By Marcia Hotchkiss

In the fall of 2019 a criminal court jury in my home city of Dallas, Texas, found an off-duty white police officer, Amber Guyger, guilty of murder after she shot and killed an unarmed black man, Botham Jean, who was in his own apartment eating ice cream. During the sentencing phase a remarkable event happened. In his victim impact statement, Botham’s brother, Brandt, not only said he forgave his brother’s killer, but also asked for permission from the judge to give her a hug. As the unlikely pair embraced, the courtroom was quiet except for the sound of Ms. Guyger’s sobbing.

Brandt Jean’s words and hugs highlighted the miracle of forgiveness, and many observers commented that they would not be capable of such mercy. I even heard a few commentators ask if forgiveness was really appropriate in the Jean murder case.

Although we may find it difficult to forgive hurts that are deep and undeserved, as followers of Jesus, we know that forgiveness is essential to our call to be salt and light in the world. First, Christianity is a religion founded on forgiveness. The apostle Paul in Ephesians 1:7 tells us, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” Second, Jesus seems to say that forgiveness is to be a part of a Christian’s lifestyle, rather than a limited practice, when he says we should forgive seventy times seven. The New Testament also repeatedly emphasizes the importance of love in all of our interactions which means “bearing with one another and forgiving one another” as the apostle Paul points out. So why does forgiveness seem to be such a struggle?

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The most obvious answer is our fallenness. In the Holy Eucharist Rite II, we confess that “we have sinned against you [God] in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you [God] with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Indeed, “missing the mark” is a near-universal human experience.

As a spiritual director, another reason I have observed is that most of us don’t really “get” forgiveness. For example, forgiveness doesn’t mean there are no consequences for the pain we inflict. Although Brandt Jean forgave the former officer for shooting his brother, Ms. Guyger is still serving a significant prison sentence, and justifiably so. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean that the hurt is forgotten or that “it’s all okay now.” A former ethics professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Lewis Smedes, points out that the only hurts we forget are those that are so slight we deem them unimportant or those that are so great we repress them. We often excuse wrongdoing which keeps us from true forgiveness. Although modern psychology may help us explain bad behavior, that doesn’t mean we should justify it. I may have had “a bad day,” but that doesn’t give me permission to speak sharply to my spouse or children.

Another misconception about forgiveness is that it is a “once and done” proposition. Instead, most of us actually find it to be a process that begins as an act of the will. Pope John Paul II summed it up like this, “Forgiveness is above all a personal choice, a decision of the heart to go against natural instinct to pay back evil with evil.” Eventually, we hope the feeling of relief will follow, but the truth is most of us go back and forth with our hurt and anger, much like a bungee cord, not knowing when the pain will stop.

Many Christians have also been discouraged by the teaching of some churches regarding Matthew 6:14-15 which says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” In response, many have tried to gut out their forgiveness of others to avoid condemnation at the final judgment. But listen to the words of Richard Foster, Quaker minister, author, and contemplative:

It is not that God begrudges his forgiveness, nor is it so hard to get God to forgive that we must demonstrate good faith by showing how well we can forgive others. … It is simply that by the very nature of the created order we must give in order to receive. I cannot, for instance, receive love if I do not give love.

That change in the understanding of God’s character helps many come to God, who they now see as merciful and loving.

It’s no secret that sometimes we enjoy holding on to our anger and our hurt. I confess that occasionally this has been true of me. I attempt to disguise this by saying I want justice, but the real truth is I only want justice for others, not for my own failures to love. In my mind I may know that people who forgive have healthier relationships and self-images, and they have lower anxiety, depression, and even blood pressure, but as in Romans 7, “I see a different law in the members of my body” (v. 7). Reinhold Niebuhr says that “Forgiveness is the final form of love.” Yet, in my own strength, I find that I am unable to forgive. The Lord assured the apostle Paul that even though we are inadequate, God’s power is “perfected in my weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

This truth is reassuring. I take heart knowing that “God is a very present help in times of trouble” (Ps. 46:1). Still, sometimes I need help “with skin on it.” The Catholic Church recommends regular confession of sin to priests. The importance of naming our failures to another person is reinforced in Step 5 of AA’s 12 Steps which says, “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Of course, the BCP has a liturgy for Reconciliation of a Penitent, and many have found comfort in this sacrament. Whether it’s a priest, a spiritual director, a therapist, or a trusted friend, it often helps to admit our wrongs to another human being.

In my work at The Abbey on Lovers Lane, I see many people who say they intellectually understand forgiveness, but also need an emotional type of catharsis. They know that forgiveness of others will actually set the forgiver free, but they can’t seem to get to that place of peace and freedom by reason alone.

We use contemplative exercises to help people on this journey. Obviously, we don’t want these disciples to be obsessed with their sin. However, it is important that the penitent be honest and forthright about their unresolved resentment and anger. One exercise that many have found helpful is a meditation based upon Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Another useful facet is for people to look at how they feel and why. When looking deeper, we often associate our current situation with some previous hurt and find a need to separate the two. Then, as in the 12 Steps, we ask if some type of amends is necessary or helpful, but we know that sometimes that is not possible. Finally, we encourage people to ask for help in finding peace.

The power of contemplative spirituality is to help us access our more emotional selves, which allows us to go deeper with God. Or as a friend says, “Our job as Christians is to get real with ourselves so we can get real with God.” Then we can honestly and humbly “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

In my next post, I will consider the practice of forgiving oneself.

Marcia Hotchkiss is a spiritual director, retreat leader, author, and co-founder of The Abbey on Lovers Lane (www.abbeyonlovers.org). Marcia recently co-authored Hope-Peace-Love-Joy: An Advent Devotional. She is a member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. https://www.facebook.com/marcia.hotchkiss 

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Paul Zahl
1 month ago

What a wonderful article!

Pamela A. Lewis
1 month ago

This is a very fine and helpful piece on what for many is an extremely difficult topic, even for Christians. Lewis Smedes was, to my mind, one of the most compelling voices on forgiveness, so I am glad to have seen his being referenced here.

Perhaps another reason why we struggle with forgiveness is that we confuse it with reconciliation. In my experience, it is possible to forgive, but reconciliation with the one we have wronged (or been wronged by) may not be possible, and we must thereby separate. Sometimes that is the better course of action.