Why Forgive?

Why Forgive?

by Johann Christoph Arnold, Steven McDonald

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In Why Forgive? Arnold lets the untidy experiences of ordinary people speak for themselves--people who have earned the right to talk about forgiving.

Some of these stories deal with violent crime, betrayal, abuse, hate, gang warfare, and genocide. Others address everyday hurts: the wounds caused by backbiting, gossip, conflicts in the home, and tensions in the workplace. The book also tackles what can be the biggest challenge: forgiving ourselves.

These people, who have overcome the cancer of bitterness and hatred, can help you unleash the healing power of forgiveness in your own life.

Why Forgive? these stories and decide for yourself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874862225
Publisher: Plough Publishing House, The
Publication date: 01/02/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

People have come to expect sound advice from Johann Christoph Arnold, an award-winning author with over a million copies of his books in print in more than 20 languages. A noted speaker and writer on marriage, parenting, and end-of-life issues, Arnold is a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, a movement of Christian communities. With his wife, Verena, he has counseled thousands of individuals and families over the last forty years. His books include Why Forgive?, Rich in Years, Seeking Peace, Cries from the Heart, Be Not Afraid, and Why Children Matter. Arnold's message has been shaped by encounters with great peacemakers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, César Chavez, and John Paul II. Together with paralyzed police officer Steven McDonald, Arnold started the Breaking the Cycle program, working with students at hundreds of public high schools to promote reconciliation through forgiveness. This work has also brought him to conflict zones from Northern Ireland to Rwanda to the Middle East. Closer to home, he serves as chaplain for the local sheriff's department. Born in Britain in 1940 to German refugees, Arnold spent his boyhood years in South America, where his parents found asylum during the war; he immigrated to the United States in 1955. He and his wife have eight children, 42 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. They live in upstate New York. To learn more visit www.richinyears.com

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Cancer of Bitterness

Whoever opts for revenge should dig two graves.


Forgiveness is a door to peace and happiness. It is a small, narrow door, and cannot be entered without stooping. It is also hard to find. But no matter how long the search, it can be found. At least that is what the men and women in this book have discovered. By reading their stories, perhaps you, too, will be led to the door of forgiveness. Just remember that once there, only you can open it.

    What does forgiving really mean? Clearly it has little to do with human fairness, which demands an eye for an eye, or with excusing, which means brushing something aside. Life is never fair, and it is full of things that can never be excused.

    When we forgive someone for a mistake or a deliberate hurt, we still recognize it as such, but instead of lashing out or biting back, we attempt to see beyond it, so as to restore our relationship with the person responsible for it. Our forgiveness may not take away our pain — it may not even be acknowledged or accepted — yet the act of offering it will keep us from being sucked into the downward spiral of resentment. It will also guard us against the temptation of taking out our anger or hurt on someone else.

    It is only natural, when we are hurt, to want to revisit the source of that hurt. There is nothing wrong with that. Whenever we do this in the sense of chalking up another person's guilt, however, our pain will soon turn intoresentment. It doesn't matter if the cause of our pain is real or imagined: the effect is the same. Once there, it will slowly eat away at us until it spills out and corrodes everything around us.

    We all know bitter people. They have an amazing memory for the tiniest detail, and they wallow in self-pity and resentment. They catalog every offense and are always ready to show others how much they have been hurt. On the outside they may appear to be calm and composed, but inside they are about to burst with pent-up feelings.

    Bitter people defend their grudges constantly: they feel that they have been hurt too deeply and too often, and that this exempts them from the need to forgive. But it is just these people who need to forgive most of all. Their hearts are sometimes so full of rancor that they no longer have the capacity to love.

    Almost twenty years ago my father and I were asked by a colleague to visit an acquaintance who claimed she could no longer love. Jane's husband lay dying, and she longed to comfort him, yet something seemed to hold her back from within. Jane was by all accounts a blameless person: she was neat, meticulous, capable, hard-working, and honest — yet in talking with her it became clear that she was as unfeeling as a rock. She really could not love.

    After months of counseling, the cause of Jane's coldness finally became clear: she was unable to forgive. She couldn't point to a single large hurt, but emotionally she was tied down — in fact, almost completely incapacitated — by the collective weight of a thousand small grudges.

