On forgiveness

As the lectionary moves through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Elana Keppel Levy reflects on forgiveness — and “The Princess Bride.”

Mandy Patinkin in "The Princess Bride" (1987)

One of the most beloved characters in “The Princess Bride” is Inigo Montoya. His swordsmanship and natural charm are unmistakable, but his entire life revolves around a single moment of pain and loss. When he was 11 years old, he witnessed a six-fingered man murder his father in cold blood. As a child, he was powerless to avenge his father. He dedicated his years to learning to fight and seeking out the man who killed his father.

In response to this trauma, his anger raced towards resentment and a drive for vengeance. He thought of nothing else, pursued nothing else. He didn’t develop too many other relationships or goals. Holding on to his pain kept him frozen in that horrible moment, ashamed that he couldn’t save his father, guilty that he had not yet found vengeance. After decades of trying, he had little joy in his life so he turned to the bottle for relief.

Over and over again, Jesus tells us we must forgive. The Sermon on the Mount is just one example (Matthew 5-7). We are to forgive others as we would like to be forgiven, be merciful so we will receive mercy, love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It’s clear that Jesus teaches that forgiveness is a pathway to a more spiritually healthy life, but he doesn’t say too much about what forgiveness is or how to do it.

There are many dangers in believing that we should forgive – in teaching others that they must forgive – without knowing what that means. Forgiveness is not about putting yourself in harm’s way or keeping yourself in harm’s way. Physical, emotional and spiritual safety are paramount.

The end goal of forgiveness isn’t reconciliation — hearing “I’m sorry” and saying “I forgive you.” Reconciliation is a different process. This is important to remember for situations like those involving domestic and sexual violence, being the victim of a crime, experiences involving deep, personal betrayal, and so on.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what happened was okay. The pain matters and it’s real. Forgiveness doesn’t mean devaluing yourself and submitting to more. Forgiveness is about removing yourself from harm and learning how to heal. Forgiveness isn’t easy. It’s a lot easier to hold a grudge and nurse revenge fantasies or to retreat from life and refuse to trust again.

Forgiveness isn’t easy because, despite the way it’s often presented, forgiveness doesn’t happen in a single moment. It’s not a simple decision. It’s a lifelong spiritual discipline. The path of forgiveness is unique from person to person and from situation to situation. Still, here are some ideas on how to forgive:

  • Acknowledge that what happened isn’t okay. You’re in pain for a reason and the difficult feelings that arise are your mind’s way of trying to make sense of the world and keep you safe.
  • You cannot control which feelings arise from moment to moment, but you can choose what to focus on.
  • When you are deeply hurt, the perpetrator(s) can seem colossal and all-powerful. Remember that they are God’s creatures, just like you are. Challenge the power that the perpetrator(s) have in your mind. Real power belongs to God and not to those who hurt you.
  • Don’t forget that you belong to God. You can do more than survive. Trusting in God’s love and grace, you can thrive.
  • When people are hurt, we spend a lot of energy focused on the one(s) who hurt us. Seeking to forgive means noticing what our energy is focused on, challenging it, and redirecting it towards things that heal us and bring something positive into the world.
  • One day, decide to take on this discipline of forgiveness.
  • Ask God for healing and strength. Ask for help in healing. Ask for a heart that can be made safely soft.
  • Hear your feelings and thoughts. Accept where you are right now. Gently challenge any thoughts and actions that cause harm.
  • Forgive yourself when forgiveness is hard when you’re not doing as “well” as you’d like to be doing.
  • Do things that feel healing. Take care of yourself. Connect with people you can talk to. Find a pastor and/or a therapist for support.
  • Hold on to hope. Forgiving others doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in a straight line. Some days will be better and some will be worse. Keep going.

At the end of “The Princess Bride,” Inigo Montoya gets his revenge and then realizes that he has no idea what to do with his life. Wherever you are in your journey with pain, grief and forgiveness, there is always a chance to choose the blessings of life once more. May God grant patience and perseverance to all who suffer.