In most of the world’s major religions, forgiveness – seeking it and giving it – is a core belief.
And yet, it seems that it is more often preached than practiced.
So much so, in fact, that instances of genuine forgiveness for offenses that deeply wound make headlines.
It happened just last Sunday, when Gentry and Hadley Eddings celebrated the brief lives of their two boys, Dobbs, 2, and Reed, 2 days. They were both casualties of a Memorial Day traffic accident. Authorities have charged a 28-year-old truck driver with two counts of misdemeanor death by vehicle and failure to reduce speed.
“We have, in our hearts, forgiven the man who did this,” Gentry said at an emotional service at Charlotte’s Forest Hill Church. “It was not the easiest thing to do, but in some ways it was because we know – Hadley and I – that Jesus Christ has forgiven us our debt. ... So in some ways, it was very easy to forgive a man who made an accident.”
His words echoed that famous proverb from 18th century English poet Alexander Pope: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Scholars interpret Pope’s meaning this way: we all commit sins and make mistakes, so we should all aspire to follow God’s example of showing mercy and forgiving sinners.
The poet was right: Real forgiveness seems to require a touch of the divine.
And when we see it, we are moved mightily, as if we were getting a glimpse of the face of God.
I can still remember the public fascination when Pope John Paul II, nearly killed by an assassin’s bullet in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, later visited – and forgave – his attacker in prison.
The story of World War II POW Louie Zamperini – whose Christian conversion led him to forgive the Japanese soldiers who brutalized him – kept “Unbroken” on best-seller lists for years.
And this week, Forest Hill Church got calls from People magazine and other national media. Their interest: The Charlotte couple’s profession of forgiveness.
When it comes to forgiveness, we all seem to agree that it’s the right thing to do. And that it’s hard.
Why so difficult?
Because we humans are hard-wired not to forgive, Dr. Ned Hallowell told a gathering at Charlotte’s Christ Episcopal Church a few years ago.
A psychiatrist and author of “Dare to Forgive: The Power of Letting Go and Moving on,” Hallowell said it’s good for our mental health, as well as our souls and our bodies, to forgive.
But it doesn’t come naturally. “I think we have a rage reflex,” Hallowell said. “And when you’re hurt, it’s like a gag reflex – you want to hurt back. It takes tremendous effort, skill, to redirect that very deep, primitive, powerful reflex.”
Making it doubly difficult to let go: “You have to give up your hope that the past will be different, that (the deed) never happened.”
Gentry and Hadley have an arduous emotional journey ahead of them, and we would certainly understand if they wanted retribution for their heartbreak.
Instead, Gentry, a worship leader at Forest Hill’s Ballantyne campus, and Hadley, who teaches 4-year-olds at the church, have chosen another path.
They have found the strength – or the grace – to take seriously the words of Jesus, the central figure in their Christian faith.
Forgiveness was at the core of Jesus’ message. In the Lord’s Prayer, which he taught to his disciples, the believer asks God to “forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Or forgive us our “debts,” as many Protestants prefer.)
In Gospel accounts, Jesus tells Peter, one of his apostles, to forgive not just seven times, “but 70 times seven” – biblical language for always.
Even when Roman soldiers are about to execute him on a cross, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
That level of forgiveness is rare in our culture. So, many Christians prefer to make their faith about belief – they subscribe to doctrines that Jesus is the Son of God and that he rose from the dead.
But these parents have decided, in their time of great grief, that Jesus’ call to “follow me” means even more than that, that he wants his disciples then and now to walk the talk and live the love.
As hard as it is to forgive, there is great wisdom – and benefit – in doing so. Maybe that’s why it is such a crucial part of the High Holy Days for Jews and of the sacred month of Ramadan for Muslims. And why the Bhagavad Gita, Hindu’s holy text, calls forgiveness “the one supreme peace.”
“Forgiveness is fundamentally a gift you give to yourself,” Hallowell said during his Charlotte appearance. “Because you’re clearing your system of a poison – anger and resentment. It’s like the old saying: ‘Seeking revenge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.’ You’re the one who’s suffering.”
Those who have forgiven great hurts say that, in the end, letting go liberated them. It made them feel closer to God.
“You have to make a decision (to forgive). That’s the hardest part,” Zamperini told the Observer before coming to Charlotte’s Billy Graham Library a few years ago. “Then, after you confront the person, dead or alive, and know the forgiveness is genuine – boy, what a relief it is!”
Last Sunday, after showing fellow mourners photos and videos of his children, Gentry Eddings asked them to consider doing one thing: “Forgive anyone in your life who you hold anything against.”