February 15, 2010: Why should we forgive those who hurt us?

Posted on : Feb 15th, 2010 | By | Category: Still Speaking

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary, repay with a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)

I subscribe to Sojourner’s Verse and Voice, which means that every morning when I open my e-mail a Scripture reference awaits me, a compelling quote and profound prayer to set the tone of my day. Maybe because it was Valentine’s Day last week, one quote stayed with me. It was by Ruth Bell Graham, and it read: A happy marriage is the union of two forgivers.

Forgiveness is a topic that is often mentioned in Scripture. Jesus tells us to forgive seventy times seven – no need to grab the calculator. It means many, many, many, many times.  The “Lord’s Prayer” reminds us to ask God to forgive our transgressions as we forgive our transgressors. It means,  “Don’t bother to ask God for forgiveness when you cannot forgive others.” Ouch!  Then there is the above-mentioned Scripture verse from the First Letter of Peter that not only tells us to forgive but bless, yes bless, those who have hurt us. The first two seem reasonable, but this last one? You wound me, and I’m left feeling betrayed, abandoned, abused, manipulated, and rejected. What should I do according to the writer of First Letter of Peter? I should turn around, forgive you and then bless you. I see….. Why? Doesn’t that mean I’m rewarding you for hurting me, or letting you get away with it?

I know what some of you are thinking – maybe if we are nice to someone who is mean to us, we can win them over with kindness. I have to break the bad news to you – that’s not how it works in the real world. As I said to my nine-year old son: “To a bully that’s a sign of weakness.” You can’t manipulate people with kindness into being nice to you. Not that I think that’s what the writer of First Peter meant for us to do. S/he actually really means that we should bless those who wound us – no strings attached, no expectations.

And that’s not even talking about people who think don’t they need our forgiveness. They don’t know or even feel that they have hurt us. They don’t understand why they need our forgiveness since they cannot see how they caused us any injury. So, once again, I have to break the bad news to you (although I’m sure you know this all too well) – we cannot force people to accept our forgiveness. To accept another’s forgiveness is more difficult than you think. It means one has to humble oneself and admit you have hurt them and need their forgiveness. To admit your need of forgiveness from another is to acknowledge your dependency on them. Not everyone is willing or able to be that vulnerable. So, once again, we cannot set any conditions on this blessing thing: I will forgive and bless you, and when you accept my forgiveness and blessing you are admitting that you have wronged me.

Why then is the Bible writer telling us to bless those who have wounded us? Maybe it has nothing to do with them, and it is all about us.

A year or so ago an ad was running on TV featuring a woman going about her daily business, dragging a scale chained to her ankle. Whether at the office, picking up the kids from school, going out for lunch, she dragged this scale behind her. You guessed it – it was an infomercial for weight loss. The scale she had to drag behind her poignantly illustrated why she could not find joy in anything during her day. Her weight “weighed” so heavy on her mind through out the day that it robbed her of enjoying simple pleasures. This is sort of what happens when we are not able to forgive and bless those who have wounded us – we pull them as a heavy load with us through the day, day in and day out. As long as we do not forgive those who have wounded us, we carry them with us. The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them.* Therein lies the problem – as long as we cannot forgive another we’re emotionally bound to them.

To forgive another is not only to set them free from the negative bond that exists between us, but it also liberates us. Until we forgive and bless those who have wounded us, we cannot move on. Our own healing can only start when we let go.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that forgiveness means forgetting what has happened. That’s not realistic. But forgiveness changes the way we remember. Henry Nouwen most probably said it the best: It converts the curse into a blessing. When we forgive our parents for their divorce, our children for their lack of attention, our friends for their unfaithfulness, our doctors for their ill advice, we no longer have to experience ourselves as the victims of events we have no control over. Forgiveness allows us to claim our own power and not let these events destroy us; it enables them to become events that deepen the wisdom of our hearts.

When you read the verses quoted at the top of this essay, did you pay attention to the first part of the statement: Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. Maybe the writer of First Peter knew all along what s/he was talking about; after all, most of the time we will be wounded by those close to us, whether it’s spouses, partners, family, friends, people at church, or colleagues – that’s why it hurts so much.

Life in community is not possible without forgiving and blessing the other,


*From Henry Nouwen’s book Bread for the Journey: A daybook of Wisdom and Faith, 1997.