Culture At Large

The hardest person to forgive

Stephen Woodworth

Say the word forgiveness and the minds of many may drift to images of a spatting couple on a couch mending their words with an embrace. Perhaps for others it conjures up images of bullies, bosses or vindictive ex-lovers. But for some of us the hard work of forgiveness runs much deeper than playground banter or office politics, because the ones who ultimately need forgiveness the most are, in fact, ourselves.  

Such is the scenario outlined in a recent Atlantic story about the Worthington brothers. The men’s 78-year-old mother, Frances McNeill, was raped and murdered in her home on New Year’s Eve in 1995. Mike, the younger of the two brothers, found her the next morning and subsequently suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder until he took his own life a decade later.

Everett Worthington, the older brother and a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, was actually studying forgiveness at the time of his mother’s slaying. Worthington turned to his own research for solace and, according to the Atlantic piece, set about applying the process he had developed in a five-step program outlined with the acronym REACH:

First, you ‘recall’ the incident, including all the hurt. ‘Empathize’ with the person who wronged you. Then, you give them the ‘altruistic gift’ of forgiveness, maybe by recalling how good it felt to be forgiven by someone you yourself have wronged. Next, ‘commit’ yourself to forgive publicly by telling a friend or the person you’re forgiving. Finally, ‘hold’ onto forgiveness. Even when feelings of anger surface, remind yourself that you’ve already forgiven.

Once the steps had been completed, Worthington was able to boldly assert that he forgave his mother’s murderer completely. His brother Mike was having greater difficulty. After rejecting multiple offers of support from his brother and a series of counselors, Mike ended his life. It was then that Everett Worthington was confronted with a far greater challenge on his journey with forgiveness: overcoming his own self-blame.

Riddled with guilt over his inability to save his brother, Worthington returned once again to the difficult and laborious process of forgiveness and reconciliation. However,  as he did so this time, he discovered that while the route towards forgiving his mother’s murderer took just 20 hours, forgiving himself would require three years.

Why is it almost always more difficult to forgive ourselves than others?

Why the disparity? Why is it almost always more difficult to forgive ourselves than others? In an extensive article filled with lengthy citations from a broad number of studies on the subject of forgiveness, the author, Olga Khalzan, remains strangely silent on this question.

A theological understanding of forgiveness, however, reveals that forgiving ourselves is nearly impossible given the fact that we know, intuitively, we are unworthy to do so. How can the guilty forgive the guilty? The reality is that forgiveness can only be truly received when it is given from “without,” by someone who is worthy to bestow it. I can only forgive myself when I know I have already been forgiven.

At the center of this Christian understanding of forgiveness is not a blind dismissal of our bad behavior, but just the opposite. It is the firm conviction that our ability to be forgiven lies not in our innocence or in our lack of guilt, but in the light of the fact that our trespasses have already been paid for and punished. For many, herein lies the greatest obstacle to self- forgiveness: our own stubborn pride. Our ability to forgive ourselves, therefore, becomes one of the greatest litmus tests of our understanding of grace, whereby each of us is confronted with the truth that the most dangerous murderer of all is the one lurking beneath our own skin.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith