Coming to Forgiveness

Worship Notes

The reading for this service was a story called “The Woman Who Had No Shadow,” a Scandinavian folk tale that can be found at a website of folktales put together by professor D. L. Ashliman.  For the children’s story, I told “Who Ate the Squabs?” that can be found in the book From Long Ago and Many Lands compiled by Sophia Lyon Fahs.

Sermon – Coming to Forgiveness

In my work as a chaplain with chemically dependent patients, I frequently come across people who either feel great shame, and guilt, and remorse – in fact most of them feel that – because of what they’ve done in their addiction, or – and many of them feel this too – feel a need to somehow forgive those who have harmed them.  It’s very common for folks with addiction to suffer abuse, and trauma, and betrayal.  So they come to me to talk about how can I forgive?  How can I forgive myself? How can I forgive others?

Forgiveness is a process.  I’ll talk a little bit about a few different ways some people delineate the steps of forgiveness in a few moments.  But whatever way you go about it, it’s a process.  And some people think forgiveness isn’t really important.  Some people think that it’s weak to forgive. Or that, especially if you’ve been harmed by someone, that person doesn’t deserve forgiveness. They believe that anyone who would hurt someone else should should  be punished, and they should live with the pain of their shame and guilt without receiving forgiveness. There is a quote from a man named Solomon Schimmel, who wrote Wounds Not Healed by Time, where he expresses the idea that some crimes really aren’t forgivable.

He describes a scene during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Trials, and as you may remember in those trials, one of the ideas was that if someone truly and honestly showed remorse and spoke about their crime in enough detail that the victim could feel some understanding and perhaps relief, if the perpetrator did this in that public venue, then they wouldn’t face any kind of punishment.  Schimmel writes that one of the perpetrators was a man who had given an order to have some houses burnt down, and inside those houses there were some adults and children.  Twelve of them.  And they all died. Schimmel said there was a Jewish man at the trial who called out and said, “No.  That is not okay. You cannot forgive this person.  He deserves to be punished.  To let him go is an abuse against justice.”

In his analysis of this story, Schimmel asks how we know.  How do we know when someone has truly repented?  And who gets to decide that?  And what about taking responsibility and making amends?  Those are important questions.  But maybe the core issue is less whether or not burning those homes is forgivable or not and more what it means to forgive.

For instance, I don’t believe that when we forgive someone we lose all right to hold them accountable.  Forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean we stop having feelings about what happened.  We may notice sadness or anger arise when we think about the crime.  I see forgiveness as being more about freeing ourselves than about healing the other person.  By forgiving, we begin the process of letting go.

Fred Luskin, in his book Forgive For Good, describes a number of people he worked with who had what he calls “grievances” that they held onto.  They nursed these grievances by rehearsing the story of what happened to them, and they rehearsed it in such a way that they were seen to be the blameless victims and the other person the horrible perpetrator.  Over and over, they told the story to whomever who would listen, feeling anger and hatred in their hearts.  For them, the sadness of what happened to them never went away.  These people he is describing were so obsessed with their anger that they lost friends.  After all, who wants to hear over and over how someone was abused, wounded, treated unfairly?  Most of us get tired of this kind of clinging to resentment.  So people who hold onto their anger not only are trapped in their pain, but they become alone.  What a miserable thing, to hold onto this desire for vengeance, and to this image of yourself as a blameless victim, and to this need for commiseration.

Luskin said the first first thing he did with people like that is to explain how forgiveness helps them.  Not only would they be free of their angst, but they would feel better physically.  Anger and resentment makes our heart rate uneven, it causes high blood pressure, it decreases our immune system functioning, and it makes us physically sick.  So forgiving benefits us.

