Forgiveness: A formula for new beginnings

Will God put flowers on Satan’s grave?”

The question emerged from the passenger side of the car as I carefully steered my way through our first November snowfall, about twilight time. Where on earth did that come from? I wondered. Where do nine-year-olds come up with that kind of stuff? Then I noticed we were passing a cemetery where the falling snow had transformed headstones and crosses into delicate art forms. As Michael pressed his nose against the window, peering into the gathering darkness, he must have thought of the wooden cross that now stood in our back yard over a Great-Dane-sized mound of freshly turned earth.

A few weeks earlier, tragedy had struck our family. Nina, our Great Dane, had died. Abruptly. Without warning. I was returning home from work when she ran to the edge of the driveway happily barking to greet me. Suddenly—midbark—she collapsed. As I jumped out of the car and rushed to Nina’s side, my boys, who had been playing in the yard, were horrified. They watched, pale-faced and silent, as I searched for signs of life. But there was no movement of her giant rib cage. Desperately, I put my ear to her chest. Silence.

“She’s dead, boys.”

I tried to sound casual, hoping it would alarm them less.

“No use calling the vet,” I said.

But such a cruel reality required some cushioning, something to soften the harsh edges for young boys of five, seven, and nine. It required some softening for a dad, 37.

“I’ll run into town and buy some roses, then we’ll bury her in the back yard. You guys pick some wild flowers.” I said it gently, giving each son a little hug. We had a graveside ceremony.

I no longer remember exactly what was said, but the memory of three small boys bravely huddling around a wooden cross, each clutching wildflowers in one fist and a long-stemmed rose in the other, still has a painful edge some 20 years later.

Michael is grown now, a third-year veterinary student. He never lost his interest in animals, and I never lost interest in his question. It still seems theologically relevant. What kind of God do we worship? Is He forgiving? Is He kind? Will he put flowers on Satan’s grave?

Forgiveness and healing

The questions have psychological significance. In some 30 years of clinical practice I’ve become convinced that forgiveness is at the heart of the healing process, because forgiveness promotes new beginnings—both for the forgiver and for the forgiven.

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a TV weatherperson assigned to cover Groundhog Day ceremonies in the small hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the local folk observe whether Phil, the groundhog, sees his shadow. But something seems to go awry and Bill Murray keeps endlessly waking up to Groundhog Day, finding himself trapped in the same routines with the same people over and over again. Behind this comic theme lies a profound truth—we all need new beginnings. And herein lies the power of forgiveness: It offers us a way out of what one sociologist termed the “predicament of irreversibility”: “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover. We would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.”1

In the healing endeavor of psychotherapy, much effort is expended in helping clients learn to forgive—although it is not typically talked about in those terms. But at the core, forgiveness involves letting go of past mistakes—your mistakes, the mistakes of others. It means dumping your excess baggage: those trunks filled with shame and guilt about your own inadequacies and mistakes, those suitcases of bitterness and hatred toward others. If you can let go of your own past mistakes, a lot of unnecessary shame and guilt will go downstream. If you can let go of the mistakes of others, a lot of bitterness and pain will vanish.

“Easier said than done,” I hear the skeptic in you saying.

“Maybe,” I would reply, “but not as hard as you might think.” In fact, I would suggest that over the long haul, not forgiving is more difficult than forgiving. A steady stream of studies has shown that repressed bitterness or hatred is bad for health. Chronic stress or bitterness compromises the human immune system in a way that makes people more vulnerable to a wide variety of diseases.

Well, so much for the “hard sell.” Let’s think about how you can learn to forgive more easily. Understanding the process of forgiveness more clearly will help you forgive more readily.

What forgiveness is not

First, let’s look at what forgiveness is not. People frequently confuse forgiveness with other concepts, and this sometimes prevents them from fully understanding and utilizing the genuine process.

Forgiveness is not fair. This is particularly difficult for some people to accept, especially if they are a bit obsessive. Such people long to live in a world that is orderly, punctual, clean, safe, and above all fair. But such a world is an illusion. Nowhere—not even in Scripture—is it suggested that fairness is obtainable on this planet. One of the essentials of a forgiving attitude is the recognition that unfairness is an integral part of reality.

Forgiveness is not appeasement or submission. Knowing this is especially crucial for persons who “forgive” out of insecurity, or out of fear that they cannot get along without their abusive spouses or their alcoholic bosses.

