Editor’s note: The following article refers to spiritual concepts. Please read Lovefraud’s statement on Spiritual Recovery.
Special note from the author, Travis Vining: Some of the content in this article may be unsettling to some. I would ask that the reader please recognize that the following definition and interpretation of forgiveness is from years of personal experience, reading, learning, practicing and teaching. It did not come easy, and in the beginning, I was just as unwilling as most to accept forgiveness as a possible solution to my problem. It is very “normal” to experience an emotional response to the idea that we play a part in our own suffering when the pain is still fresh.
If you prefer words like acceptance, letting go, etc., please use them. They are all valid descriptions of forgiveness.
What is forgiveness? Part II
In the past five years, I have faced my greatest fears. I confronted my father and recorded him on death row, extracting a confession that resulted in two more murder convictions. I then helped cold case detectives solve another murder that he committed all those years ago. I was able to do this, not in spite of forgiveness, but because of forgiveness!
I have also forgiven my father. I learned from others that if I wanted to be free, I could no longer hold my father accountable (in my mind) for something that he could not give me. That something was love.
As for how he treated me, using me as his confidante and blackmailing me so I would not go to police, I came to realize that I played a role in allowing myself to be there. I made decisions that allowed that to happen. I had to answer the question that I feared the most…why was I there?
This is a question that cannot be asked when we are blaming others for everything bad that happens in our lives. I had to try and stop thinking of myself as a victim, which was not easy, and take a look at why I stayed in a relationship with my dad when he was hurting me and others. The question might make some uncomfortable, but it was one of the keys to my freedom.
“Old man take a look at my life I’m a lot like you were.” -Neil Young-
When my dad was killing people and telling me about it, I wanted to die. I often had thoughts of suicide. It seemed like a possible way out. At other times, I wished he was dead so it would all stop. What are these but murderous thoughts? How different than him am I if I have thoughts of so called justifiable murder, but just don’t act on them? He would justify every murder, explaining how his victims deserved it for one reason or another. I was doing the same thing, in my mind. The hard truth is, I do know what it feels to want to murder someone. I don’t like it…it makes me sick.
I came to the realization that all thoughts of “justifiable” murder, revenge, condemnation and hate made me more like him, not less. Who was I to say that my murderous thoughts were OK, his were wrong. Once I had the courage to look, it became very clear to me that they were the same. The only difference was that he acted on them. The one thing these thoughts had in common, was they made us both sick.
What concerned me even more, were the many teachings about the fruits of hate that suggests we either become what we hate, or continue to fall victim to it. This was my experience before forgiveness entered the picture. I was continuing to repeat behaviors that were placing me in harm’s way with other relationships long after my dad was sentenced to death row. I was attracted to them and didn’t even know it. Before I could stop repeating these behaviors, I had to forgive.
Back to the question, why was I there? I was faithless at the time, and did not know any better. My dad was the only higher power that I had ever known and I wanted him to love me. I had been raised by a sociopath. I simply did not know any better. With this realization, I was able to forgive myself, but it came with a “catch”. If I am going to forgive myself for the results of being faithless, I came to understand that I could not do it, unless I forgave him for this same faithlessness.
My father lived without any belief in God. He, in fact, is the most unforgiving person I have ever known and I did not want to be like him. This IS what separates me from the sociopath. I have a conscience, compassion, love, and the ability to forgive, but if I do not exercise these gifts I become more like him, not less. Killing him is not the answer, forgiving him is.
My freedom rests in my brothers hands, and if I am unable to forgive him, then I am unable to forgive myself. I do not have to like my brother, stay in a harmful relationship with him, avoid my responsibility to help protect others from him, but if I want my freedom, I do have to forgive him.
Apparently, someone else had this all figured out long before my time here. I just had to be willing to take a closer look at this with a willing heart and open mind.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
-The Lord’s Prayer-
Some may feel that there are some crimes that do not warrant forgiveness, but not me. Coming to know God has allowed me to absolutely know that my father’s fate is in God’s hands, not mine. My judgment of my father has absolutely nothing to do with what happens to him, but it has everything to do with what happens to me. Understanding this concept helped open the door of willingness that set me free.
As for my dad, he is a very, very, sick man. I would not want to live in the darkness that he lives in. He is already in hell. I pray for his freedom from hell, not condemn him to it. He is already there. When I pray for him I feel better. I know that God created him so I will trust him to God. And if he is God’s child, then I believe, God must love him.
