On one occasion when I was speaking on the topic of forgiveness there was a man in the audience who asked, “Will forgiveness make me look weak?” The man never shared the particular offense that sat with him that morning but the offense was present. It folded itself into tiny spheres that fell from his eyes over and over again. The offense puddled and then sank into the fabric of his jeans. He would neither accept a tissue nor acknowledge the offense as it followed the pattern of the rain: precipitation, condensation and evaporation.
The question this man was really asking was, will forgiveness leave me vulnerable? Or, perhaps, will forgiveness open me up to being a victim all over again?
His question is completely understandable. He could feel the weight of anger inside his soul and he wanted to release the weight and hear it pound onto the rubber mats below him like a weightlifter that could no longer carry the load. And yet, even considering such a release reminded him of the powerlessness he felt before he began to carry the weight: before he began to use the weight to strengthen his own defenses. It is common for someone who was once a victim to use the pain, hurt, anger and even hatred they feel toward their perpetrator as a shield of protection. It is also common for victims to believe they are using the shield to protect themselves from their perpetrators, while in reality they are trying to protect themselves from further moments of exposure. Often, the perpetrator is long gone—sometimes literally, sometime figuratively—and the victim remains standing in a state of readiness and defense, effectively closed off, removing himself from any kind of openness to the original offender as well as anyone else. So, this question, “Will forgiveness make me look weak?” is an arrow pointing toward a target, the bull’s eye of which is fear.
My favorite definition of fear is an acronym: “False evidence appearing real.” The last time this man looked weak was probably the last time he stood defenseless before the man he now wanted to forgive. Thus, he feared if he stood once more without the protection of unforgiveness as a barrier between he and his perpetrator, he would again, feel weak. But that is not the truth. Fear is a liar.
The truth is that forgiveness has nothing to do with the perpetrator. It takes courage to invite the peace that comes with the act of forgiveness. Peace is like a blade of grass blowing gently under a cloudless sky. Anger is like a blade of grass bent under your shoe. Before forgiveness takes place, anger can feel like control while peace can feel like vulnerability. And yet, once you lift your shoe from the blade of grass, sit next to it and watch it once again join the movement of the air, you realize you too can move freely about the field.
I answered the man’s question, “No one has the right to judge you as weak. No one else knows your daily thoughts, hurts, desires and struggles. Except Jesus. And He said that when you are weak he comes alongside you and makes you strong. Perhaps the truth is that you were weak once— when you were on the battlefield of victimhood—and you are fearful of becoming weak again. But there is no perpetrator here anymore: only memories of the perpetrator that are still stirring up your feelings, patterns of reaction, and fear. The truth is that now you have power. The power to put down your weapons and to forgive.”
As the man received my words, his countenance lifted. It was like watching a man who no longer wanted to be a beast of burden carrying the load put upon him by his offender. Silently, I watched him take the saddle off his back, remove the baggage and face toward a new direction with the anticipation of a full-on gallop.
Forgiveness does not make you weak. It enacts a moment of bravery that allows vitality to return to your heart, mind and soul.
–Jill Szoo Wilson