But forgiveness can also help the society.  Everett Worthington came up with a process for forgiveness that  includes offering forgiveness as an altruistic gift to the perpetrator. He believes that in that moment you offer such a gift to a person who has done you a wrong, you can create a transformation in them that helps them stop victimizing and live a moral, helpful life.  I have a quote that shows this kind of transformation. It can be found on the website of “The Forgiveness Project,” which is a group in England that posts stories of people who have forgiven people and stories of perpetrators who found a way to change their lives.  This quote is from a man who was a violent offender.  He attacked a young woman and ended up scarring her face.  In a reconciliation program, the two met.

The perpetrator writes:  “Finally I told her how remorseful I felt, and it was then, after a brief pause, that she said, ‘I forgive you.’  I hadn’t asked for this, and I certainly didn’t expect it, but by god, those words had a profound effect.  They stopped me in my tracks and concentrated my resolve never to repeat anything like this.   As for my victim, I think meeting me allowed her to put a face to her fear and reassured her that she would never again be attacked.  That was in 1989, and every year that goes by is another year that I haven’t re-offended.  The only person I have to thank for that is my victim. She gave me this incredible gift.”

Part of the gift she gave him was relief, a freedom from some of his guilt and remorseful feelings.   But she also gave him an opportunity to get past that and start doing something of worth, giving back to the community in a way that he hadn’t been able to do when he was trapped by his feelings of shame, and guilt and remorse and some bitterness.  So sometimes our gift not only frees us, but frees another in a way that our community benefits.

In the story about the woman who had no shadow, one thing that happens is, because her husband cannot forgive her and indeed casts her out, she becomes broken and becomes a beggar.  Now you might argue that beggars offer us an opportunity to be compassionate and generous.  You could argue there’s a reason for beggars.  Yet I wonder how much more she might have offered society if she hadn’t felt unforgiven, uncared for, lost, and broken.

Of course, it wasn’t only her husband’s inability to forgive that caused her anguish.  She also could not forgive herself.  Now, Schimmel, the gentleman who believes some crimes are unforgivable, also believes it is immoral to forgive yourself.  After all, isn’t forgiveness about one person forgiving another?  And isn’t the only person with the moral authority to forgive the one who was injured?  And don’t we need to suffer a certain amount before releasing ourselves from the pain of guilt?  And is it moral for the perpetrator to decide how much suffering is enough?

Schimmel himself answers this question in a way by suggesting that when we perpetrate a crime against another, we also perpetrate one against ourselves by demeaning ourselves.  Also, we are hurting ourselves when we feel shame and guilt, because those feelings are painful.  Robert D. Enright, in the book Forgiveness is a Choice, instead suggests that self-forgiveness is not a self pardon but rather a bringing ourselves back into community.

I agree with Schimmel that some people need more guilt, not less, that some people hurt others repeatedly, without feeling remorse.  Yet my experience in working with addicts and veterans, is that most of them beat themselves up, maybe even to a greater extent than they ought to for what they’ve done, such as veterans who irrationally accept all the blame for whatever deaths they caused and addicts who cover up their shame by staying drunk or high all the time.  I’m talking about people like the pastor’s wife in our story who can’t bear to live with themselves.  How does this kind of guilt help anyone?

Not only, then, is is important for us to be able to forgive others, even grievous wrongs done to us, but it is important for us to forgive ourselves for the hurts we have caused others and ourselves.

Now a lot of what I’m saying is mostly relevant to people who’ve done some pretty bad things, like stealing or cheating on a spouse or injuring someone or even killing people.  Maybe you can’t relate to that.  But let’s take the story of “The Two Squabs.”  I don’t know about you, but I could certainly relate to that.  I’ve been married twenty-some years, and my husband and I have gotten into arguments just as ridiculous, and have been angry with one another and refused to own up to the hurts we’ve caused.  At least for a little while.  And yet, we do finally apologize and say we’re sorry.  And we try not to do those things again.  We try to learn from the hurts we’ve caused, so we can stop hurting.  Which is what happened in that story.

