Charis, pronounced "khar'-ece", is a Greek word that means "grace". It is also the root word for Charizomai , pronounced "khar-id'-zom-ahee", which is a Greek word used to translate the word "forgive". This word appears 27 times in New Testament. There, it means “to bestow a favor unconditionally; to show one’s self gracious, kind, benevolent; or to grant forgiveness, to pardon.” Charizomai indicates being gracious toward someone.
Over the past few weeks, I have received several reminders of the value of charis. How important it is to each of us to receive grace and at times how difficult it can be to feel charizomai toward someone who has caused us pain.
And how sometimes, the person we most need to forgive is ourselves. Have you noticed that as well?
I think there is a strong argument to be made that that our society has struggled with the entire concept of grace and forgiveness since time began. But I also think that the prevalence of unforgiveness and ungraciousness is broader in these modern times. We simply have more access to information of world events that foster strong feelings of harsh judgment.
Social media definitely has a role in this and has provided several recent, stunning examples. A few short weeks ago, it seemed that half the planet on Facebook and Twitter lost their minds in hysterical, vitriolic judgment toward a young couple whose toddler son was suddenly snatched up by an alligator while they were at a famous Florida resort. Without the benefit of all the facts, literally thousands of people took to social media to castigate the parents, often holding themselves up at the same time as paragons of parental virtue and responsibility. As the details of the tragedy emerged, irrefutably proving that the parents of that little boy had indeed acted very responsibly and that the entire event had been a horrible accident, unsurprisingly those same people suddenly quieted and slunk away from their keyboards. But the damage they caused was done.
When did the simple act of showing grace and mercy become such a rare commodity?
The irony is that we live in a society that focuses on stopping bullying through the passage of laws and regulations while many of those same people seem to have no problem in engaging in online "swarming", a type of behaviour used by gangs to overwhelm and overpower their victim. It is painful to watch.
Today, I want to wade into the twin qualities of grace and forgiveness and ask you to roll up your jeans and come into the water with me. In my opinion, living with Grace is a necessary prerequisite to being able to forgive.
In an essay on the blog Lifehopeandtruth.com, Florante Siopan and John Foster wrote, "...grace is the unmerited, loving favor and graciousness of our Creator. It is a wonderful gift that should motivate us to live in the way that pleases our gracious God." Unmerited is defined as "not merited or deserved." I have had many personal experiences in which someone showed compassion and grace to me, sometimes when I felt certain such grace would not come and when I was sure that I didn't deserve it. Even if your religious beliefs do not include God, it is still easy to understand what the terms "unmerited" and "graciousness" imply and how we can and should employ those same qualities in how we treat each other.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that "courage is grace under pressure." It is helpful to understand what the quality of grace looks like in order to then begin to appreciate the significance of Mr. Hemingway's observation. We must dig deep for fortitude and discipline to maintain those same attributes of Grace when life becomes difficult.
One of the best summaries I have read about the quality of grace came from Tom Chiarella, a Hampton and Esther Boswell Distinguished University Professor of Creative Writing at DePauw University and writer-at-large and fiction editor of Esquire Magazine. Mr. Chiarella wrote, "...graciousness reflects a state of being; it emanates from your inventory of self. Start with what you already possess. You, for instance, have a job. Live up to that."
How do we do that? Mr. Chiarella continues, "Stay interested in others. Make a handshake matter. Remember that the only representation of you, no matter what your station, is you — your presentation, your demeanor. You simply must attend. Stand when someone enters the room, especially if you are lowly and he is the boss, and even if the reverse is true. Look them in the eye. Be attentive to what people say. Respond, without interruption. Remember, true graciousness demands that you have time for others. You always have time. You own the time in which you live. You grant it to others without obligation. That is the gift of being gracious. It bears repeating: Look around. Remember names. Remember where people were born."
Amen. I think that living with Grace can be summed up as having integrity, respect, consideration, courage, loyalty, compassion, and being connected, by virtue of those qualities, to others . One person, one hour, one day, one month, one year, one lifetime at a time. Strive to live with Grace. You will never regret such a choice.
Matt Wade, a pastor and author, wrote, "One day you will need the same Grace that you will not give someone else." And thus we transition from Grace to Forgiveness. From Charis to Charizomai.
