, while on a church retreat, she realized she had not forgiven, even though she thought she had. “I think one of the reasons I thought I had forgiven was that two of the men had died and there was nothing . . . That was kind of a question then, ‘Do I need to forgive? They’re gone.’”

But, as she says, “God did a work in my heart. I talked to Him a long time at an altar. We just had a long conversation about this. Then I began to feel like, ‘Well, maybe I haven’t totally forgiven.'” She realized that, for her, totally forgiving would include expressing that publicly. She told her husband, and she told other women during a church conference on forgiveness:

“I have really striven to be faithful to God and to try to do His work. But I know that until I release all of those things, no matter how far past, I won’t be free. And I say in front of you today, I forgive those boys who are men now, older than me. I forgive them, and I pray for them.”

She reports that it was liberating: “It was joyful. It was painful, too, because it’s like letting go of something that’s been a part of you so long that it almost hurts to get it out. But once it’s out, it feels so good. It’s a part of you that is there, that in some way justifies, I guess, the way you feel.  But once it comes out, then you feel clean, and you feel whole. And you feel like, ‘That was something I didn’t want there after all.’ It was like a crutch, and I got rid of that.”

Forgiveness is hard enough when the offender repents and confesses; Kathy received none of that, yet she was still able to forgive, by the grace of God. She chose to work through forgiveness even though two of her assailants already died; that fact didn’t diminish the benefits of forgiveness. It’s interesting that she felt a need to state publicly that she was forgiving; it’s a good way to hold herself accountable, knowing that one day she may have second thoughts about this, human nature being what it is. Note that, even in her public statement, she never identified her assailants, resisting the temptation to humiliate them in revenge. Forgiveness experts remind us that God doesn’t tell people about our sins when God forgives us, so neither should we tattle if we really aim to forgive. There are exceptions, of course; see RT Kendall, Total Forgiveness. Kathy exemplified genuine forgiveness by not revealing the identities of her offenders; she’ll leave that to God.


Daughter’s Forgiveness Brings Soldier Peace

An American World War II soldier found peace when he met with the daughter of the Japanese soldier he had killed.

The story ran on 60 Minutes last night, describing the battle on Attu, a remote Aleutian Island. After killing the Japanese soldier during battle, the American soldier realized they had much in common, and felt remorse about what he’d done. He had ongoing nightmares. Decades later, he found the Japanese soldier’s daughter, who lives in California, and asked to meet her. The daughter–who was only 3 months old when her father died–was angry when she first met the man who had killed her father, and didn’t want to have any more contact with him. Ten years after meeting the soldier who killed her father, she received a gift: her father’s Bible. It had been salvaged from the battlefield by another American soldier who sent it to her. She said the Bible gave her strength–implying it’s what compelled her to keep wondering why the soldier had confessed to her, and it’s what helped her realize that he needed forgiveness. So she wrote him a letter and encouraged him to forgive himself. He said he had his first peaceful night’s sleep in decades. The daughter and the aging American soldier became friends.

Somehow this daughter was able to forgive her father’s killer. One test of forgiveness is that you truly want the best for the person who harmed you. She suspected that he was suffering from guilt, and she wanted to relieve him of that. She was the only person who could give him peace, and she had every right to withhold that. Instead, she forgave.

Countries Can Apologize Too

Countries can apologize too.

PRI’s The World did a story last night on what might be called “the national apology,” when a government apologizes.

Australia has had a “Sorry Day,” May 26, for twenty years, to express its regret for mistreatment of Aboriginal people. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made several apologies, including just this month to Inuit people for their mistreatment by the government, including its mid-century policy on tuberculosis.

The United States government apologized to native Americans in the 1990’s for mis-management of trust funds, but victims had to sue in order to get reparations (see Cobel v Salazar).

Although an apology with reparations might seem like the only way to make it effective, Commentator Alison Herrera believes apologies themselves can be “important mechanisms” – if they’re done right. She believes the “right” apology has to be unequivocal; it must take responsibility; it has to be clear what it’s an apology for; and it must be “really public,” ideally involving a lot of people.

She offered the example of Chile, where the president apologized for crimes committed under its former president, Augusto Pinochet, after which the army – responsible for many of the crimes—also apologized, a turning point for the country.

A report by an organization called the International Center for Transitional Justice offers more insights on the effectiveness of apologies made by governments.

Stop Apologizing?

As a follow-on to yesterday’s post about a speaker who tells women to stop saying they’re sorry, now there’s a book with a similarly arresting title, “Girl, Stop Apologizing.” Like Speaker Maya Janovic, Author Rachel Hollis isn’t really telling people/women/girls not to take responsibility for wrongs done to others; instead, she’s trying to empower women who lack confidence by telling them, “Stop apologizing for who you are. It’s time to become who you were made to be.”

As women heed these experts’ advice and stop apologizing for their deficiencies, I hope they don’t stop making apologies altogether. Apologies grease the wheels of human interaction; there’s no need to stop all apologizing.

Over-Using “Sorry”

It’s helpful to explore the appropriate time to use the word “sorry.” In general, we don’t use it enough, in the sense that we are typically too slow to acknowledge responsibility for the harms we cause others.

But “sorry” can be mis-used, and over-used. I blogged about this in December, citing an article noting that people use the word “sorry” when they really mean something else. Last month, Maya Janovic gave a TED Talk, entitled “How Apologies Kill Our Confidence,” suggesting that over-use of “sorry” indicates – and broadcasts — lack of confidence. She has noticed this tendency especially among women. For example, women tend to begin comments in committee meetings with “sorry,” as in, “Sorry, this may sound silly, but I was wondering…” or, “Sorry, is this a good time to ask a question?”

She recommends that women stop saying “I’m sorry.” I don’t think she actually means ceasing it altogether, but that’s what she said. I think she’s really advocating for women to pay more attention to when they use “sorry,” and either omit it sometimes, or substitute a more accurate phrase, like, “pardon me” or “excuse me,“ that doesn’t carry the weight of an apology.

She describes how, when a male colleague arrived late for a work meeting, instead of apologizing, he said simply, “Thanks for waiting.” She finds this more refreshing than what a woman would typically do – apologize, offer explanations, and basically humiliate herself. I’m not persuaded. If I were one of the meeting attendees who knocked myself out to arrive on time, the male colleague’s thank-you wouldn’t quite fill the gap for me. In situations like this where a person really is at fault, an apology is in order.

The title of her talk is exaggerated. She’s not really talking about apologies, she’s just talking about the word “sorry.” Starting a comment with “Sorry” may not even be an apology, and an honest, well-placed apology will not kill confidence. But I think she’s onto something: mis-using and over-using “sorry” cheapens it. If we say “sorry” when something isn’t even our fault – as when someone bumps into us – then, when we really do need to apologize, that word won’t have as much heft.

It’s worth paying attention to when we say “sorry” needlessly. But that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to say we’re sorry when we mess up.


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