Why Forgiveness Is the “Sweeter, Smarter” Choice that Sets Our Prisoners Free

I had rarely heard the the word “incarcerated” before becoming a counselor, but years of work with at-risk children accustomed me to its cadence.

It first surfaced on the lips of a dark-haired high school junior who’d come to my office to change her class schedule. Describing her family, she chatted nonchalantly about her grandmother and went on to speak of a mother in and out of her life and a couple of older brothers.  “Do your brothers still live at home?” I asked.

The talkative teen lowered her eyes, revealing lids dusted mint green. When she spoke, her typically loud, proud voice had become weak and vulnerable. “They’re incarcerated,” she mumbled.

Silence engulfed us. I absorbed the word’s weight.

Incarceration, however necessary for society, paralyzes everyone–even the innocent. When I drive to Denver from my southern Colorado home, my route sometimes takes me past the state correctional complex in Buena Vista. My mountain-view sunniness dims. I remember the lonely children I’ve known whose loved ones are incarcerated.

The image of that correctional complex surprised me one morning when my daily gospel reading revealed a prison in my own heart. The passage of the day was familiar. There was a man with no way of paying the debt he owed his king, and the king ordered that he be sold, along with his family and property, to cover the obligation. When the debtor prostrated himself and begged for patience, the master relented, forgave the debt and freed him.

Unforgiving Servant_220px-Domenico_Fetti_001Unfortunately, the king’s generosity had no lasting effect. Once freed, the man came upon a servant owing him money. He demanded payment, grabbing the man by the throat, choking him. This outrage came to the king’s attention. He sent the unforgiving servant to prison until he’d fully repaid what was owed.

I know that parable better than I know the road passing the correctional facility at Buena Vista. Mind on cruise control, I followed my reading with a simple, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Suddenly I saw with startling specificity that although I’d been granted grace to forgive some of the people who’d hurt me in the past, I was still incarcerating many others whose offenses against me I find annoyingly repetitive: family members whose faults continue to needle, friends who unthinkingly share confidences.

I saw that like Peter, whose question had prompted the parable, what I really want to know is how many times I must forgive the same person: the coworker whose glance I avoid when I’m late, team members who don’t do their fair share of the work, family members whose decisions still hurt.

I’ve incarcerated each in my heart.

I saw myself then as the unforgiving servant, emotionally seizing the slights, disappointments and injuries done to me, slamming those responsible behind locked doors of resentment, cell after cell.

To say these people owe me “a much smaller amount” (Matthew 18:28) than I owe Christ is to grossly understate the situation. Christ not only died to free me from the serious sins of my past, but continues, as I seek mercy, to forgive my prideful heart and judgmental spirit, my careless words, selfish indulgences, impatient huffiness, tardiness,  laziness and moral blindness.  Furthermore, I am guilty of doing some of the same things that these people do, and I definitely think they should be forgiving.

Fine, but when we want to forgive, what do we do next? What next step, after prayer, can we take?

Dr. Edward Hallowell, in Dare to Forgive: The Power of Letting Go & Moving On, offers a suggestion I found helpful after seeing the truth about my own unforgiving heart:

One question that can help light the way out is this:  what do you want your pain to turn into?  Do you want it to turn into a grudge, a war, a lawsuit or an endless Dare to Forgiveconflict?  Do you want it to turn into suffering for the person who hurt you?  Some people call that injustice.  Gandhi pointed out the problem with that kind of justice when he said, ‘If you take an eye for an eye, pretty soon the whole world will be blind.’ If you want your pain to turn into more pain, you will never leave the dark place you’re in.

Revenge can be as large as a war or small as a grudge, but even grudges follow the way of pain. If you want your pain to turn into more pain, you’ll never leave the dark place you’re in. Hallowell, a former member Harvard Medical School faculty school member and founder of The Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, continues:

If, on the other hand, you want your pain to turn into something else, something positive–like growth, wisdom, peace, health or the relief of others’ suffering or of your own–then revenge is not your best option….A sweeter, smarter choice is forgiveness.

What do I want my pain to turn into?  The “sweeter, smarter” choice to forgive allows my heart room for a humble assessment of my own failings, so I may grow in self-knowledge and receive Christ’s forgiveness in greater measure.  That’s what I want my pain to turn into.  The “sweeter, smarter” choice allows greater room for love, for understanding and joy.  That’s what I want my pain to turn into. It allows for the possibility of peace, as far as it lies with me.  That’s what I want my pain to turn into.

Releasing the captives in my heart’s prison sometimes takes gradual, persistent refusal to pick the scabs of past wounds. To take each hurtful memory as an opportunity to open my inner prison’s cell and entrust both myself and the other to the Master of Mercy.  To seek to make up for the hurt I’ve caused others.  To do something to restore what was lost. Like making my husband’s favorite dinner.  Like getting to work on time.

I must admit that this turning point wasn’t the end of the matter. Incoming wounds present fresh challenges, sometimes from the very same person I’ve been intent on releasing, which gets back to Peter’s question, and the answer is still the same. I pray for grace to keep on forgiving as I learn to recognize my own  resentful, judgmental thoughts, to look for similar mistakes in my own past, to give and receive mercy and to bring it all to confession.

“There is a sick sweetness in hanging on to a hurt;” writes Father Richard Veras, “a feeling of superiority when you are owed an apology; a sense of power in thinking you can hold someone hostage to their sin.”

I now examine my conscience for the deadly “sweet sickness” which built my prison’s walls.

When I discover a clench of resentment, I pray for grace to make the “sweeter, smarter choice” and to keep my heart open and free.

Neo SwirlPhoto by Alessio Lin on Unsplash.

Depiction of the unforgiving servant choking his debtor (Domenico Fetti) courtesy of Wikipedia.

For more on forgiveness, see Holy Saturday: Harrowing the Hell in Our Hearts.

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2 thoughts on “Why Forgiveness Is the “Sweeter, Smarter” Choice that Sets Our Prisoners Free

  1. The ‘forgive us, as we forgive others’ part of the Lord’s prayer – – – Forgiving others may very likely be a struggle for the rest of my life. Learning to find long-buried unforgiveness – if that wasn’t a word before, it is now – is, for me, at least as hard.

    Thanks for taking the time to think about and write this.

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  2. Thank you. “Long-buried unforgiveness” is exactly what I’m finding too. As I examine my conscience I find I have a long way to go. Some of those cells are pretty deep, and some of them hold an unforgiven self, too. But at least I know what I want my pain to turn into. Forgiveness and freedom.

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