Personally, I think this is the more difficult of these twin qualities to maintain consistently. When we have been hurt by another, it can be very difficult to forgive. In my work with adults who have been deeply hurt, many of whom continue to live in the pain from ongoing hurt caused by another person or persons, the thought of forgiving is often more than they can accept. The concept of forgiving often triggers many negative emotions. The act of forgiveness is often shrouded in different definitions, colored through the filters of our consciousness and subconscious beliefs and of what we have been taught as children. So what exactly is forgiveness?
While many psychologists have different interpretations of the meaning and act of
forgiveness, generally they agree that forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.
American motivational author Louise Hay notes, "You can never be free of bitterness as long as you continue to think unforgiving thoughts. How can you be happy in this moment if you continue to choose to be angry and resentful? Thoughts of bitterness can’t create joy. No matter how justified you feel you are, no matter what 'they' did, if you insist on holding on to the past, then you will never be free. Forgiving yourself and others will release you from the prison of the past."
I have seen many people who are really stuck on their preconceived ideas of what forgiveness, experience a breakthrough not only in their thinking but also in their situation when they begin to understand what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. It does not mean that you are weak and that the person or persons who hurt you get a free pass. It doesn't mean condoning or accepting excuses for bad behaviour. It doesn't even mean a repaired relationship, although experts agree that forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship. Forgiving someone who has hurt you does not obligate you to them, nor does the act of forgiveness release them from legal accountability or natural consequences of their behaviour.
Fred Luskin, Ph.D., is the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, a senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford University, and a professor at the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, as well as an affiliate faculty member of the Greater Good Science Center. Dr. Luskin notes that forgiveness can be so hard to practice and that in his years of work on this topic, the definition of forgiveness that he works with now is the ability to make peace with the word "no".
Dr. Luskin explains,
"People have come to me with a whole host of problems, and the essence of all of them is: I didn’t get something I wanted. I got 'no'. I wanted my partner to be faithful; they weren’t faithful. I got 'no.' I wanted somebody to tell the truth; they told a lie. I got 'no.' I wanted to be loved as a child; I wasn‘t loved in a way that I felt good about. I got 'no.' It’s so important to be able to understand the universal experience of this—of objecting to the way life is and trying to substitute the way you want it to be, then getting upset when your substitution doesn’t take.
The essence of forgiveness is being resilient when things don’t go the way you want—to be at peace with 'no,' be at peace with what is, be at peace with the vulnerability inherent in human life. Then you have to move forward and live your life without prejudice.
It’s the absence of prejudice that informs forgiveness. You realize that nobody owes you, that you don’t have to take the hurt you suffered and pay it forward to someone else. Just because your last partner was unkind to you doesn’t mean you always have to give your new partner the third degree. With an open heart, you move forward and accept what is, without prejudice.
You don’t just accept it because life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it—though that may be true—but you accept it in a way that leaves you willing to give the next moment a chance."
I have struggled with my own misconceptions about forgiveness, particularly through a couple of very dark chapters in my life. I found one quote that really articulated what I was feeling: "I never knew how strong I was until I had to forgive someone who wasn’t sorry, and accept an apology I never received." (author unknown). These words have helped to remind me that forgiveness is primarily a gift we give ourselves. It would seem that the experts agree on this point. There is compelling evidence of the personal benefits provided by practicing forgiveness.
Forgiveness makes us happier: Research suggests not only that happy people are more likely to forgive but that forgiving others can make people feel happy, especially when they forgive someone to whom they feel close.
Forgiveness improves our health: When we dwell on grudges, our blood pressure and heart rate spike—signs of stress which damage the body; when we forgive, our stress levels drop, and people who are more forgiving are protected from the negative health effects of stress. Studies also suggest that holding grudges might compromise our immune system, making us less resistant to illness.
Forgiveness sustains relationships: When our friends inevitably hurt or disappoint us, holding a grudge makes us less likely to sacrifice or cooperate with them, which undermines feelings of trust and commitment, driving us further apart. Studies suggest that forgiveness can stop this downward spiral and repair our relationship before it dissolves.
Forgiveness boosts kindness and connectedness: People who feel forgiving don’t only feel more positive toward someone who hurt them. They are also more likely to want to volunteer and donate money to charity, and they feel more connected to other people in general.
Paul Boese, a Kansas businessman and writer, observed, "Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future." In modern history, nowhere was this more evident than in South Africa during the post-apartheid years of the mid 1990's following Nelson Mandela's election as president of that country after 27 years of imprisonment under brutal conditions. No country at that point had ever attempted to unite a diverse population on such a foundation before this.