The other thing that is true, at least in healthy relationships, including with that couple who argued about the squabs, there is a bond of trust and love.  You know the other person is good and you are safe in the relationship, so it is easier to forgive.  Yet we still have to forgive ourselves and forgive one another so we can move forward in relationship.  Otherwise, you end up with disconnection, separation, and no chance for healing.

Well, it’s great to say we should forgive, but how do you do that?

There’s a study that was done by June Tangney, a psychology professor at George Mason University, and others in which they looked at the correlation between how easily some graduate students were able to forgive and the measures of their moral and emotional states.  One thing they found was that people who forgave more readily tended to be more empathetic and also tended to be more guilt than shame based.  In other words, when a person does something wrong, and they say, “I’m basically a good person, that was a wrong thing, and I need to deal with what I did, but I know I’m okay and I can move on,” that’s guilt. When someone does something wrong, and they say, “I knew I was a terrible person.  This just proves it.  I’m no good, and I can’t do any better,” that’s shame.

So if you come out of a guilt frame, it’s easier for you to look at somebody else and say, “That person’s basically a good person, and she did something wrong, and I forgive her, let’s move on, let’s go forward with their lives.”  If you’re shame based, you can’t face your own shame.  It’s very hard to face our shame, really.  So you project that onto other people, and you see them as bad.  If you stop seeing them as bad, then you have to accept your own painful emotions.  That’s hard.  So when you’re shame-based, forgiveness is hard, too.

So one thing you can do to learn to forgive is to heal your own shame.  If you grew up in this country, you probably have a little – or a lot of – shame.  It can help, for example, to look at the shameful part of yourself and see that part as a wounded little kid who needs your nurturing.  Or look at the sadness and anger that lies under the shame, and allow yourself to feel that.  Healing shame is a process, too, but once we begin, we find it easier to remember that we are basically good people who do bad things, and so are others.  It becomes easier for us to ask for forgiveness and to make amends, and as we learn to do that for ourselves, we become better able to do that for others.

Which gets to this idea of empathy.  How do you work on feeling more empathy?  You can start by looking at things from the other person’s side.

You know, imagine what was going on inside that person when they did that wrong thing.  For instance, some days my husband comes home, and he’s grouchy, work’s been hard.  Or he may be scowling in this way he has that can upset me if I’m feeling tender or vulnerable.  If I can step back and think, “I know he doesn’t mean to hurt me.  Something must be bothering him.  I wonder what it is?  Maybe I could ask how he’s doing.”

So instead of feeling hurt or angry, I feel compassion.  Love in the face of suffering is compassion.  If I can remember that when I feel hurt by something someone else has done to me, that person probably is suffering inside, then I can feel empathetic.  It’s when I’m feeling uncomfortable inside, and I lose perspective, then I may need a while before I can step back and wonder what’s hurting the other person.  But the moment I can do that, I’ve taken one step toward forgiveness.

So those are two steps.  There are other ways to forgive.  In fact, people have developed entire systems of healing from the pain of resentment and anger.  Fred Luskin, for instance, has a program of forgiveness he calls HEAL – H, E, A, L.  In describing this system, he uses an example of a spouse who betrays the partner by sleeping with that person’s best friend.

First, you identify a hope for your life that was shattered by the painful thing that happened.  That’s the “H.”  In Luskin’s example, the hope was that you would have a good marriage, and now it’s fallen apart.  It’s looking at the loss and honoring that.

Next you educate yourself.  That’s the “E.”  You really be honest about what happened and your feelings about it.  And you really feel those feelings. You can’t get past something if you deny how it feels.  Sometimes we don’t want to accept how hurt we are, how vulnerable, how lonely or scared we feel.  Maybe that feels like weakness, or maybe we feel flawed when we feel pain, or maybe we simply don’t like those uncomfortable emotions, so we distract ourselves.  Luskin is suggesting that unless you are honest with the depth and range of emotions you have, you can’t heal, and you can’t let go.  Unless you feel the losses and fears, you can’t forgive.  He’s not suggesting you wallow in the pain or feel the feelings forever.  Be honest with yourself.  Let yourself be where you are.