This may be difficult for some to believe, but I love my father. I do not like him, do not want him free from jail and would not be alone in a room with him, but I do love him. I cannot separate the murder from the Miracles in my life, or my freedom from my experience with my dad. Without one, I do not have the other.
God has already used my father to help me, my family, and many people that I have met over the years. My dad brought me into this world and our experience together resulted in setting me free. Without forgiveness, none of this happens. No, I do not hate or resent him, I am grateful.
I wish he could experience the same freedom and peace that forgiveness offers, but he cannot. He lives in a world he created that is without forgiveness, and without light. I don’t think that you can have one without the other.
In the end, forgiveness did not lead me to “walk away or turn my back” on evil, but allowed me to right the wrongs of the past and fulfill my responsibility to help others find their own freedom. I am now able to help victims of sociopaths, trauma, abuse, and bring awareness to the symptoms of unforgiveness. I also speak to law enforcement groups; victim advocates groups, spiritual organizations, and other groups, including college classes that study the behavior of sociopaths.
I teach A Course in Forgiving and help others, like me, come to terms with childhood trauma, loss and disappointment. Many, just like me, find forgiveness to be the pathway to a peaceful and happy life full of miracles. This is yet another gift of Grace that resulted from simply letting go of the past.
I have yet to see a person that has pursued forgiveness with God’s help disappointed, while on the other hand, those that do not forgive, continue to suffer. This is another fact. You can hear it in the tone of their voices, see it in their faces, their relationships, and feel it in their words.
The act of unforgiveness gives power to the perpetrator to continue to harm us long after the so called crime was committed. Actually, this is only partially true, because to continue to harm ourselves with the past requires our consent, so we become co-conspirators with the perpetrator.
Once this takes hold, we begin to see the world through this filter, bringing our pain, past suffering, and unforgiveness into every relationship that we enter. Not only are we harming ourselves now, but poisoning our current relationships.
When we do not forgive, we condemn ourselves to an emotional prison, not realizing that we have become the ones keeping ourselves hostage. We hold the key to our freedom in our own hands and we do not even know it, because we are blinded by hate, resentment and anger. Forgiveness is the key that will open our eyes and set us free.
In the end, it is self-forgiveness that we are seeking, because with it, comes peace. When I stopped hurting myself with the past and someone else’s deeds, I was freed to clear away the wreckage of the past, forgive and be more useful to others.
When I was resentful, angry and wallowing in self pity believing that I was a victim, I did none of these things. The difference…forgiveness. So how could it be that forgiving and loving has resulted in the work that I do today? It is simply this…Love is more powerful than evil. Love heals and conquers evil, while hate fuels evil. Forgiveness invites this Love to defeat evil and help heal the world.
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Forgiveness should not be confused with passivity and trust. To the contrary, it requires courage, willingness and action. It is an extremely powerful response to darkness. Forgiveness removes the fuel that is required for hate and anger to exist within me.
More importantly, I have no experience with forgiveness without God. There may be examples of this in the world, but I have not seen them. Without trust in something greater than ourselves, I am uncertain how that can be done. I needed to ask Him to show me and teach me, because I do not have the power to do this, He does.
Unforgiveness, for me, is an expression of faithlessness. It expresses an underlying belief that God cannot handle this, therefore “I” need to hold on to it myself because the rest of the universe will forget. It is a complete lack of trust. It is the insane belief that somehow, by holding on to this in my mind, it will change the past, change the person or situation or protect me from future harm.
Fear tells me that if I forgive I will forget and be vulnerable to similar suffering, which is simply not true. The reality is, the act of holding on to resentments or unforgiveness is the very thing that keeps me a prisoner of the dark, while punishing me with the very feelings that “I think” I will avoid by holding on to the past.
The process of forgiveness opens the door to healing, and with it, a relationship beyond all understanding. This is the miracle of it all, that we can have a relationship with Our Creator that includes intimate knowledge of His love for us and an understanding of His will for our lives.
In the end, forgiveness is not something that we give, but something that we accept for ourselves. Once this is done, the giving, or sharing of this gift is automatic.
As for the reader, if you still don’t yet believe in forgiveness, imagine this for just a minute. All those evil things that my father did in his life are now helping people who are suffering to find their way to a loving God that will help them with all of their problems and bring peace and joy into their lives. My dad . . . he wanted to harm people, and now his story is helping people find the very peace that he tried to destroy. He tried to take life and now his story gives it. Forgiveness transformed what “I thought” was attacking me into my special purpose, turning darkness to light.
And if God can transform all of my transgressions into a blessing, then this must be true for all my brothers as well. Now, that’s A Miracle!