by Juanita R. Ryan
We have all heard stories and seen movies about people who have spent years in prison, hoping and praying for release. Finally, they are paroled. They are set free. They walk outside the prison walls into wide open spaces. No more bars or guards. No one is watching and controlling their every move.
But is freedom really what they expected? No. They step into freedom only to be overwhelmed, disoriented and frightened. Years of confinement have left them with a strange and twisted sense both of themselves and of the world. Some are tragically unable to embrace the reality of a self that is free and a world that is large with possibilities. So, they commit a petty crime to break parole and return to the cruel familiarity of prison life. They are no longer people in prison but people who have become prisoners. They no longer have an identity independent of the prison.
Why is freedom so disorienting? So scary? How can it be so difficult to embrace?
When the issue is physical freedom, we may not relate to this fear of freedom. But when the issue is spiritual freedom we know it well. All of us who struggle with forgiveness have experienced this same kind of resistance to freedom. We have probably all been told many times that one of the reasons we need to forgive is because it will “set us free.” Forgiveness, we are told, will free us from being forever bound to the injury we have experienced. But even though Jesus himself comes and unlocks our prison door, we may find ourselves resisting the freedom which forgiveness brings. The freedom that comes from forgiveness causes something deep inside of us to start screaming “No!”
The longer a person is physically imprisoned, the more difficult it is for them to fully welcome freedom when it finally comes. People who have been in prison for a year or two can remember who they were outside the prison walls. They can remember something of the joy of a world of possibilities and open spaces. But when twenty or thirty years have gone by, people begin to forget who they are and what life was meant to be.
A similar reality is at work in us spiritually when we consider the possibility of the freedom which forgiveness can bring. Wounds which are deep — which happened to us early in life, or which were inflicted over a long period of time, or which took place in our most intimate relationships — can have a profound effect on our understanding of who we are and disable our capacity to embrace life as it was meant to be. Our concept of ourselves, of others and of life can become twisted and distorted.
Taking a step toward forgiveness: remembering who we are
When the wounding we have experienced runs deep, we can unknowingly take on the identity of “victim.” When the wound is deep enough, being victimized is no longer about something that unfairly, terribly was done to us. It becomes who we are. Even though it is an identity that paradoxically leads us back into the prison of shame and despair, a prison where we are likely to experience yet more abuse, we clutch it to ourselves as if it were a treasure. Indeed, it is a treasure to us, because we have come to believe that it is all we have left. We believe it is who we are in the core of our being. To give it up would be to lose everything. It would mean losing ourselves. Then who would we be? We fear that we would be nothing. When we have spent too much time behind the bars of shame and fear and rage, when we become victims, the freedom that forgiveness offers will throw us into a crisis.
In a powerful and personal story of the struggle to forgive a lifetime of racial hatred, Patricia Raybon describes the desperate love affair that can develop with a sense of self as victim:
Indeed, our pain inspired our music. And it was wondrous. Pain provoked our humor, and that was cleverly good too. The way we move our bodies, so fluid and fully inseparable from experience, was all sublime and beautiful and it came, too, from our suffering. We perhaps, indeed, were one and the same with our ordeal—with its pain and misery and sensuality, its noise and heat and burnished light and darkness. . . There was danger in letting that go—in not being victim—because, then, who would we be? (Patricia Raybon, My First White Friend, [Penguin Books, 1996, p110).
I remember clearly the day I experienced God speaking to me about this. “I want to heal you,” I sensed God saying. “I want to take away all the shame and despair and fear that you carry. This is the gift of healing – a gift that makes forgiveness possible. It is because I can undo all the shame and fear that you can forgive the wrongs which were done to you.”
For an instant I thought: “What an offer! What a gift!” I fully expected to hear myself responding with a clear, grateful “yes.” But instead, I hesitated. I fought with myself. To my amazement, instead of saying “yes,” I found myself saying, “Wait a minute. Wait! Who will I be without this shame, this rage, this despair, this fear?”
