The healing power of forgiveness
The following is an excerpt from “Fire of Grace: The Healing Power of Forgiveness,” by Rick Rouse, executive director of Church Relations at PLU. He writes about his relationship with arsonist Paul Keller, who destroyed Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood, Wash., where Rouse was pastor. Rouse visited Keller in jail, and he and his congregation learned the power of forgiveness.
When faced with difficulties, disappointments and challenges, we have an alternative to remaining in the ashes of defeat, bitterness and despair. With faith and courage, one can rise up to new life.
It is my hope that hearing about how our congregation recovered may inspire hope and healing not just for individuals, but also for our contemporary society and for religious communities. Even as our nation grows more politically divided, our religious communities are also unraveling as we struggle with different visions of faith, values and morality. Resentment grows in the chasms between our differences. Yet God’s grace reveals a different vision for how we are to live together in relationships where we are less likely to denounce someone as evil or mindless because they have a different point of view or religious conviction. But first, we have to acknowledge that we are all in need of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.
Seeking healing for ourselves and others through forgiveness is countercultural. The world’s standard seems to be “a life for a life, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The natural human response to being wronged seems to be one of anger and revenge.
Unfortunately, we see this scenario played out in conflicts across the globe, not to mention in our own communities and our own households. Television talk show hosts seem particularly gleeful if they can nudge people into spiteful battle with others on their program. And newscasts are often filled with stories of courtroom drama where the families of victims rant and rave, calling for the perpetrator of a particular crime to suffer as they have suffered. To follow this road, however, one seldom discovers healing, reconciliation, peace or new life.
Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and retired archbishop of South Africa, has written an intriguing book, “No Future Without Forgiveness.” In it, he tells the powerful story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created by then President Nelson Mandela in an attempt to deal with the wounds left by Apartheid. Mandela, the first freely elected president by both black and white South Africans following the fall of Apartheid, had himself been a victim, imprisoned and tortured. He knew that the country could plunge into civil war pitting blacks against whites unless a way was found to seek healing and reconciliation.
President Mandela appointed Desmond Tutu to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose task was to bring together the victims of Apartheid and those who had committed crimes against others – crimes of rape, torture, murder and the destruction of homes and businesses.
The procedure was simple but painful. The perpetrators of violence were forced to listen to the excruciating stories of their victims, subjected to the truth and consequence of their actions. Then in many cases, in consultation with the victim, the commission issued pardons in an attempt to bring about healing for all parties. Tutu revealed a bold spirituality that acknowledges the horrors people can inflict upon one another while also recognizing the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. By choosing the road less traveled, South Africa emerged as a nation reunited and renewed in hope for its future.
Many in our world choose the more common path and choose to live with unresolved anger, guilt or shame. As a pastor, I have counseled with individuals whose lives have been devastated, put on hold or seem to be leading down a path of self-destruction. I remember meeting with an 80-year-old woman who told me that she had been raped by an uncle as a young girl of 12. She told me that her parents refused to believe her, opting for denial, and for years it was the “family secret.” As a consequence, she lived with guilt and shame for nearly 70 years and never allowed any man to touch her or get close to her.
Now in a retirement home, she finally found some peace and healing through prayer and counseling. Courageously, she has opened the door to forgiveness and reconciliation, realizing that it is never too late.
With all that said, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness means we are able to look beyond the act and see the other person as a child of God. Forgiveness is being able to let go of remembered hurt and pain, looking toward the future, rather than dwelling on the past. Forgiveness is recognizing that we are not in control. It is letting go and letting God take charge of our lives and relationships. The road to forgiveness also requires that we both acknowledge our own need for pardon and embrace for ourselves the fullness of God’s gift of grace offered to us and to all people.
What are the consequences if we do not or cannot forgive others and seek healing for our lives? Many doctors and psychiatrists tell us that unresolved anger or guilt often results in illnesses such as clinical depression, heart attack, and even cancer. National studies have been done by the Templeton Foundation, Stanford Medical School and others that collaborate this claim and more amazingly provide evidence of the healing that can occur when one discovers the power of forgiveness to bring about renewed hope and new life. A good example of this is the paralytic who is healed by Jesus in body and in spirit when he hears the words: “Your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:1-12)
The New Testament offers a vision for the healing and transformation of the world. Indeed, the church as the collective people of God is called to be an agent of healing and reconciliation for all people. In an age of cynicism, prejudice, hatred and fear, we can be healers in the world ...not with bitterness, but with hope.
Rick rouse, executive director of Church Relations, says forgiving those who cause hurt can help people recover and heal.