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The One Thing That Makes Forgiving Easier

Feb 21, 2017

Have you ever been betrayed by someone and struggled to forgive them?

empathy forgiveness broken glass photo

A Shocking Story

Eva Kor was held at the Auschwitz death camp during the Holocaust. She and her twin sister were experimented on by Dr. Josef Mengele, a menacing figure within Holocaust history.

Kor made news in 2015 when she appeared in court to testify at the trial of Oskar Groening.

Groening was being tried as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz.” He cataloged items which were confiscated from Jews entering Auschwitz and directed their shipping back to Berlin and Nazi control.

In a piece for DailyMail, Kor said, “I met Oskar Groening, introduced myself (and) reached to shake his hand. He grabbed my arm & fainted – I screamed for help. It was a strange reaction!!”

What Kor did shocked everyone, including Groening.

“The extraordinary moment of reconciliation took place as the 93-year-old former death camp clerk – known as the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz – prepared to listen to Mrs. Kor’s evidence in a trial that could condemn him to die in jail.”

How Could She Forgive Him?

While Groening was overwhelmed with Kor’s forgiveness, other victims were not pleased with her actions. She took very critical feedback from many.

“‘Not only criticism,’ Kor said, ‘they called me a traitor.’”

Kor explained the reason behind her unexpected actions.

“As long as we understand my forgiveness that the victim has a right to be free, you cannot be free from what was done to you unless you remove from your shoulder the daily burden of pain and anger and forgive the Nazis – not because they deserve it, but because I deserve it.”

Those words are incredibly powerful and have been haunting me since I first read them.

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We Love Each Other…

While most of us haven’t known the level of trauma or betrayal Eva Kor has, we’ve all been wounded by those we loved and trusted. Put some humans in close proximity, add some brokenness, vulnerability and time, and you get a cocktail of hurts, hang-ups, and struggles.

I attended an art event in Orange County about 10 years ago. The Pawnshop Kings, a local band, performed that night and the song I remember most clearly was entitled “Don’t Say That.” I can’t recite the chorus from memory, but I remember this line, “We love each other, hurt each other.”

I want to explore this hurt today because I believe our present relationships often run into major barriers because of unresolved wounds from the past. The unforgiveness buried within our hearts keeps us from thriving.

Making Our Wounds Worse

If being hurt by those closest to us is inevitable, then what options do we have? We get to choose our response. And sadly many of us respond to an unfortunate situation in even more unfortunate ways.

  • Deny them.

Some of us take the “high road” and deny we were hurt. We think this is either the more holy way or honorable way. We pretend the hurt didn’t break the skin of our hearts and we keep going. This pretending eventually catches up to us. As many have said, “God cannot heal who we pretend to be.” Our pretending becomes a roadblock on the way to our healing.

empathy forgiveness person overstuffed suitcase

  • Stuff them.

Some of our hearts look like this suitcase. Instead of shirts and pants, our hearts are stuffed to the point of overflowing with wounds, betrayals, mean words and disappointment. When we stuff our wounds, we set the timer on a bomb. After years of stuffing, someone we love deeply inevitably frustrates us. The suitcase explodes and we unload years of anger, pain, bitterness and unforgiveness on this unsuspecting person. We punish them for the sins of countless others, many of whom they probably don’t even know.

  • Become embittered.

If we don’t deny it or stuff it, we become obsessed with the hurt. When speaking about bitterness, Maya Angelou said, “You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure.” We know bitter people – they’re the ones who were hurt in the past and cannot get past it. They now pass on that hurt to anyone they know in the present.

  • Seek revenge or to try hurt back

Getting even is a simple definition of revenge. When we’ve been hurt, we often seek to see the other person feel the pain we felt. Yet, this kind of revenge is a consuming fire. It may eventually consume the offender, but it will most certainly destroy the victim. As the old saying says, “An eye for an eye and the whole world will go blind.”

Forgiveness is a More Healthy Option

The other option is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the path to the freedom our soul desperately longs to discover.

But, as soon as I bring up that F-word, I can imagine the reaction you’re having. You’re quickly building a list of all the reasons why you cannot or will not forgive. You’re preparing to take apart my argument for forgiveness and you’re bracing for a mental fight.

I call this reaction “the F-bomb”. It’s the reaction every time I talk about forgiveness from a stage. We all have someone we need to forgive and we all need someone else’s forgiveness. But we often don’t want to go there because we feel the pain is too great.

Forgiveness is different from reconciliation and the rest of this post explores forgiveness. I recently gave a talk exploring reconciliation if you want to learn more about that.

Why Do We Forgive?