I could not hear any answer to this question at the time. It hung in the air – a question that stood between me and healing. Who will I be if I am not consumed with shame? Who will I be if fear does not rule my life? Who will remember the wrong done to me if my rage subsides? How will life make sense without my despair? I had no answers to these questions.
Fortunately, over time, answers have come. Who will I be if I live in the freedom of healing and forgiveness? I will be myself, my true self — the person I have always really been — God’s own deeply loved child.
When Jesus read from the Scriptures in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry, he read from Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of The Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
When a person who has been held in prison for decades is released, they may think, “Don’t I need to be controlled, constricted, confined, humiliated, abused? Who am I if I am not this person others seem to think I am? Who am I? Am I no one at all?” Similar questions arise when we begin to experience healing from the deep wounds inflicted by others. When Jesus comes to set us free we may ask ourselves, “What am I saying about myself if I even think about forgiving?” We may wonder: “Don’t I need my shame to remind me that I have been treated like I don’t matter? Don’t I need my despair to remind me not to hope that I can be loved?”
What we are saying about ourselves when we consider stepping into the fullness of healing and forgiveness, is that no matter what has been done to us, even though our offender treated us as if we were not lovable or valuable, the truth is we are loved and valued. We are saying that even though we have been victimized, these events do not tell us who we are. We are acknowledging that no matter how badly we were treated, we are, and always have been, and always will be, beloved children of God.
We can let go of our rage and despair and shame because they do not define us. They are not who we are. We do not need them any longer. We can begin to say “yes” to deep healing and full forgiveness when we understand that when Jesus comes and “proclaims the captives free,” he will not leave us empty handed. Jesus promises us that as we open our fists and let go of the shame and rage and despair to which we have clung, they will be replaced with wonderful gifts — gifts befitting a child of God. We will see ourselves as God sees us — loved and lovely — “crowned with beauty, anointed with gladness and dressed in a garment of praise.”
Taking a step toward forgiveness: remembering who our offender is
When I think of people who have been imprisoned for long periods, I often think of Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned for decades because he sought justice and worked to bring apartheid to an end in South Africa. He experienced decades of victimization. Yet, when the day of his release finally came, he was able to fully embrace his freedom. How did he do it? How did he manage not to become victim and prisoner? How did his spirit stay free all those years?
One of the realities we know about Mandela is that he made friends of the men who were his prison guards. He talked to them about their families, their lives, themselves. This was not some gimmick or manipulation. Some of these men were honored as the friends they had become by being invited to sit on the inauguration platform behind Mandela when he became South Africa’s president. I believe that these friendships grew out of Mandela’s genuine capacity to remember what would have been so easy to forget — that these guards were human, like himself. That they, like himself, were God’s own children.
We are aware that forgiveness which assumes a superior position to our offender is not forgiveness at all, but arrogance. Some have suggested that a solution to this temptation is to see ourselves as potentially as “bad” as our offender. But this only leads us into deeper shame. I believe the solution is found in remembering both who we are and who our offender is. I am God’s beloved child. My offender is God’s own, God’s dearly loved child. People who have harmed us may be on the run from God, as was the prodigal, but this does not change who they are, any more than it changed who the prodigal was, or how his father saw him.
I believe that Mandela’s capacity to fully embrace his freedom came out of his ability to remember who he was and who his oppressors were. Or, said another way, his spirit stayed free all those years because in remembering who he was and who his oppressors were, he was able to forgive. When we are able to remember that we are God’s dearly loved children, we are able to take one step toward forgiveness and the freedom it offers. When we are able to remember that the one who has offended us is also God’s very own, loved by him, we are able to take a second step toward forgiveness and it’s gift of freedom.
Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to pray for those who seek to harm us (Matthew 5:43). Perhaps as we learn to pray for our offenders we open ourselves to seeing them again, to remembering who they are. How might we pray? Perhaps we can pray that we will be given the grace to see ourselves and our offender through God’s eyes of love rather than through our offender’s eyes of shame and rage. Perhaps we can pray for them that God will open their eyes to see us, to really see us, as God’s own children. Perhaps we can pray for them that God will open their hearts to remember who they themselves are, so that they can release the shame and fear and rage that drives them. Perhaps we can pray that they will come to know themselves as God knows them, to see themselves as God sees them, as his very own, dearly loved children.
