In teaching my children about World War II, i have discovered a newfound passion for the topic. I recall sitting in fifth grade civics class, watching videos of the atrocities of the Holocaust: the concentration camps, the gas chambers, the starvation and wasting away, the devastating separation of families. Now, as a suburban mother in a middle-income American home, i am deeply moved by all that i did not even understand back then (and i understood more than some of my peers did).
This week, i have been watching the documentary, Forgiving Dr. Mengele, which is about a surviving twin of horrific scientific experimentation at Auschwitz. In the documentary, there is quite a rage about her decision to forgive the Germans, the Nazis, and the doctor who was the perpetrator of the heinous crimes committed against her and her sister. The outcry reminds me that a great many people, religious and non-religious alike, seem to have a misconception (or at least no full comprehension) of the meaning of true forgiveness.
Forgiveness is something God requests of us. And He knows what He is about when He asks it: without true forgiveness, we become bitter, angry, hateful, but also suffocated by our innermost injuries. Our souls cannot handle unforgiveness... it is not God's way. But many people don't realize that the body cannot handle it either. Stress kills brain cells, destroys organs, causes ulcers, and raises blood pressure, among other things.
I had an experience a few years ago in which God asked me to call my stepmom and apologize for being a snot as a child and young adult, and He asked that i request forgiveness. Now, if you know anything about my childhood, you would likely respond as others did: "why should YOU ask THEM for forgiveness when they were the adults and you were the child??!" The simple answer is: because God told me i needed to repent - He lovingly showed me the errors of my own ways and encouraged me to follow His way. When i followed God, He opened a door to a real and lasting relationship with my parents for the first time in my life. My stepmother also asked forgiveness in that telephone call, and she is now a precious part of my life. There is more to the story, but suffice it to say, real forgiveness has taken root, and it wasn't through my own strength that it happened; God led the way... i simply obeyed.
In addition, forgiveness is not something we do because anyone deserves it. Do you deserve to be forgiven when you lie? When you cheat? When you lose your temper? When you curse? There isn't always a deserving heart on the other end of forgiveness, but i thank God that He doesn't wait for me to deserve His grace and forgiveness. We forgive because God forgives. Not based on any appropriate battery of tests a person completes to show his/her remorse.
Some members of my family are also confused about this topic: some think that forgiveness can't take place unless requested by the perpetrator, or that the victim has to contact the perpetrator to inform him/her of the forgiveness taking place, or even that forgiveness is akin to "moving on" and "letting bygones be bygones." Unfortunately, as a survivor of sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, and abandonment, i have a painful history that i don't care to repeat - but i can forgive without putting myself in similar situations, without letting myself be 'taken in' by an abuser again, and i can protect myself without wanting any harm to come of the abuser.
That's the final piece i find people don't understand fully: what does it mean to no longer want harm to come to the perpetrator? Well, in our basic human nature, we are geared to want the 'eye for an eye' method of justice. However, if each of us was to exact his/her own revenge, a few things would happen: we would never see the situation clearly enough to exact the perfect punishment, we would be limited in our methods of punishment for the offense(s), and mostly, we would damage our own souls with the harm we inflict on others.
If you think you can harm someone (even mentally, with your thoughts of revenge) without repercussions, you are ignoring your conscience (not to mention the Holy Spirit, if you're a Christian) and denying your own pain. I can't think about the times i have lost my temper with my children without pain and remorse, much less inflicting harsh words or actions on someone on purpose.
Overall, forgiveness is a complex issue that God will be glad to help us understand. But understand it we must; only our own selves are harmed by our inability or unwillingness to forgive. I hope you'll heal in this way, if not today, then soon. There is freedom on the other side, but forgiveness is the bridge.