I was reading an online news source the other day when I came across the story of the Petit family. In 2007, Dr. William Petit and his wife and two daughters lived in Cheshire, Connecticut. They were victims of a seven-hour home invasion. Dr. Petit was beaten and restrained by one man while another man entered his home in order to rob it. His wife and two daughters were restrained during the initial robbery, but the two men were not satisfied with their take-away. They decided to take Ms. Petit to her bank in order that she would withdraw cash from the family’s accounts. Upon returning her to her home, the men raped one of the daughters, raped and strangled Ms. Petit, and doused parts of the home, both girls and Ms. Petit in gasoline. The men tossed a lit match to the petrol and left. Dr. Petit escaped his restraints, ran to a neighbor for help, and survived this ordeal, but both his daughters and his wife died.
Fast-forward to 2010. Both perpetrators involved in the Petit home invasion are in prison, and one man has just been sentenced to death. The other man is currently awaiting trial. Dr. Petit gave an interview to Oprah Winfrey recently. He said, “You can forgive somebody who stole your car. You can forgive somebody who slapped you in the face. You can forgive somebody who insulted you. You can forgive somebody who caused an accident. I think forgiving the essence of evil is not appropriate.”
His statement struck me. I have turned it over back and forth in my mind for a few weeks now–“I think forgiving the essence of evil is not appropriate.” I have thought of Dr. Petit, too. I am a mother and a wife. What would my life be like if two men barged into my home, raped and murdered my daughters, took my husband and killed him, too, but left me alive? It would gut me. I would be drawn and quartered in every metaphorical sense. How does one forgive such a wrong? He is right to use the word “evil”. It is an act of pure evil and malice. But, anyone who knows anything about healing, obtaining a life overflowing, and peace will talk to you about forgiveness. It is an act that must be done although I do not judge Dr. Petit for questioning the legitimacy of forgiveness in the face of such violence and loss.
I will share something here in hopes that my transparency will be helpful. When I was held captive by the man who abducted me, I have one distinct memory. He left me alone for a while. There was a mirror in the room, and two beds. His intent was to sell me to the “highest bidder” so he would make me wear make-up and red lipstick and a black dress. In this memory, I was alone, and I caught a glimpse of my reflection. He had raped me, and my make-up was smeared particularly the lipstick. The dress was torn at the shoulder so one of my breasts was bared. My hair was tangled, and because he was depriving me of food I was pale with dark circles beneath my eyes. There I was, 18 years-old, my face smeared with tears and make-up in torn clothing, half-naked and starving, blood running down my legs. I feared I was going to die or be bought by a strange man with nefarious purposes. Every dream I had for myself was slipping away. How did I get here, I wondered. I worked so hard for that scholarship to college. I worked so hard to get away from my parents, and here I was with someone worse with such evil intentions. To be threatened with death, to be forced to do vile things at such a young age, to have your innocence torn from you…well, it’s evil, and many women have experienced the same thing. Is it inappropriate to forgive that? Should I forgive my perpetrator? Is God wrong to require that we forgive? I’ve spent nearly 20 years trying to answer this question.
Dag Hammarskjöld was the second-Secretary General of the United Nations and the only person to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously. He has said, “Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who forgives you — out of love — takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.” C.S. Lewis, professor, theologian, and author, on the other hand, said, “Everyone says that forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” I agree with them both. There is nothing glamourous about forgiveness. It is the nitty-gritty, the rock bottom, the bare bones of the healing process, but there is absolutely no moving forward without it. What’s more, I don’t believe that we forgive another person because we love them; We forgive another person because we love ourselves.