One of my favorite quotes by Mr. Mandela may have been one of the foundational cornerstones for this project; "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew that if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I would still be in prison." Mr. Mandela knew this would also be the case for his countrymen in the aftermath of apartheid. It is also fundamentally true for each of us, no matter what our personal circumstances.
In an essay written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he explained how the Truth and Reconciliation hearings allowed South Africans to imagine a new beginning based on honesty, peace, and compassion. Unearthing the truth was necessary not only for the victims to heal but for the perpetrators as well. Mr. Tutu said, "Forgiveness gives us the capacity to make a new start. That is the power, the rationale, of confession and forgiveness. It is to say, 'I have fallen but I am not going to remain there. Please forgive me.' And forgiveness is the grace by which you enable the other person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew. Not to forgive leads to bitterness and hatred, which, just like self-hatred and self-contempt, gnaw away at the vitals of one’s being. Whether hatred is projected out or projected in, it is always corrosive of the human spirit."
Mr. Tutu continued, "We have all experienced how much better we feel after apologies are made and accepted, but even still it is so hard for us to say that we are sorry. I often find it difficult to say these words to my wife in the intimacy and love of our bedroom. How much more difficult it is to say these words to our friends, our neighbors, and our coworkers. Asking for forgiveness requires that we take responsibility for our part in the rupture that has occurred in the relationship. We can always make excuses for ourselves and find justifications for our actions, however contorted, but we know that these keep us locked in the prison of blame and shame."
I think these are powerful lessons in support of forgiveness. But it can be difficult to know where to start, especially when the situational pain cloud our sensibilities. Pastor Rick Warren offers some practical advice and I have added my own thoughts.
1. Recognize no one is perfect. When we hate somebody, we tend to lose our perspective about that person. When we’re filled with resentment and bitterness and hurt, we tend to dehumanize the offender. We treat them like an animal, ruminate on what they have done to us, and can get stuck in our pain. It is important to remember that we are all imperfect.
2. Relinquish your right to get even. This is the heart of forgiveness. You deserve to retaliate, but you must commit not to do so. It’s not fair, but it’s healthy. This isn’t a one-time decision but a daily one that may even require moment-by-moment decisions. For me, the act of forgiving my father, stepfather, and former partner have all required daily effort. It is a work in progress and as long as I am moving forward, I retain all the health benefits of forgiveness.
3. Respond to the evil with good. This is how you know you’ve fully released someone from the wrong that has been committed against you. I can hear you now: Shelley, I can forgive that person but I can't extend myself to be good to him. Firstly, no retaliation, ever. Secondly, responding to the evil with good can be accomplished in other ways. Give back to others who are going through similar circumstances. Volunteer to help those less fortunate or at an animal shelter. Your painful experience will begin to take on new meaning as the significance of your giving back overtakes your original circumstances and emotional responses to those circumstances.
4. Refocus on God’s plan (or your Higher Power, however you define that) for your life. You stop focusing on the hurt and the person who hurt you. Instead, you refocus on God’s purpose for your life, which is greater than any problem or pain you might be currently facing. As long as you continue to focus on the person who has hurt you, that person controls you. In fact, you can take it a step further. If you don’t release your offender, you will begin to resemble your offender.
What forgiveness is, at least from my own personal experience, is the freedom from corrosive anger. It is the permission I have given myself to let go of the pain, which in turn has created deep healing. I must also add that the process of forgiving is just that, a process. Please do not think that you are failing because the act of forgiving is taking longer than you think it should.
I leave you with a few affirmations from Louise Hay.
I AM READY TO BE HEALED. I AM WILLING TO FORGIVE. ALL IS WELL.
WHEN I MAKE A MISTAKE, I REALIZE THAT IT IS ONLY PART OF THE LEARNING PROCESS.
I MOVE BEYOND FORGIVENESS TO UNDERSTANDING, AND I HAVE COMPASSION FOR ALL.
EACH DAY IS A NEW OPPORTUNITY. YESTERDAY IS OVER AND DONE. TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF MY FUTURE.
I KNOW THAT OLD, NEGATIVE PATTERNS NO LONGER LIMIT ME. I LET THEM GO WITH EASE.
I AM FORGIVING, LOVING, GENTLE, AND KIND, AND I KNOW THAT LIFE LOVES ME.
AS I FORGIVE MYSELF, IT BECOMES EASIER TO FORGIVE OTHERS.