Forgiveness is not necessarily pardon. To pardon means to excuse an offense without penalty. The emphasis is on elimination of punishment. Certainly there are times when forgiveness may include pardoning, but frequently it does not. Parents, for example, ought to maintain a forgiving attitude toward their children (not harboring resentment or bitterness) but they ought not to pardon (bypass consequences). One can forgive a child for messing up the living room and insist he or she clean up the clutter.

Forgiveness does not require reconciliation. The idea that forgiveness requires reconciliation is, perhaps, the most important and widely held misconception. Forgiveness may include reconciliation, but it is not always necessary. In the story of Joseph or the parable of the Prodigal Son, reconciliation is the high point. But frequently, reconciliation is not possible or even desirable. In many cases of childhood sexual abuse, for example, the guilty perpetrator will not admit to having wronged someone in this tragic way. Forgiveness and healing in such cases often involves disconnecting: moving away, going off to school, starting a new job. It is often necessary that the victim not remain close to the perpetrator. In such instances, reconciliation isn’t possible because the perpetrator won’t admit wrongdoing, and even if confession occurs, remaining physically close is not advisable. Reconciliation is like frosting on the forgiveness cake—great if you can have it, but not always advisable or available.

Forgiveness as reframing

Forgiving means disconnecting from the shame, embarrassment, ridicule, and humiliation of your past failures. It means living in the light of present potentialities rather than in the shadow of past pain. It also means disconnecting from the fantasies of retaliation and revenge you harbor toward those who have previously hurt you, and channeling the energy of that released anger into new projects with new people.

“That’s all well and good,” you might mumble, “but how does one do that?”

The answer is surprisingly simple: by reframing. Reframing means to see something in a new light. Tom Sawyer’s story illustrates the point. Remember the incident when Aunt Polly caught Tom sneaking in a window late one night? She decided to punish him by turning his Saturday into “hard labor.” He had to whitewash the fence.

Tom unsuccessfully tried to talk one of his friends into helping him. He thought of all the fun he had planned for the day and all the excitement his friends would be having while he worked on the fence. But Tom was getting nowhere. He decided to change his tactics, successfully reframing the task for his next encounter:

He took up his brush and went tranquilly to work. Ben Rogers hove in sight presently—the very boy, of all boys, whose ridicule he had been dreading. Ben’s gait was hop-skip-and-jump—proof enough that his heart was light and his anticipations high. Ben stared a moment and then said: “Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?”

Tom wheeled suddenly and said: “Why it’s you, Ben! I warn’t noticing.”

“Say—I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work—wouldn’t you? ‘Course you would!”

Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said “What do you call work?”

“Why ain’t that work?”

Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly: “Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move. “Like it? Well I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light [emphasis added]. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect—added a touch here and there—criticised the effect again—Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said: “Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”2

Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer illustrates reframing as a process that allowed him to creatively escape the confines of Aunt Polly’s penalty. The process helped Tom to transform work into play, punishment into profiteering. Reframing allows us to escape the confines of dichotomous dilemmas by moving to higher-order solutions. We need not be mired in the illusion that we must choose one of only two possibilities: work versus play, right versus wrong, thoughts versus behavior, freedom versus determinism. Too frequently we fail to reframe and creatively search for higher-order solutions. Reframing creates such possibilities.

Jesus and reframing

Forgiveness is the quintessential reframer, not only of moral dilemmas but also of life itself. Jesus often employed reframing to escape the dichotomous traps set by the Pharisees. Consider, for example, the case of the woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees brought her before Jesus and made their charge: “‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’” (John 8:4, 5, NIV).

The accusers were setting a binary trap for Jesus: Is she guilty or innocent? Shall we stone her or disobey Moses? But Jesus employed “reframing” to move the discussion to a higher level. Reframing took two directions. First, Jesus moved from verbal communication to writing in the sand. Even more profound was the second direction. Jesus told the Pharisees: “’If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her’” (John 8:7, NIV). Thus Jesus nimbly reframed the discussion to a higher level—Who is perfect? Who is prepared to throw the first stone?