    Thankfully Jane was later able to overcome herself and rediscover the joy of living. That was not the case with Brenda, another embittered woman I attempted to counsel. Sexually abused by her uncle for years and silenced by her alcoholism, which her tormentor supported with daily gifts of vodka, she had finally escaped from him, but she was still under his thrall.

    When I met Brenda she had been offered intensive psychiatric counseling. She also had a good job and an extensive network of supportive friends, who had made every effort to get her back on her feet. In spite of this she seemed to make no progress. Her emotions swung widely, from excited laughter to inconsolable weeping. She binged on food one day and fasted and purged the next. And she drank — bottle after bottle.

    Brenda was without question the innocent victim of a horribly depraved man, yet the better I got to know her the more it seemed that she was perpetuating her own misery. In refusing to lay aside her hatred for her uncle, she was continuing to let him exert his influence over her.

    Brenda was one of the most difficult people I have ever tried to help. Again and again I tried to get her to see that until she could forgive her uncle — or at least see beyond the fact that he had abused her — she would in effect remain his victim. But my efforts were in vain. Increasingly angry and confused, she drove herself deeper and deeper into a jungle of despair. Finally she attempted to strangle herself and had to be hospitalized.

    The wounds left by sexual abuse take years to heal; often they leave permanent scars. Yet they need not result in life-long torment or in suicide. For every case like Brenda's, I know of others where the victims have found freedom and a new lease on life by forgiving.

    Forgiving does not mean forgetting or condoning a wrong. Certainly it does not depend on a face-to-face meeting with the person responsible for it, which — in the case of sexual abuse, at least — may not even be advisable. But it does mean making a conscious decision to stop hating, because hating can never help.

Bitterness is more than a negative outlook on life. It is a destructive and self-destructive power. Like a dangerous mold or spore, it thrives in the dark recesses of the heart and feeds on every new thought of spite or hatred that comes our way. And like an ulcer aggravated by worry or a heart condition made worse by stress, it can be physically as well as emotionally debilitating.

    Anne Coleman, a Delaware woman I met at a conference several years ago, experienced this firsthand:

One day in 1985 I picked up the phone to hear my niece in Los Angeles say, "Anne, Frances has been shot. She's dead."

I can't remember screaming, but I did. I made plans to fly out to California immediately, and on the plane I really thought I could kill someone. If I'd had a weapon and the murderer, I probably would have done just that.

By the time I got off the plane I was getting concerned about how I was going to greet my son Daniel, who was flying in from Hawaii. Daniel was an army sergeant, and he had been trained to kill.

When we got to the police station the next morning, the only thing they told us was that my daughter was dead, and that everything else was none of our business. Sadly, this remained the case throughout the days we stayed in Los Angeles. The violent crimes coordinator told me that if they hadn't arrested someone in four days, I shouldn't expect an arrest: "We just have too many homicides in this precinct — we spend only four days on homicides."

This enraged my son Daniel. When he found out that the police department was really not interested in finding his sister's killer, he said he was going to go out and buy an Uzi and mow people down.

They hadn't really prepared us for what we would see when we picked up her car from the pound. Frances had bled to death in her car. The bullets had passed through her aorta, her heart, both lungs. She had choked on her own blood. She died early on a Sunday morning, and we picked up the car late Tuesday afternoon. It stank. That smell never left Daniel's mind, and he wanted vengeance in the worst way. He really wanted someone to do something — some kind of justice for his sister.

Over the next two-and-a-half years I saw Daniel go downhill, and then I stood alongside his sister's grave to watch him being lowered into the ground. He had finally taken revenge — on himself. I saw what hatred does: it takes the ultimate toll on one's mind and body.

Chapter Two

Believe in Miracles

Hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.


Gordon Wilson held his daughter's hand as they lay trapped beneath a mountain of rubble. It was 1987, and he and Marie had been attending a peaceful memorial service in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, when a terrorist bomb went off. By the end of the day Marie and nine other civilians were dead, and sixty-three had been hospitalized for injuries.

    Amazingly Gordon refused to retaliate, saying that angry words could neither restore his daughter nor bring peace to Belfast. Only hours after the bombing, he told BBC reporters:

I have lost my daughter, and we shall miss her. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge ... That will not bring her back ... Don't ask me, please, for a purpose ... I don't have an answer. But I know there has to be a plan. If I didn't think that, I would commit suicide. It's part of a greater plan ... and we shall meet again.

