Choosing To Forgive

By Samuel Moore-Sobel
“Truly forgiving is the ability to say, ‘Thank you for giving me that experience.’” James Arthur Ray vaulted into fame on the Oprah Winfrey Show back in the mid-2000’s. Stunned hearing these words while watching The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray on CNN, they began to bounce around my mind, leading towards a contemplation of the concept behind forgiveness.

There are some famous examples of forgiveness that paint the halls of our cultural collective conscious. A particularly poignant example can be found in Germany circa 1947. In speaking of her internment in concentration camps Corrie ten Boom told a crowd, “When we confess our sins, God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.” Moments later, an opportunity presented itself to practice what she preached. A familiar figure approached — a brutal guard at Ravensbruck. Instead of extending his hand to inflict pain, he made a plea for forgiveness. Her initial hesitation led towards a startling realization. “Forgiveness is not an emotion … forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.” 

Forgiveness is not a passive act, but rather an active one — a constant process towards resolving the feelings of bitterness and resentment that can follow us like a ghost. It is a conscious, often daily decision of making the choice to release the aggressor for the pain inflicted in the past. It takes something larger than ourselves to summon up the courage to carry out this act.

Interestingly, forgiveness can lead to positive health outcomes. According to the Johns Hopkins website, making the choice to forgive can reduce the “risk of heart attack” and can even relieve various forms of physical discomfort. Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital said, “There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed.” An emphasis was placed on the journey. “It is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not,” Swartz went on to say. Apparently reaching this place eludes most of us. Over 60 percent of “American adults say they need more forgiveness in their personal lives.”

My own personal journey with forgiveness has been complicated at best. The hurt in my life at times unintentionally built up, causing me to hold onto far more bitterness than one should healthfully possess. Over time, it felt as if true forgiveness had been meted out as I came to a passive acceptance of the past. Upon reflection, the pact made years ago was one of conditional forgiveness — predicated upon the outcome of life. With the achievement of personal and professional success, forgiveness would follow. Lulled into a sense of complacency based upon circumstances, the journey had seemingly come to an end.

Watching James Arthur Ray distort the true meaning of forgiveness, my blood began to boil. True forgiveness isn’t being thankful for being hurt, especially at the hands of injustice. I am grateful that past experiences were used to mold my character, imbuing me with depth and empathy that may otherwise have not been achieved. A different concept entirely than the one articulated in this documentary. 

Ray’s own story has a tragic twist. His meteoric rise was snuffed out soon after it began. Just a few years later deaths at a retreat he led resulted in a prison sentence. His apparent unrepentant attitude towards the pain he caused others was as striking as his inability to explain his actions other than with words cloaked in arrogance. “There is a lot of hubris that comes with being a savior,” he simply offered.

Oddly enough, Ray’s words spoke to a deeper struggle stirring within my soul. A struggle over whether my attempts at reaching this important stage of forgiveness had eluded me. It was a thought that had been building, an idea that had been forming over the course of several months. Researching for answers, a plethora of solutions appear: Write a letter to your aggressor and burn it, keep a journal along with various other ways to move on after loss, conquer the past by moving towards the future. Others counsel that the past must be forgotten to bring about healing. 

A few years ago, while interning at Prison Fellowship, I was given a shirt emblazoned with the words “Forgive/Forget”. The word Forget crossed out emphasizing the logical fallacy lurking behind erasing memories. If the past is forgotten, an experience is rendered a complete waste. Memory offers one of the few avenues to achieve redemption. Great pains must be taken to remember the powerful lessons that can be gleaned from pain inflicted in the past. 

Easier said than done, I know. Forgiveness it seems is a process with a timetable that varies. As of late, forgiveness has come slightly more easily, based upon the realization that relying upon conditional forgiveness can only lead towards a tacit acceptance rather than true healing. The key is desiring true healing and the willingness to work toward that authentically. Do not be mistaken, forgiveness is not offering a blank check; for, despite my newfound attitude, you can guarantee I won’t be thanking anyone for inflicting pain anytime soon. 

Samuel Moore-Sobel is no expert on forgiveness. His own journey has been full of many twists and turns, with plenty of opportunities to both forgive and be forgiven along the way.