Who Forgives Whom?

Here I go again—trying to write a short blog on a topic suited for a book. I’ve taught classes on forgiveness, so I gained some insight. But that doesn’t mean I’m better than others at forgiving–I’m not. Two short stories for you, one related to the other.

First, as I was listening to a minister talk to his congregation about topics to teach in adult classes, he rattled off some that he thought his flock might struggle with. A few hands went up with each topic, until he mentioned forgiveness. I looked around to see two-thirds of them requesting instruction on forgiveness.

I taught the series of classes. To those people, this was the topic most of them wanted to deal with. I suspect that it was the most important.

forgiveness4Then, as I was teaching and near the conclusion of that class, one man asked, “Do I need to forgive Madalyn Murray O’Hair?”

I looked at him as I ran snarkastic comments through my mind, working on being kind to those who might have missed the point.

I said, “She was an atheist who died a tragic death about ten years ago. Why would you need to forgive her? Did she harm you?”

He said, “She took prayer out of our schools.”

If standing and glaring while trying to maintain composure sends a message to the rest of the class, that’s what I did. I scratched me head, hoping to end this soon. Insulting and vulgarities seemed inappropriate to the church venue.

I responded, “Well, I feel certain that Madalyn could not care less. She never had power to remove prayer from public schools, but the Supreme Court did. However, that case was not hers. Official, sponsored prayer had been voted to be unconstitutional two years before her case was decided. Hers involved her son and forced bible reading. Do you want to make a list of the Justices who decided that case so you can work on forgiving them? You don’t need to forgive her. But I think you should know exactly what it is that you are not forgiving her for.”

I don’t know what he was after, or if I was as condescending as I felt. Maybe he was wanting to discuss people that we might all have trouble forgiving. Hitler was and is still available, if we want to include the dead.


When I’ve harmed others and I feel remorse, I’d like to be forgiven. I realize such forgiveness is not a dismissal of my behavior. For that, I’ll always be responsible. When I’m forgiven, the personal relationship may be open to reconciliation. While it’s forever changed, the relationship may be worth saving. If so, the burden is mine.

When I’ve been harmed, I don’t need the person who wronged me to want forgiveness. They need not apologize, although that helps considerably. I do need to know exactly what they did that requires forgiving. I’ve learned that forgiveness has no easy on-off switch. I must want to forgive; then I must begin the process of forgiving.


Forgiveness may take considerable time. But forgiving gives me a personal freedom and comfort that I enjoy, not to mention it frees my mind for other uses. Forgiving doesn’t mean that the transgression wasn’t serious or damaging. If it happens again, discernment trumps forgiveness. I want to forgive because it’s good for me. Any benefit to the transgressor is supplementary to my own.

I am not preaching forgiveness. I’m advocating happiness. We don’t need to forgive everyone or everything. In the link here, are several articles on the mental health advantages of forgiveness. They also warn about some issues with forgiveness. There may be advantages to not forgiving in cases of sexual abuse, since anger and a demand for justice seem to empower victims. I’ll add victims of spousal abuse for similar reasons. There may be other situations where forgiveness needs to wait.

Finally, there must always be justice. We strive for life to be fair. When Pope JPII went to forgive the man who shot him in an assassination attempt, they hugged and the Pope made is forgiveness known. Then, the Pope left, leaving the man to complete his prison sentence.



The power of forgiveness rests with, and benefits most, the person wronged or harmed. Forgiving does not mean it was ok. If we can get on with our lives and rise above harmful difficulties, we can find relief and maybe happiness.

May we all find the strength and wisdom to move toward forgiveness when and where it’s wise and we’re able.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Look both ways.