Later Gordon said that his words were not intended as a theological response to his daughter's murder. He had simply blurted them out from the depth of his heart. In the days and weeks that followed the bombing, he struggled to live up to his words. It wasn't easy, but they were something to hang on to, something to keep him afloat in the dark hours when grief overwhelmed him.

    He knew that the terrorists who took his daughter's life were anything but remorseful, and he maintained that they should be punished and imprisoned. Even so, he refused to seek revenge.

Those who have to account for this deed will have to face a judgement of God, which is way beyond my forgiveness ... It would be wrong for me to give any impression that gunmen and bombers should be allowed to walk the streets freely. But ... whether or not they are judged here on earth by a court of law ... I do my very best in human terms to show forgiveness ... The last word rests with God.

Gordon was misunderstood and ridiculed by many because of his stand, but he says that without having made a decision to forgive, he never could have accepted the fact that his daughter was never coming back. Nor could he have found the freedom to move on. Forgiving also had a positive effect that reached beyond his personal life. At least temporarily, his words broke the cycle of killing and revenge: the local Protestant paramilitary leadership felt so convicted by his courage that they did not retaliate.

If Gordon's ability to forgive as quickly as he did seems admirable, it is also unusual. For most of us — as for Piri Thomas, a man readers may know for his autobiography, Down These Mean Streets — forgiveness does not come so easily:

Whenever I hear the phrase "forgive and forget," my thoughts flow back to the forties and fifties, to the ghettoes of New York. There, where violence was and still is a part of life, so many times I heard people who had been wronged refuse when they were asked for forgiveness. Or, they would compromise with "OK, OK, I'll forgive you, but I sure won't forget."

    I have been among the countless who have made that same angry promise. I remember the painful trauma I suffered when my mother Dolores passed away. She was thirty-four, I was seventeen. I got very angry at God for not letting my mother live, and refused to forgive God for being so inconsiderate. As time went by, I forgave God, but for a very long time I couldn't forget because of the great pain alive in my heart.

    At the age of twenty-two, I became involved in a series of armed robberies with three other men. In the commission of the last armed robbery, there was a shoot-out with the police. I was shot by one of the officers, whom I shot in return. The policeman recovered. Otherwise I would not be writing this article, for I would have been put to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing.

    While I was recovering in the prison ward of Bellevue Hospital, one of the three gunmen, a man named Angelo, turned state's evidence against me. Angelo was like a brother to me. We had both grown up on the same block of 104th Street. Angelo ratted on me about some past unarmed robberies because detectives at the 23rd Precinct threatened to beat him up so badly that even his own mother would not be able to recognize him. Angelo held up for as long as he could and then spilled out to the detectives what was and never was. When I was released from Bellevue Hospital, I was incarcerated in the Manhattan Tombs to await trial, where I found out that all that Angelo had confessed to had been dumped on me ...

    To make a long story short, I was sentenced to five to ten and five to fifteen years to run concurrently, at hard labor, first at Sing Sing and then at Comstock.

    From time to time over the years, I would steam with anger over Angelo's betrayal, which had led to two armed robbery warrants hanging over me in the South Bronx. In my cell at night I would find myself fantasizing on ways to kill him or at least hurt him so bad he would beg for death. Angelo and I had been tight brothers from the streets. I loved him as such, but now in prison I hated him and only wanted to get even with him in the worst way. To tell the truth, I fought against these murderous feelings over the years and even prayed to get those violent thoughts out of my mind. Sometimes for long periods of time, I would forget all about Angelo, but when least expected, thought of his betrayal would pop up inside of me.

    I was finally released in 1957 and was ordered to report to both a parole officer and a probation officer each week. Back out in the streets, I couldn't help thinking what would happen if I ran into Angelo. I never went looking for him because I really didn't want to find him.

    I was attending a small church on 118th Street, utilizing it as a half-way house to keep me free from the gravity of those mean streets. I would think about Angelo from time to time and feel the anger still alive in my heart. I never met up with him and found better things to occupy my mind, like working on the book I started in prison, meeting a young woman named Nelin, and feeling the joy of falling in love with Nelin and sharing the same warm feelings. Angelo began to diminish and slowly fade away from my mind.