Consider another illustration of how Jesus creatively reframed the dead-end dichotomies of the Pharisees. When a lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus directed him to what the Scripture says: love God, and love one’s neighbor as oneself. The lawyer feigned puzzlement, as if he couldn’t determine precisely who his neighbor was. Jesus then reframed the discussion to a higher level and told the parable of the Good Samaritan, focusing on helping those in need. Jesus challenged His challenger: “‘Which of these three [the Levi, the priest, the Samaritan] do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’” (Luke 10:36, NIV). Jesus used the technique of reframing to help the lawyer arrive at the right answer to his question about eternal life. At the same time, He exploded the hypocrisy of the religious establishment and cut through the core of nationalism, racism, and other boundaries of exclusivity that divide God’s children.

Reframing, thus, helps to change a situation from a peril to a possibility. Nowhere does it work as well as in the area of forgiveness.

Forgiving Mugsy

Consider Mugsy. Mugsy isn’t a bad dog. He isn’t guilty of the usual dog offenses: He doesn’t mess up my yard, chase my cat, or pick fights with my German shepherd. He doesn’t bite, and he stays on his side of the street. He is friendly, and he loves children. However, Mugsy has one failing—Mugsy barks. That’s not unusual behavior for dogs, but Mugsy barks unnecessarily, incessantly, or so it seemed to me.

I had moved to the country to escape the noise of the city. Everything seemed perfect. After dark, hardly a car passed our house, and I often fell asleep to the sound of frogs. All in all a bucolic setting with great potential for tranquility—until Mugsy moved in across the street.

Suddenly, I found myself sneaking out my back door to pick up my evening paper. I was trying to avoid Mugsy’s vigilant eyes, because even the slightest movement in my yard set Mugsy barking for 20 minutes at a time. Mugsy has a very low barking threshold and a wide variety of seemingly innocuous stimuli trigger his vocal cords: movement, noise, shadows, familiar figures like the paper boy delivering the evening news or me taking it out of the box. I fantasized about long-distance surgery on Mugsy’s vocal cords—perhaps operating with a radio-controlled laser. But Michael assured me that even in a high-tech veterinary school, he hadn’t heard of equipment that made it possible to perform laser surgery on a dog without the dog’s knowledge or the owner’s consent. There would be no vocal cordectomy. Mugsy’s barking equipment would remain intact.

So what’s the point of the story? This: I’ve learned to forgive Mugsy for barking, and it’s made an amazing difference in my sense of tranquillity. Here’s how it happened:

One evening as I tried to sneak past Mugsy’s watchful eyes, I thought I had been successful in carefully removing my paper—not a sound spoiled the serenity of the evening. But as I turned and began stealthily softstepping back toward my house it started: his barking, my anger.

But then suddenly, somehow, a new thought hit me: Mugsy is the best burglar alarm system in the neighborhood! No one will ever walk up my driveway or enter my yard undetected as long as Mugsy lives nearby. That put the thing in a new light, that reframed Mugsy. I had previously worried about such things, especially when riding my bike past homes prominently displaying signs that warned: “Protected by Sentry Security,” or “Under Twenty-Four Hour Surveillance.” I had never signed up for such services, but I had worried. Now, suddenly, I found myself smiling and mumbling to Mugsy “You go, boy!”

I didn’t need a $10,000-dollar security system. I had something far more efficient. I had Mugsy.

As I walked slowly up my driveway, accompanied each step of the way by Mugsy’s music, I reveled in the thought of my superior security system. Mugsy was far better than motion-detection cameras or flashing lights. I had the finest security system one could hope for and the cost was absolutely free!

Seen in a new light (reframed), Mugsy suddenly became my friend. No more thoughts about laser surgery, no more wishing he would run in front of a passing cement truck, no more hoping his owners would forget to give him his heartworm medicine. In that single moment, in the darkness of my driveway, I forgave Mugsy. And it wasn’t a teeth-gritting, gut wrenching act of will power. It was easy—easy as reframing.

So as you enter the new millennium, I hope that forgiveness by reframing will facilitate new beginnings for you. I hope you’ll think of Nina, my Great Dane, and re-read Tom Sawyer. I hope you’ll take a fresh look at how frequently Jesus reframed issues. And once in awhile on a dark night, when you hear a distant dog barking, I hope you’ll remember Mugsy.

John Berecz (Ph.D., Indiana University) teaches psychology at Andrews University and is the author of four books: Understanding Tourette Syndrome, Sexual Styles, All the Presidents’ Women, and Beyond Shame and Pain (reviewed in this issue). His mailing address: Andrews University; Berrien Springs; Michigan 49104; U.S.A. E-mail address: berecz@juno.com

Notes and references

  1. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 237.
  2. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1982), pp. 12-14.