Several years have passed, but just thinking about an event with a past landlord can still set my blood to boiling. He sued my ex and me for “damages” to an apartment we left. We suspected he inflicted the “damage” himself so he could make us foot the bill for some renovations he wanted to do on the apartment. However, we had no proof and ended up paying him to avoid court action.
Even today I seethe when I think of how he lied and cheated, and got away with it. His house was on my way to work after we moved out and every time I passed by I would salute him with the international sign of friendship … taking great pleasure when he was actually out in his yard so he could see me.
I hated him … with every fiber of my being. It’s the first time I think I really understood on a fundamental level what the Bible calls a “perfect” hatred. But, eventually, I had to forgive him. Not for his benefit … but for mine. The hatred I carried for this man began to adversely affect my life. I would lash out in displaced anger at others, including my spouse at the time. My impotent rage for this man and his unethical actions were hurting me far more than they would ever hurt him. It had to stop.
I began a long process of letting go of my anger for him. But, even now, just thinking about it again, I can conjure up all those old feelings of hatred, anger, and pure, unadulterated rage. I can feel my body tense and my heart beat a bit faster as I ruminate on the details of that time. I may have forgiven, but I have not forgotten.
Studies on anger and forgiveness have shown that what I really wanted in this situation was a sense of control. By his actions, and my inability to stop him, I felt that I had been taken advantage of, that I had lost control over events in my own life. Researchers at Hope College in Holland, Michigan say this loss of control manifests itself physically. Their research shows stress increases when we consider revenge rather than forgiveness. Researcher Dr. Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet suggests “that we may be drawn to hold grudges ‘because that makes us feel like we are more in control and we are less sad.’ But interviews with her subjects indicate that they felt in even greater control when they tried to empathize with their offenders and enjoyed the greatest sense of power, well-being and resolution when they managed to grant forgiveness. ‘If you are willing to exert the effort it takes to be forgiving, there are benefits both emotionally and physically,’ she concludes.” [From Time magazine article Should All Be Forgiven? — April 5, 1999 Vol. 153 No. 13]
As she points out, one of those benefits is regaining a sense of control over your life. I may not be able to make my former landlord any less of a lying, thieving jerk, but I can control how I feel about that sort of person. Instead of hatred, I now feel a sense of pity for him. I forgive him now because I know he honestly doesn’t know any other way to behave. He has problems that I can’t begin to understand, so all I can feel now is sympathy.
As gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people we often find ourselves offended by others, either physically or mentally. We are abused mentally by the religious right which, not content to drive us back into our closets, now seek to change us all together into the heterosexuals they believe we can and should be. We are physically abused by bashers who believe on a very basic level that we have no right to exist at all. Either forms of abuse kill. One kills the spirit while the other kills the body. In every instance we find we are faced with a choice to forgive our abusers, or to hold that grudge and return the hatred with every fiber of our being.
Often we choose the latter and with great gusto. Even within the pages of this magazine we’ve been guilty of bashing our bashers … of returning like for like … eye for an eye. Instead of forgiveness, we offer only further abuse. Only we can stop it. Only we can begin to heal the wounds of hatred and abuse. The only way to begin that healing is to start forgiving those who have trespassed against us.
Forgive Them? Are You Crazy?
Why? Why do we have to take the first step? We’ve been so abused, so beat up by those who hate us. Why is it up to us to make the first move when we’re the victims here? They certainly don’t deserve our forgiveness. They deserve our revenge and our hatred.
That’s certainly not an unjustified sentiment. It seems unfair for the victim to have to forgive the person or persons who have taken such glee in inflicting the abuse. However, forgiveness is a necessity for Christians. If we are truly to walk our talk as Christians we must be the first to step forward and begin the process of forgiveness. In Ephesians 4:31-32 Paul tells us to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Therein lies the key to Christian forgiveness. We must forgive as Christ forgives us. If we do not forgive, we cannot be forgiven. Jesus says in Matthew 6: 14-15:
“For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Parent will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, God will not forgive your sins.”
Again, in Luke 6:37 we’re reminded “forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
I can’t sum it much better than Emmet Fox does: “You must forgive everyone who has ever hurt you if you want to be forgiven yourself; that is the long and short of it.”
Fox reminds us that in the Lord’s prayer we ask God to forgive our trespasses, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“Notice Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Forgive me my trespasses and I will try to forgive others,’ or ‘I will see if it can be done,’ or ‘I will forgive generally, with certain expectations.’ He obliges us to declare that we have actually forgiven, and forgiven all, and he makes our claim to our own forgiveness to depend upon that.” [Italics his] [From Sermon On The Mount]
We must forgive as Christ forgives, without reservation, unconditionally and totally. That is our duty as Christians.
But How Can I Forget the Offense?
We’ve all heard the phrase “forgive and forget.” However, truly forgiving someone does not mean forgetting, or pretending things can go back to the way they were before the offense took place. Being trespassed against is always a painful experience, and one that will remain with us long after we’ve forgiven the trespasser.