The Gift of Forgiveness
How is it possible in the face of real and terrible victimization to remember that we are God’s dearly loved children and to remember that our offender is also God’s dearly loved child? How is it possible? It isn’t possible. Not for us on our own. Forgiveness is nothing less than a miracle. It is a gift from God. We need God to teach us forgiveness. We need God to let us see ourselves and others through his eyes of love. The only way we can forgive is with God’s help.
The capacity to see ourselves and our offender as loved by God is a gift we can ask for, we can seek and we can stay open to. Scripture tells us clearly that it is a gift God wants to give us. God wants us to know the joy of being loved and of loving. He longs to give us the freedom that such love can bring.
The gift of forgiveness begins as we recognize the reality of the hurt we have experienced and acknowledge that we have come to see ourselves through the eyes of the one who hurt us, rather than through God’s eyes. As we become willing to give up this distorted view of ourselves — as victim, as unloved, as without value — healing begins and we take the first step toward forgiveness. We begin to see that what we believed to be permanent damage inflicted on the core of our person, is not permanent at all. All the shame and fear and rage and despair can be undone. It can be healed by God. We can be free from all of it. We can know ourselves to be God’s own beloved children.
If the wound inflicted by our offender can be undone — if nothing he or she did, or failed to do, can change the reality of who we are as God’s children — why do we need to hold them forever in the prison of our rage? It serves no purpose. It only stands in the way of our full freedom. And so, God opens the way for us to see our offender as our brother or sister, loved dearly by the same One who loves us. They may or may not see us or themselves in this Light. But God offers us this possibility. God offers us the amazing possibility of love.
What is forgiveness? What is the freedom it brings? Forgiveness is a return to love. And the freedom forgiveness brings is the freedom both to know ourselves as loved and the freedom to express the love God has placed in us for himself and others. This is what life was meant to be — this loving and being loved, freely, without shame and fear.
It is important to say that the gift of being able to see ourselves and our offender as loved brings deep clarity to acts which are less than loving. Acts which are disrespectful, hateful or abusive can no longer be ignored or minimized in any way. Such acts attempt to deny who I am and who my offender is. Such acts attempt to demean and debase and sometimes even destroy what God knows to be precious. This is the reason such acts are objectionable. This is why we must speak against them and stand against them. It is, in the end, the miracle of forgiveness which awakens in us a true passion for justice, as well as a deep love of mercy (Micah 6: 8).
Forgiveness is the gift of being able to remember in the face of demeaning, debasing or destructive behaviors, both that such acts are objectionable, and that such acts are ultimately powerless. Abuse may attempt to demean and debase and destroy, but it does not and cannot change the truth of who I am, or who my offender is. This is just as true if I am the offender, or if I am the offended. Both of us remain God’s own children, always loved by him. Always. There is nothing we can do and there is nothing that can be done to us that can change this reality. It is a reality protected by God, held in God’s hands, untouched by the forces of darkness and evil, no matter how strong they may seem.
Forgiveness is a gift which allows me to give up condemnation of myself and condemnation of those who have hurt me. It is a gift which allows me to remember, even if my offender has forgotten, who I am and who they are. Forgiveness is not a gift I can possess. But, like grace, as a part of grace, it is given and given and given again, as I need it, as I seek it.
Jesus asked us to remember him. When we celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection in the sacraments of the bread and wine, we are to remember Jesus. What are we remembering? We are remembering, in part, that the attempts to demean and destroy him were futile — that victimizing Jesus did nothing to change who he is. We are remembering that this ultimate abuse of Jesus did not change how Jesus saw his offenders. We are remembering his love for us. We are remembering that the joy of loving and of being loved is what life is about. We are remembering the gift, the miracle, the amazing freedom of forgiveness.
Juanita Ryan is a therapist in private practice at Brea Family Counseling Center in Brea, California.