Book recommendation: When you need help forgiving

K. Marie Mainard O’Connell recommends "The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and the World" by Desmond and Mpho Tutu. "It is time to start forgiving the church — and ourselves," writes the pastor.

I’d like to title this review “Forgiving the Turkeys You Go To Church With (Including Yourself)” because frankly, that’s what we need.

I sat in my friend’s office. Our hearts constricted with grief and shame as we admitted how breathtakingly hard the last four years of ministry have been. “What I don’t know,” she softly admitted through tears, “is how to forgive them. How do you forgive a church?” Or, as we reflected on the opposite perspective, how can a church forgive a leader whose best efforts simply weren’t good enough?

Nowhere in Scripture is a step-by-step forgiveness manual, despite anyone’s insistence that the Bible is a handbook for living. Yet, some of us won’t be able to stay – in the church, or in ministry at all – if we can’t find a way into forgiveness and reconciliation. Fortunately, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu have experienced this omission firsthand and so filled the void with the most compassionate and incisive how-to I’ve ever read.

I first came across The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and the World when I was recovering from a blistering church hurt. It was recommended to me by a minister-turned-therapist, and it’s the best book I’ve ever read– hands down, full stop– for improving one’s life. I’ve been hurt and I’ve hurt others. I need the freedom of forgiveness like I need oxygen.

It’s the best book I’ve ever read– hands down, full stop– for improving one’s life.

Can’t get over the past? Trapped in cycles of regret and harm? Unsure of how to recover? Read this book and do the prompts. It will change your life.

The first time I read this book was to decide if it was trustworthy. The second and third and fourth times I’ve read it (full disclosure? I’ve read it more than a dozen times) was to work the steps and go deeper. And ultimately, to forgive myself.

Tutu says forgiveness is not easy or fast; it is hard. But forgiveness is not weakness and certainly not forgetting what happened. Wisely, the entire first third of the book is devoted to demonstrating (theologically, but also medically and statistically) why forgiveness is essential for healing, for discipleship and for the freedom Christ makes possible. There is always a choice to forgive, and that choice remains regardless of… well, anything. It is a gift to oneself. Plus it’s a command from Jesus, so it’s required, but let us permit a little self-interest here; it’s good for you too.

Shockingly, there are only four steps. While they may need to be repeated, as evidenced by me, the steps work. I’ll repeat: the method actually works.

The first step is to tell the story of what happened to a safe person, yourself or a friend or God, and to tell it completely. The most effective part of this book is that each chapter concludes with a summary and three activities. You don’t have to do the guided meditation, journaling prompt, or stone exercise, but I can say they – however peculiar – really get results.

The second step is to name the harm, to admit how you were hurt. It can be hard to accept that church folk wounded us, betrayed our trust, and made us ashamed. Many wrongly think that being hurt means we are foolish or inadequate (and this is not true). Yet for harm to be forgiven, it must be fully named.

The third step is offering forgiveness, or as defined here, recognizing your shared humanity with your perpetrator. This is arguably the hardest step, but the Tutus share stories of forgiveness both quick and slow-coming. You’re in good company.

And finally, renew or release the relationship. This step is magic: you do not have to exist in the same mode with this person (or church) forever. You can renew the relationship with different boundaries… or you can let go. You don’t deserve to be harmed. It is faithful to say “God, this is in your hands now. I’m out.”

Because friends, we need to admit that forgiving might mean releasing some relationships, and maybe some cherished self-definitions like “victim” or “blameless.” Almost three years after COVID hit, many ministers are hanging on by their nails, anxiously wounded and secretly resentful. It is time to start forgiving the church — and ourselves.

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