Forgiving Others

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NewBostonPost is publishing a regular weekly column by local religious leaders each Friday. This week’s article is below.


In 1995, Dr. Everett Worthington got a call saying that his 76-year-old mother had been murdered on New Year’s Eve.

She heard noise. Turned on the lights.  Surprised two young thieves. One of them attacked her with a crowbar. Before running, the intruders shattered every piece of glass in the house.

As Worthington surveyed the senseless wreckage of his childhood home, what haunted him was the large stain on the floor where his mother bled out.

It was a fiendish end to the kindest woman he knew.  She was a wonderful mother. Loved by all.

Rage and revenge pulsated through his body.  He imagined how he would return the favor with a baseball bat to the skulls of those two young men.

Though revenge screamed, Worthington could faintly hear Jesus whisper:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

“How can I forgive them?” Worthington wondered.

Yet this whisper grew louder.

Though a Christian and a psychologist, Worthington struggled with how to cope with his feelings.


What Does It Mean To Forgive?

Forgiveness is the releasing of the perpetrator from a debt owed.  This release relinquishes the desire for payback. (Meaning revenge.) It extends good will to the offender.

The Christian is called by God to unconditionally forgive others even in the absence of an apology. (Jesus couldn’t be clearer on this point.  For examples, see Matthew 6:14-15, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:37; Luke 11:4.)

Forgiving does not require debasing the forgiver.  Nor does it imply no consequences for the trespasser.

But forgiveness does not take justice into its own hands.  The victim calls upon the proper authority to hold the perpetrator to account.  One may grant forgiveness to a thief, but still expect the courts to hold the thief accountable. When there is no justice or correction, offering forgiveness never requires the victim to return to an abusive situation.

Forgiveness should not be confused with reconciliation.  Forgiveness is an attitude where good will replaces ill will.  It is a decision that takes place between the victim and God.  By contrast, reconciliation is a mutual process that repairs trust enabling two people in a broken relationship to move forward together.  The Christian must forgive even without an apology.  But reconciliation depends on people owning their wrongdoing, and committing to acting differently in the future.


Empathizing With A Murderer? 

Everett Worthington wrestled all night with competing feelings, oscillating between revenge and forgiveness over the senseless murder of his beloved mother.  He realized that if he did not forgive, bitterness and hatred would grow.  So he first prayed, asking Jesus to help him forgive.  Then he spoke aloud the same prayer of Jesus for the murderers: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  

Though extremely hesitant, Worthington forced himself to imagine what the two teens must have been thinking.  It is challenging to read, but he describes his own process of empathy in his book Forgiving and Reconciling:  Bridges to Wholeness and Hope (2003).

He imagined the horrible crime and its aftermath from the point of view of the people who committed it. By doing this, his sadness for the two young men grew.  They had ruined their lives in stupidity and ignorance. They shattered all the glass in the house because they felt so guilty they could not tolerate to look at themselves. They would carry murder in their psyches all their days.

He still wanted justice, but revenge disappeared.

The two young men have never been indicted.  Yet even today Worthington prays that both will find the forgiveness of Christ, rather than face the terrible judgment of God.

Worthington also changed. It forced him to go deeper into the words of Jesus’s teaching and actions of forgiveness.  That launched him into a career-long study of the psychological aspects of forgiveness and health.  He has become the most prominent academic authority on forgiveness research.  His work has also changed secular psychology.

Before Worthington, forgiveness was disregarded by many psychologists as merely a religious value.  But now, after he has published more than 500 scientific studies on the processes of forgiveness, it is widely recognized as an important plank for mental health and healing.

Literally millions of people have encountered the practice of forgiveness in religious and non-religious counseling relationships because Worthington listened to Jesus’s whisper.  


The Reverend Dr. Michael J. Balboni is Associate Minister at Park Street Church in Boston.


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