When we forgive, it is not so much for the benefit of the offender as it is to release ourselves from the prison of anger, bitterness, and depression.
Have you ever met this poor woman? Have you ever seen any other expression on her face than this one? Hard to deal with, isn’t it? No matter what you do, she’ll always spot the error, always bring it loudly to your attention, always be angry. The sad thing is, she doesn’t even know why she’s so unpleasant and hard to please.
When I was working on my master’s degree, I did a year of practicum in a nursing home. I was a case worker, which meant that I had a regular list of residents that I looked after. Sometimes it was just a matter of going in and spending some time talking with them. There were other things to deal with, too, like family members who had questions or complaints; convincing a resident that she needed to stop ringing her bell every minute all night long; convincing them to eat, to tend to hygiene when they could, and so on.
There was one man that I was warned about. “He’s a real grouch, Linda. He’ll complain incessantly, and his language turns the air blue. You’ll have to handle him carefully.”
Well, good grief. This should a fun!
The first time I went to see him, he greeted me with,”Well, finally! I heard they were sending me someone new, and it’s about time you showed up. Where have you been, anyway?”
“I’ve been avoiding you, Mr. Z, that’s where I’ve been. And if you’re going to continue with this attitude, I’m leaving.”
He was stunned, speechless. After a few seconds, though, he got his second wind and started in on a tirade ranging from his childhood to his most recent meal. I gave him about ten minutes before I interrupted him.
“Okay, Mr. Z, I think I’ve heard enough. It’s clear you’ve been mistreated, misunderstood, and abused all your life. I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’m just not going to come here every day to listen to you complain. So here’s the deal. Tomorrow, when I come, you need to have a story to tell me about something good that happened to you when you were a kid. No griping, no complaining. One positive story, and that’s all. If you can’t think of anything, I’ll come again the next day and the next until you come up with something positive. Understood?”
Again, he sat on his bed gaping at me, with nothing at all to say. Finally–“You can’t do that! I’ll report you! I’ll have your job! I’ll—“
“See you tomorrow, Mr. Z.”
What he didn’t know was that I’d already informed all the appropriate people about my plans for Mr. Z, and they were all curious to see how it would go. He’d been terrorizing the caregivers for months, and they dreaded having to go into his room. I wasn’t worried at all.
He had a positive story for me the next day. As time passed, we actually became friends. Finally, I was able to talk with him about spiritual things, and I suggested to him that he would be much happier if he would learn to forgive those who had hurt him over the years.He was astonished at the idea, believing sincerely that the only possible reaction to mistreatment was anger.
The trouble with that, of course, is that the anger was eating him up from the inside, and it wasn’t affecting those he hated in any way.
Anger itself is not sin. What we do in our anger is another story, and often the greatest sin we commit in anger is against our own hearts and spirits. Years ago, I read Tim LaHaye’s book How to Win over Depression. He wrote that offense leads to hurt and anger, leads to self-pity, leads to bitterness, leads to depression. The only way to break that progression is after the hurt/anger part, and the thing that breaks the chain is to choose to forgive. It is to realize that you yourself are far more hurt by your bitterness than is the person who hurt you. Even more important, your bitterness spills out like acid over all the other people in your life, who have no idea why your tongue is so sharp and your attitude is so critical. They don’t understand that you learned those behaviors as a defense against mistreatment. They only know you’re hard to deal with, and they try to avoid you when they can.
Mr. Z was transferred to another facility about halfway through my year. I don’t remember why. But he left me a note, since the transfer was made over a weekend when I wasn’t there. The note said, “Hey, smartypants, you won’t have to see me again. But I’ll remember you.”