By Joe Burns
Sometime back in 1984, a friend gave me an audiotape on forgiveness. It was a presentation given by Ann Murchison, then wife of former Dallas Cowboy owner, Clint Murchison. I took the tape with me on a two-hour drive from Abilene to Fort Worth. At the beginning of the tape, I thought I would lose my mind listening to Ann clearing her throat repeatedly (courtesy of a west Texas dust storm). But after a few minutes, the clarity of what she was saying and the power of the Scripture passages she referred to began to get my attention.
Sprinkled throughout the tape were some rather amazing anecdotes about her friends and how this teaching on the power of forgiveness had helped in particular circumstances. In one example, the mother of a very unruly young son prayed for the grace to forgive him. That night, the boy slept for thirteen hours and when he awoke, he was a different child, peaceful and joyful. I puzzled over such examples. How could such things happen? Ann used several Scripture passages to show that forgiveness could break “blockages” in the spiritual realm. I was fascinated, but my naturally skeptical mind kept looking for a “rational” explanation.
Because the tape was long, I finished listening to it on the drive back to Abilene. Then, as I sat thinking about what I had just heard, I sensed that the Lord was prompting me to take the teaching seriously and to learn how to forgive in a new and perhaps deeper way. I prayed out loud in the empty car, “Ok, Lord. Where do I start?”
Instantly, I pictured an incident from my childhood that I had not thought about in nearly 30 years. It was not a pleasant image, which is probably why I hadn’t thought about it. I was eight or nine years old at the time, and my father, divorced and visiting for the weekend, in a sadly typical drunken rage, was berating my mother in one of the bedrooms. The door was slightly ajar and through it I saw my father, a muscular athletic man, punch my mother. I’ll spare you a detailed description. The sight horrified me and almost paralyzed me with a mixture of emotions that I had never been able to resolve. I simply left the incident buried in the past.
Now the image was before me and I knew that the Lord wanted me to put this teaching on forgiveness into practice. I was genuinely unsure how to go about it, so I simply said, again out loud, “Lord, I forgive my father for hitting my mother.” There was not the slightest hint of emotion when I uttered those words. But, unexpectedly and with great force, the dam broke, and 30 years of grief and pain came pouring out. I was totally caught off guard.
I wept with such depth that I worried that I would not be able to see the road clearly enough to drive safely. Fortunately, my guardian angel seemed to be assisting. After perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, the grief seemed to subside and I felt cleansed but still troubled. This was a unique experience for me, so I turned to the Lord again wondering what to do next. I returned, somewhat unwillingly, to look again at that childhood incident. This time I saw another need to forgive, one that I could not see previously because it had been blocked by unforgiveness toward my father. This time I prayed, “Lord, I forgive my mother for putting me in a situation like that.”
Again, a flood of pain, grief and tremendous sadness poured out. I didn’t like what was happening, but somehow I sensed that this was necessary to become free spiritually. By this time, I felt drained both physically and emotionally and was hoping that relief was near. But there was one more person to forgive, one who was the hardest of all to forgive, one who, again, had been blocked by unforgiveness toward my mother and father. Some of you who are further along the spiritual path than I have already guessed it, but I assure you I had no idea of what would come next.
In the car, surprising, I think, even myself somewhat, I said, “Lord, I forgive myself for not defending my mother against my father.” Then off I flowed with the Niagara River, over the falls and crashing onto the rocks below in a gut-wrenching wail of shame and sadness. After some period of time, I breathed deeply over and over, utterly spent and hoping that the worst was over. Thankfully, it was.
I spent a few minutes in prayer, thanking the Lord for the cleansing power of forgiveness and wondering if this event would have any noticeable effect on my life. When I arrived home, I shared this experience with my wife, and over the next few days started to practice forgiveness in a more ongoing way, trying not to let little things build up into resentments.
On the following Saturday, no more than three or four days after the experience I had had while driving, I got an unexpected call. It was from my father. To put this call in some perspective, I must tell you that at this time, I was 37 years old, had been married for 14 years, and never once in that time had my father called me. My immediate thought was, “Oh no, something’s happened to Mom and they called him to “break the news to us.”
“Yeah, Joey (childhood name), how ya doin?”
“Ok, Dad … are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I was thinking of you and just called to see how you and Cathy and the kids were doing.”
By this point, you could have knocked me over with a feather. My father was calling me. We actually spent a few minutes talking together. We both seemed to enjoy talking to each other. It took me a while to make the connection, but then I saw it. Ann Murchison was right. When we forgive, we break blockages in the spiritual realm and not only set ourselves free, but in a way I still don’t comprehend, we actually set the other person free. It was the beginning of a new relationship for me and my father.
No, it was never perfect. We couldn’t take walks together or throw a ball around, things I missed so badly as a kid, but we could be friends. I got to do something I had always wanted to do, even when things were horrific as a child: I got to hug my father. I got to tell him that I loved him. For the last few years of his life when he endured thrice-weekly dialysis treatments (courtesy of a life of heavy drinking and smoking), I called him regularly and wrote to him monthly. Each month I invented a new reason to send him money as a gift and every month he called to thank us with such genuine warmth.
Three weeks before he died, we all drove from Texas to his home in Philadelphia for a visit. He played the piano for our kids and delighted in joking with them. I got to see the father he had always wanted to be but simply didn’t know how. It was a wonderful visit. All this was possible because of the gift of forgiveness. How sad and tragic my father’s death would have been without it.
So what is forgiveness and how do we exercise it? Like so much of the spiritual life, our gracious God reveals it to the merest babes. He wants to make it simple so we can comprehend it and be set free. I think it helps to know that forgiveness is not an apology, nor does it ignore justice. Forgiveness says, in effect, “I won’t hold this (injustice) against you, and will trust God for the restoration of justice.” Ultimately, in this life or in the next, God brings about perfect justice.
It may also be helpful to know that if we are unwilling to forgive, God will not forgive us (Math 6:15). The implications of this Scriptural reality are enormous. The Catechism states, “Now - and this is daunting - this outpouring of mercy (forgiveness) cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us” (CCC, 2840). So, if someone in your life has wounded you deeply, know that God has provided a way for you to be healed and set free. And in so doing, you may be surprised to find yourself with a restored relationship. Take time with Him and let Him lead you in exercising this wonderful gift of forgiveness.
“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 RSV).