Then move on to the next step, the “A,” which is to affirm your attention to change, to move past the anger, fear, hurt, and identity as a victim, and enter into forgiveness.  He’s talking about making a long-term commitment to forgiveness, making a promise to yourself that you will commit to a different way of seeing and experiencing the past, because only then can you live with peace and happiness.

Solomon Schimmel, the man I mentioned before who wrote Wounds Not Healed by Time, describes a similar system.  For instance, he talks about uncovering and experiencing your vulnerable feelings.  He suggests looking honestly at what happened, at how you were wronged and at any part you may have played in the event.  Next, look honestly at how you feel about it.  Acknowledge your right to be angry.  Once you do that, it’s time to release it.

How do you release the anger?  There are many ways.  For instance, we nurse our anger by telling the victim story of what happened.  We think about how unfair it was, or how wrong the other person was.  To release the anger, tell a different story.  Instead of telling a grievance story, tell a story of understanding, of empathy.  Once you can feel a little empathy, you can consider how you can re-frame the story.  Accept the reality of what happened without needing to know “why,” for example, or look for insights you have about life and relationships that you didn’t have before.  How can you turn the experience into a gift?  Once you’ve come to accept the situation, consider giving the perpetrator that altruistic gift of transformation by offering forgiveness.  This is not always appropriate, but when it is, the offering can be powerful for everyone involved.  Finally, be patient with yourself.  Forgiveness takes a long time.

But although forgiveness will free your heart and soul, it doesn’t mean you won’t ever feel hurt by that if you think about the painful event.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean you won’t ever again feel angry about what happened.  Some days it may seem you have to remind yourself that you’ve forgiven, and you may have to let go again.  With time, the hurt and angry feelings recur less and less and become easier and easier to cope with.

So although forgiveness doesn’t mean you’ll never feel sad or angry again, it does mean is you don’t think about the hurt as much.  You are free to go on with your life.  You find meaning for yourself and others in the suffering you experienced, and in the forgiveness process.  You find that gift.  And your life becomes meaningful in a whole, new way.

I want to close with another quote from the website I mentioned earlier, this one from a woman whose father was murdered.  She writes: “Forgiveness is not permission.  It doesn’t mean that you agree with what the offender has done, or that they had a right to do what they did.” Rather, she writes, “Forgiveness is recognizing that the offender is a human being that is deserving of kindness, compassion, and love, despite the harm they have done.” She adds that if we make our forgiveness dependent on the other person’s remorse, then we can only forgive someone who is sorry. That doesn’t hurt that person; it hurts us.

That is true whether we are forgiving someone else or forgiving ourselves.

Forgiveness is a journey we will take throughout our whole lives. We are constantly facing loss, wounds, hurts.  Being human, we hurt others.  We can choose to hang onto grievances, resentments, and self-righteousness.  That is suffering, but if we want to suffer, we can.  If we choose to be free, however, to feel peace, happiness, and love, then we need to learn to make amends from an open heart, and we need to learn to release the pain of our past.  In this way, our communities can be filled with peace and joy.  May it be so.

First presented at the Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship in Vashon Island, Washington on Dec 2009.  Permission granted to use quotes from this sermon for non-commercial purposes, as long as proper attribution is made.  Copyright 2009 Barbara E. Stevens.


Enright, Robert D., Forgiveness is a Choice, Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2001.

Luskin, Fred, Forgive for Good, New York: HarperOne, 2001.

Schimmel, Solomon, Wounds Not Healed by Time, New York: Oxford University, 2002.

The Forgiveness Project,

Worthington, Everett L., Five Steps to Forgiveness, New York: Crown, 2001.

Tangney, June research: Konstam, Varda, Chernoff, Miriam, and Deveney, Sara, “Toward Forgiveness: The Role of Shame, Guilt, Anger, and Empathy, Counseling and Values,