I remember, quite clearly, every detail of the legal hassle with that landlord. But, through the lens of forgiveness, I see it with different eyes. I see a man with little or no conscience, who can take advantage of people just because he wants them to foot the bill for an expense that he doesn’t want to pay. I see him now as a man who schemes and connives, and I take pity on him. I feel sorry for him that he must live his life in that fashion. I feel a special kind of sympathy for this man, and truly wish him the best so that one day maybe he’ll see the error of his ways and attempt to change them. In the meantime, I must leave behind the events and move on with my life, if for no other reason than my own health and well being.
Fox makes the point that by not forgiving we “are tied to the thing [we] hate. The person perhaps in the whole world whom you most dislike is the very one to whom you are attaching yourself by a hook that is stronger than steel. Is this what you wish?”
It was not what I wished at all. I wanted to be free of the landlord forever. After all, isn’t that why we gave him the money, to get him out of our lives for good? My refusal to forgive him just kept him in my life longer than necessary. By having him on my mind, and consciously hating him and holding that grudge, I tied myself to the very thing I hated. Forgiving him set me free.
Although I was free, things were changed forever. Richard Foster, in his book Prayer, says that’s to be expected since forgiveness is not pretending that the offense did not really matter. “The offense is real,” he writes, “but when we forgive, the offense no longer controls our behavior.” I finally stopped giving the one finger salute to my old landlord’s house. I can even drive by the home now and not notice that I’ve passed it. I no longer fixate on it. By forgiving him, I’ve released myself from a pattern of old hatred and rage. It no longer controls my behavior.
Even though I stopped my hateful actions and thoughts toward my old landlord, it didn’t mean things returned to how they were before. Forgiveness, according to Foster, is “not acting as if things are just the same as before the offense.” I may have forgiven my old landlord, but I don’t want to hang out at his house and watch television or hold conversations like we might have done in the past. We can’t go back to a completely clean slate. Things will never be the same as they were before.
I will, also, never be in the same emotional state I was in before the offense. I can still feel the pain of that offense, and others committed against me. I will always feel the pain of the words “you can’t be gay and Christian.” I will always be deeply wounded by someone who tells me I’m sick and perverted and that I’ll burn in hell because of my sexual orientation. The words hurt. Many of us bear the physical scars of another’s hatred and we will never be free of that memory because we wear it every single day. The hurt remains with us but Foster says even so it “does not mean we have failed to forgive.”
Don’t expect forgiveness to fully restore you, or the person who offended you, back to a state before the offense. It can’t happen. What you hope to experience when you truly forgive is a bit of peace in your own mind, even if you never actually tell the other person you’ve forgiven them. Often, forgiveness is something we must do for ourselves, so we can move on and begin to feel whole once again.
Fine, I’ll Forgive Them, But I Still Don’t Like Them!
Often we believe forgiveness means that we have to arrive in a place where we develop some manner of good feeling toward our offender. This is unrealistic. Don’t think that by forgiving someone you must come to like them. I can’t bring up any warm feelings of friendship or camaraderie about my old landlord, or Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson, or the men who murdered Matthew Shepard in cold blood. Forgiveness is not about liking someone it’s about breaking down the barriers that separate us from God, and from one another.
Foster states it best. “Forgiveness means that we will no longer use the offense to drive a wedge between us, hurting and injuring one another. Forgiveness means that the power of love that holds us together is greater than the power of the offense that separates us.”
We don’t have to like those who offend us, but we are commanded to love them. Fox says that love must mean “a vivid sense of impersonal good will.” To me it means not searching hopefully for my ex-landlord’s obituary in the paper. I must forgive the offense and wish him the best in his life and let him go.
The same goes for Falwell and Robertson. I must forgive them for the ill will and horrible lies they spread with impunity about gays and lesbians. It doesn’t mean I won’t keep working to educate them that what they say and do is harmful and staggeringly un-Christian, but I must maintain that “vivid sense of impersonal good will” or else I am not loving them as I am commanded to do.
However, some of us are not yet prepared to go that far in our forgiveness. We can’t seem to bring ourselves to specifically forgive men like Falwell and Robertson, let alone begin to think with anything resembling “good will” toward the men who killed Matthew Shepard and other gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgender persons for sport. Fox offers sound advice in this instance. Instead of specifically thinking of how to forgive these individuals, we can start by practicing “general forgiveness.”
“When you say your daily prayers, issue a general amnesty, forgiving everyone who may have injured you in any way, and on no account particularize. Simply say: ‘I freely forgive everyone.’ Then in the course of the day, should the thought of grievance or resentment come up, bless the offender briefly and dismiss the thought.”
Fox predicts you can clear resentment and condemnation out of your life with just this general practice of across-the-board forgiveness.
The first step in forgiveness then is a willingness to forgive. We have free will in the matter of forgiveness. We can choose to carry that chip on our shoulder, daring the world to knock it off, or we can begin the process of letting go of our anger and resentment, and learn to forgive. Whether it’s a greedy landlord, a wrong-headed evangelist, or a cold-blooded killer, the rewards of forgiveness vastly outweigh the costs. Scientists tell us forgiveness makes us physically and mentally healthier. God tells us that if we forgive, we will be forgiven. And God knows we can all use some forgiveness.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.