    One balmy summer evening we were walking on Third Avenue. Nelin and I were happily checking out jewelry stores, pricing engagement and wedding rings. As we left one jewelry store for another, I heard someone softly call out my name: "Oye, Piri." I knew without a doubt that the voice belonged to Angelo. I turned to look. His once young face now showed deep lines of stress, caused perhaps by having to look so often over his shoulder. I felt the rumbling of some long ago anger trying to rise like bile out of my guts. I suppressed the urge and waited patiently to listen to whatever Angelo had to say.

    Nelin pulled at my arm to get my attention and then asked me with her eyes if this was the man I had mentioned with so much anger. She whispered, "Por favor, Piri, don't forget what we have talked about."

    I nodded and turned back to Angelo, who swallowed hard, not so much out of fear but rather as if he badly needed to get something out that he had been waiting to say for a very long time. His voice was soft.

    "Piri, I have hurt everybody I loved, and that sure includes you. In the police station they began to beat me so bad, I couldn't take it. Could you please forgive me for ratting, bro?"

    I stared at him, wondering how he could have the nerve to be calling me bro after ratting on me, but at the same time happy to be called bro by him once again.

    "I will understand if you don't, but it took this long for me to build up my nerve. And even if you don't, I still had to try, so por favor, what do you say, Piri?"

    I stared at Angelo and only answered when I felt Nelin squeeze my hand. The words that came from my heart lifted a great weight from my soul, and I felt my spirit soar free.

    "Sure bro, I forgive you. They say everybody's got a breaking point, and that includes me. So on God's truth, Angelo, I not only forgive you, bro, it's also forgotten and to that I swear on Mom's grave."

    The tears that exploded from Angelo's eyes matched my own.

    "Gracias, Piri, for years I've hated my guts for not having the heart to keep from ratting on you. If I could live that all over again, I would let them beat me to death rather than turn on you. Gracias, bro, for your forgiving and forgetting, and I mean that from my heart."

    Angelo put his hand out and then started to draw it back, as if not wanting to push his luck. My right hand reached out quickly and shook his hand with great sincerity and felt Angelo squeeze my own. We hugged briefly, and then with a smile he nodded to me and Nelin, and said "See you around, bro" and then walked away. I put my arm around Nelin's shoulders, she slipped her arm around my waist, and we both watched Angelo as he disappeared around the corner. I couldn't help thinking about something Nelin once told me she had read: "To err is human, to forgive divine."

It sure is hard to forgive, but as my father Juan often said, "Everything is hard until you learn it, and then it becomes easy." I had learned. I had not only forgiven my street brother Angelo, but I had also learned to forgive myself for having carried a thirst for revenge for so many years. I felt like the morning sunrise was coming up in my heart. I took Nelin's hand in my own and with smiles we headed towards the next jewelry store. Love in me was at last free from the weight of hate.

I never saw my bro Angelo again, for he moved to another city, and it was with sorrow that I learned some years later that he had been murdered because of money he owed a loan shark.

But I will always be glad that I forgave Angelo. I have learned that the cruelest prison of all is the prison of an unforgiving mind and spirit.

Sometimes, even when we recognize the need to forgive, we are tempted to claim that we cannot. It is simply too hard, too difficult — something for saints, maybe, but not the rest of us. We have been hurt just one time too many, we think, or misunderstood. Our side of the story has not been adequately heard.

    To me, the amazing thing about Gordon and Piri's stories is that they did not weigh their options, but decided to forgive on the spur of a moment, and did so from the bottom of their hearts. If they hadn't, they might never have been able to forgive at all.

Table of Contents

1. The Cancer of Bitterness 2. Believe in Miracles 3. Ending the Cycle of Hatred 4. Bless your Persecutors 5. Forgiveness and Justice 6. The Deeds of Mercy 7. When Reconciling Is Impossible 8. Forgiving in Everyday Life 9. Forgiveness and Marriage 10. Forgiving a Parent 11. Blaming God 12. Forgiving Ourselves 13. Accepting Responsibility 14. Not a Step, but a Journey 15. Making Ripples

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