Practically speaking, how does one forgive? I think Dr. Petit was on to something when he implied that it was appropriate to forgive certain wrongs–a slap in the face, an insult, an accident. It’s appropriate because it’s easy. It’s within our humanity to let those things go. It is not within my humanity to forgive rape, torture, murder, genocide, child pornography, etc.. I want to occupy the judge’s seat, wear the robe, slam down the gavel. I want to yell out “GUILTY!”, and sentence the criminal, the one who wronged me. The baser nature in me wants to watch them suffer. What kind of pain should it be? Should a rapist be castrated? How about without anesthetic? Let them suffer the pain that his victim knew. Should he be sodomized, too? What about war criminals? Should they be chopped up into pieces with machetes? How far will our natures take us? Pretty far, I think. One aspect of sacrifice where forgiveness is concerned is that we forsake our role as judge. I must be willing to let someone else be the judge, vacate the chambers, and put down the gavel. That is a sacrifice.
Using my own story as an example. if I were allowed to mete out justice, if my perpetrator were castrated without anesthetic, sodomized, beaten, starved, dragged behind a car across a field of broken glass, and then left to be eaten by wild dogs (and I’m not implying this is what I want), it would not return to me what he stole. His suffering would not restore me. I wouldn’t even feel better. I’m not interested in his suffering because I am far too interested in my own restoration at this point. I, therefore, have come to look at forgiveness much like a financial transaction, and this is where my faith kicks in. In giving up the pursuit of justice as the world might define it, I must look in a different direction. I must shift my paradigm.
Metaphorically, I carry on my shoulders the debts, the trespasses or the wrongs, of the man who abducted me. What are his debts? What does he owe me? Oh, he owes me so much, and the list is long. The debt is extraordinarily huge and weighty, and that man will never be able to pay me back. It is an impossibility. So, what is left for me, the one holding the debts? Well, in the world what does one do when the debtors can’t pay? The debts are written off, but oftentimes a business is left “in the red”. Emotionally and spiritually speaking, when we write off enormous debts, we, too, are left bankrupt bearing an enormous burden. With many therapists and Christian writers, this is where it ends. You have forgiven. You have been obedient. I think that there’s more. I believe that there is a very important reason why God requires us to forgive others. Once you have released the person who has harmed you from their debt, you are still left holding that debt. Therein lies the truth of what Dag Hammarskjöld said. The consequences of another’s actions now lie with you. The next step, however, in my own process of forgiveness is to bring the debts to God. I give them over to Him, I ask Him to be the judge, and I ask Him to repay me–to deposit into my spiritual and emotional accounts, if you will, everything that was stolen from me through the wrong or criminal actions of another. I leave in the hands of God the debts that belong to the one who wronged me. I have released the other person, the debtor, acknowledging that they will never be able to pay me back, but God can. This is the divine aspect of forgiveness. I can offer these debts to God, but only He can take them from me. Only He can take the heavy burden that was never even mine to carry. As for justice, that I leave for Him. He is far more equipped to judge the hearts of the innocent and the guilty as well as mete out the proper sentences. You’ve read part of my story now. You know that I cannot possibly say this with insouciance.
In doing this, my inner posture changes from one of grasping to receiving. My focus is no longer on the one who wronged me but instead turns to the One who can heal me. My hands are open, ready to receive, and I am now expectant, hopeful, and actively waiting for God to act on my behalf in order that He will bring about my restoration. How He chooses to do this, I do not know, and I do not limit. It may take a lifetime to repay me for the losses I’ve sustained, but I believe based on what has been revealed about the nature and character of God in the Old and New Testaments that God’s intent is to heal, restore, and reconcile us to Himself. He asks us, requires us, to forgive our debtors because He wants us free.
This in no way diminishes the wrong. On the contrary, when I forgive someone I am inviting the Creator of the universe into my circumstances. Will God ignore my pain? Certainly not. He certainly won’t ignore yours. Does He ignore the wrongs done to us by others? No. Does He ignore the wrongs done by us to others? No. We, too, are accountable for our actions. There is grace for us-the empowering presence of God lavished on us so that we would turn our hearts toward home and return our hearts to the One who loves us the best and the most.
As I occupy the space between Hanukkah and Christmas, this season of Advent, I am reminded that God continues to intervene into the affairs of mankind not only to reveal Himself to us, His people, but also to remind us that the mundane can be transformed into the miraculous. May He be born anew in your circumstances and life this Advent empowering us to forgive because He will repay you.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11