Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
October 6th, 2011

Is Forgiveness (Only) Divine?


Do you have trouble forgiving? Well, I hope I don’t shatter anyone’s image of nuns, but I do, too.

Some of the sayings connected with forgiveness don’t help. You know, sayings like Alexander Pope’s “To err is human, to forgive is divine” and Jesus’ command that we forgive 77 times (or 70 times seven times) sends the subliminal message that forgiveness is impossible. Then we have the phrase “forgive and forget” — where in the world did that come from? So many people let these words glide glibly from their tongues. It makes it seem that forgiveness is easy and adds a guilt trip besides.

Well, I was in the category of believing that forgiving was next to impossible. I sat in prayer I don’t know how many times looking at Christ on the cross and asking him to show me how he could forgive the very people who nailed him there only minutes after they did it. The things I have to forgive don’t come close to that. There are minor things like angry outbursts or certain mannerisms that get on my nerves. Other things have left me devastated, like when I’m unable to talk to someone who’s made assumptions based on negative assessments of me.

The response to my prayer came in the form of a book entitled Forgive for Good written by psychologist Dr. Fred Luskin. It was given to me by a young woman. She had found the book so helpful that when she gave it to me she said she didn’t need it anymore. And you know, after I read it, I came away so changed that I don’t need the book anymore either.

Trying to enforce unenforceable rules

Now that I have discovered the unconscious unenforceable rule that often led me to be angry with others, I have been able to consciously operate out of a new perspective. This new perspective is so powerful that once I came to that understanding, I have not become angry in this situation again.

So, what’s the secret? The secret is understanding a very human process: holding grudges that we can’t forgive. This creates an endless cycle of resentment, anger, and depression. According to Dr. Luskin this process has three steps. I am sure they will sound familiar to you — they did to me. First, we take something another person has said or done personally. Then we blame the other person for our own feelings about the situation. And lastly, we create a grievance story that we tell over and over again to ourselves and to anyone who will listen to us. Doesn’t this sound familiar?

At first sight, it might seem that doing the opposite is the secret: not taking an offense personally, being able to name our feelings and take responsibility for them. Then we don’t have a grudge, so we don’t have a grievance story. While this is true, before going there, we must examine the underlying cause for taking offenses personally, which then kicks off the other two reactions. Dr. Luskin has discovered that cause, that key ingredient. Drum roll, please!

“The thinking process that leads to grievances is the process of trying to enforce unenforceable rules” (Forgive for Good, page 47). There was something about this statement that rang true for me the moment I read it. I had already identified an impulse reaction in me that often unconsciously compels me to get my own way when I am with people. Isn’t that another way of saying that I am enforcing unenforceable rules?

Let me give an example. One of my own unenforceable rules is that I expect others to accept all of my ideas all the time. It sounds laughable, but I discovered this about myself when I began to apply this concept. I don’t even accept others’ ideas 100 percent of the time. How can I expect that of others? Instead, I can tell myself that it would be nice if my ideas were accepted by everyone 100 percent of the time, but in actuality, my ideas will be accepted by some people some of the time. Now that I have discovered the unconscious unenforceable rule that often led me to be angry with others, I have been able to consciously operate out of a new perspective. This new perspective is so powerful that once I came to that understanding, I have not become angry in this situation again. Now I understand why my friend didn’t need the book anymore.

If any of you find yourself in my prior-to-reading-this-book situation, I recommend this book. After applying the process to my life, I am spending less time enforcing unenforceable rules, which does nothing to resolve situations but rather prolongs the negative residue indefinitely. I have also found that because I have identified some of my unenforceable rules, I am able to identify when one is operating in the moment, and move toward my goal to stay in relationship with others. My relationships are more positive, and voi la I have less to forgive as well! This new perspective, human as it is, has unlocked my capacity to be in relationship with myself and others in a much healthier way. It has also opened up my relationship with God. I have discovered how much of my resentment toward God stems from — guess what? — unenforceable rules that I project onto God!

The Author : Sr. Bernadette Reis, fsp
Sr. Bernadette M. Reis, fsp holds a Bachelors Degree in Spanish and English Literature and has spent several years researching various women’s issues. She lives in Rome and works in the English department of Paoline Multimedia, an international bookstore near the Vatican.
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  • Sr. Bernadette Reis

    @ Gabriel: Wow, so sorry to hear this. This is a very painful time for you and your family. I truly believe that Jesus is sharing this suffering with you. I will pray that he will guide you through this especially if there is a possibility of reconciliation. If not, may he lighten the pain and allow you to be able to forgive yourself and your wife.

  • Gabriel Thomas Mares

    my wife has recently told me she is leaving me after 10 i thought was wonderful years, yeah we had our ups and downs like most marriages do, but i thought we had work thru them. the past week has been hard but in lighting at the same time. we seem to be talking more about what has transpired over the years, she tells me she can only remember the bad stuff an none of the good things,i myself remember both. well my cousin Phyllis shared this link with me, and thru the grace of our lord I am very thankful, I will be picking up the book soon, and I’m looking forward to reading it. and putting it in to practice for myself. at this time i would like to ask that you please pray for my family so that are able to work thru these challenging times. and are reunited stronger and wiser thru the grace of God. and may the lord bless you for sharing this knowledge with us. God bless!

  • Sr. Bernadette Reis

    @ Anita: you bring up a very good point. Holding grudges is definitely something we learn and have to unlearn. I’m rooting for you!

  • Sr. Bernadette Reis

    @ Cynthia: I feel for you. You may want to start using the process I wrote about for less painful things. Then when you have had practice, you can work on this more painful reality. The book will definitely speak to you, I think. I’ll be praying for you!

  • Cynthia

    Thank you for this piece, Sister. I have been struggling with some abuse I suffered about 16 years ago, praying that I may be able to forgive the people who abused me…because I know forgiving them will free me. Your experience gives me hope; I will check out the book.

  • AnitaH

    My dad holds a grudge better than anyone I know. He still resents his father and brothers over things that happened 60 years ago. I’m working hard to break the bad behaviors of holding grudges and not forgiving that I learned from watching him. Sounds like this book would help. Thanks for sharing!

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