We watch other people forgive because they are the “bigger person” or because it’s “the right thing to do.” Yes, Jesus repeatedly linked being forgiven with forgiving others. In his famous parable about an unmerciful servant, Jesus explored this connection. He said, “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

What was it Eva Kor said? “You cannot be free from what was done to you unless you remove from your shoulder the daily burden of pain and anger and forgive…not because they deserve it, but because I deserve it.” We forgive, so we can be free from the bondage of bitterness, unforgiveness, and toxic revenge.

When we think about forgiveness, it’s both a decision and a process. We take intentional steps and those steps over time can lead to change in our hearts. Forgiveness is not easy, rarely simple, and often even more painful than the original wounding.

This decision and process involve both attitudes and actions. I explore those attitudes and actions in details in my forgiveness course. You can learn more about the Free to Forgive Course here.

An Unexpected Attitude Which Helps Us Forgive

In this post, though, I want to explore an attitude which enables us to forgive. I believe our ability to cultivate this attitude grows stronger through our own experience of forgiveness. As a follower of Jesus, I believe we gain the power to forgive others through the forgiveness we’ve received from God. As I told some friends recently, “our ability to give forgiveness is directly related to the forgiveness we received.”

The unexpected attitude I want to talk about is empathy.

empathy forgiveness empathy definition

Empathy

You might have been shocked to read this word, but empathy is a powerful step towards forgiveness. When we can stand in the shoes of another person, not justifying their action but seeking to understand it, we gain the perspective we need. We stop turning them into a monster and allow them to a broken sinful human like us. They become someone we can imagine forgiving!

One of my readers on this site is Amy Gunty. Amy’s undergraduate and graduate work in the field of psychology included a significant amount of study regarding forgiveness. We’ve been talking about forgiveness lately over email and I asked her to share “a paragraph” with me about empathy. She gave me so much more, as you can see below!

Empathy is the act of imagining a situation from another person’s perspective, taking into account their possible thoughts, feelings, intentions, and motives. Empathy is an action, but it is also an emotional state. There is a reason we say that people who exhibit a lot of empathy, love, and kindness are “warm,” while we say that people with a lot of resentment, hatred, and bitterness are “cold.”

The emotional states are different: physiologically and psychologically. We can freeze in the resentment and bitterness of unforgiveness, but when we actively empathize with someone who has hurt us, the warmth creates a choice in the midst of unforgiveness. Once the choice is there, we can feed the cold (by ruminating on the hurt or planning our revenge), or we can feed the warmth (by continuing to cultivate a more rich and deep sense of empathy for the person who has hurt us). A deep sense of empathy cannot coexist (physiologically or psychologically) with unforgiveness for long.

Empathy is hard. It demands of us a reckoning with the ways in which we fall short, the times when we do our best but still hurt those around us (this reckoning, truly, is the source of the ability to practice empathy). Cultivating empathy often brings along grief, heartache, and pain. Sometimes, it is easier to feel angry than to feel hurt; the hurt is raw, but it’s real. It’s through those difficult and dark emotions that we are able to pull back the layers to a more full sense of our selves.

It’s also very important to understand that empathy is not a matter of condoning someone’s actions or resolving to maintain a relationship with someone. Empathy and personal boundaries must go hand-in-hand. Someone might be doing her best; she may just be doing what she knows how to do. But it is still possible that those actions are not right and not okay.

I have found that when I cultivate empathy, I am able to continue to act respectfully toward those who have hurt me, with kindness and generosity (most of the time–I’m not perfect at this); however, it has also led me to make changes to my relationships. Sometimes, empathy makes it clear to me that a relationship simply isn’t healthy, and that I will keep getting hurt if I let things continue the way they are. So I end the relationship or assert new boundaries with the person. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right distance: close enough to have a meaningful relationship, but distant enough to stay safe. Those changes can feel like a loss, bringing with them grief and sadness, even though they are for the best. With other relationships, empathy toward the person who has hurt me has strengthened and enhanced the relationship.

This part – finding the right balance of closeness and safety, asserting boundaries while still embracing the vulnerability that brings authenticity and depth – is where I currently spend most of my time and effort. This is the part that is hardest for me.”

Thanks for expanding our perspective, Amy. Empathy is a powerful attitude which helps us move toward flourishing relationships. Empathy connects us to each other and humanizes us. Empathy is an essential component to the forgiveness process. Without forgiveness, there can be no hope of reconciliation.

What Attitudes Help You Forgive?

I’d love to hear from you. Practicing empathy is helping me forgive some people who hurt me in the last year. But I’m wondering about the attitudes which help you. Please leave a comment below or respond to the social media post where you first found this article!

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