Lately, I’ve been wrestling with forgiveness. I suspect that we all reach this point at some stage in our adult spiritual journey. Once we are old enough to start making “adult mistakes,” we inevitably wrangle with the flip side: offering and asking for adult forgiveness. It’s not easy.
The dictionary defines forgiveness as “ceasing to feel resentment against an offender.” I decided to ask elder-prophet-pastor Mary Cosby, who co-founded Washington, D.C.’s Church of the Saviour in 1947, if, at age 86, forgiveness gets any easier.
“Learning how to forgive should get easier the older you get,” she said, “and I think it does. The older I get the more important it is to do things as an act of the will and let the feelings come later. Forgiveness is something that takes time for most people. They can make the first acts immediately, but to really internalize forgiveness takes time. The first act, for me, is just the will—just to say ‘I forgive.’ I don’t feel it, but I am committed to it.”
Robert D. Enright’s book Forgiveness is a Choice outlines four steps in the forgiveness process: uncovering our anger, deciding to forgive, working on forgiveness, and discovering release from our emotional prison.
In my experience, the church has failed most profoundly in teaching us about step one: uncovering our anger. Actually, I think the church has taught—especially to women—elaborate and sanctified ways to cover, mask, and bury our anger, denying us access to the power of transformation and forgiveness.
UNCOVERING OUR ANGER means dealing head-on with the ways we hide it. These include: denial (“what happened wasn’t that bad”), suppression (“I can’t think about that right now; I’ll watch General Hospital instead”), repression (“I just don’t remember what happened”), displacement (“I can’t be mad at him, so I’ll be mad at you instead”), regression (“I’m 35, but I’ll throw a tantrum like a 2-year-old”), or identification with the offender (“I won’t be hurt like that again, so I’ll just act like she did”).
Anything sound familiar? It does to me. If I’m honest, I don’t want to look directly at my anger because I’m ashamed. I don’t want others to know how stupid I was or that someone took advantage of me. I feel guilty. I don’t want to deal with my bruised ego or pride. I’m embarrassed by my naiveté. I don’t want to be confronted with taking any responsibility for my own actions, to admit that I might have been wrong, culpable, or genuinely have injured another.
But when I turn a clear-eyed gaze on my own anger and dismantle it, step by step, into its component parts, then I gain access to fresh spiritual energy. A renewed healthy humility allows me to ask forgiveness from those I’ve injured, gives me spiritual flexibility to let go of minor slights, and enables me to “cease feeling resentment toward an offender.” I’m left with a clean, pure flame of righteous anger that is the fuel for creative, passionate change.
Then, of course, I have to start all over again. The forgiveness process isn’t completed just once. “Not seven times,” said Jesus, “but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).
“Forgiveness is probably the basic thing that Christians need to learn,” Mary Cosby told me. Lent is a season of forgiveness—it’s not just about me “getting healthy,” but about training my forgiveness muscles. To a certain extent it is about the “act of will” Mary spoke of. I will forgive. I will act with graciousness toward my enemies. I will take on suffering, rather than inflict it. I will do these things because I am a Christian. Period.
“Perhaps forgiveness is the last thing mentioned in the [Apostles’] Creed,” writes Benedictine sister Joan Chittister, “because it is the last thing learned in life. Perhaps none of us can understand the forgiveness of God until we ourselves have learned to forgive.”
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. Her forthcoming book is Who Killed Donte Manning? (www.rosemarieberger.com).