There are plenty of books written on forgiving others, especially from a Christian point of view. Forgiving is an important part of our faith. Every time we pray “The Lord’s Prayer” we ask for our sins to be forgiven as we have forgiven others. In fact, the verses in “The Lord’s Prayer” imply that we will not be forgiven by God if we do not practice forgiveness toward others (Matthew 6:14-15). Even though we know we are supposed to do it, forgiveness is one of the hardest things for us when we have been really hurt. Over and over people told me, as their pastor, that they had forgiven someone, but their hearts were full of bitterness and anger and I knew they had not truly forgiven.
Consequently, when I saw the title “The Book of Forgiving” I was intrigued. I was even more interested when I saw that the book was written by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho. Growing up and living in apartheid in South Africa, the two authors must know about forgiving acts that might seem unforgivable. So I checked the book out of the library and read it for my morning devotions for two weeks.
“The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World” has three sections and ten chapters. The three sections are understanding forgiveness, the fourfold path, and learning to forgive ourselves.
The first section, Understanding Forgiveness, describes what forgiveness is and isn’t. Forgiveness is letting go of hurt, anger, bitterness and learning to see the person who hurt us as someone who is doing their best given their circumstances. Forgiving someone frees us. We are no longer tethered in pain to the person who hurt us. The Tutus write, “Until we can forgive the person who harmed us that person will hold the keys to our happiness; that person will be our jailor.” pg 16. We forgive, as we do most things, because it is in our personal best interests.
The second section, The Fourfold Path, tells us how to forgive. We forgive by telling the story – telling others what has happened to us, as best we can understand it. We tell so that we can acknowledge and overcome what has been done. We forgive by telling the one who hurt us why we are hurt. How many times has someone hurt us and we have swallowed and internalized that hurt while the other person has no idea what they have done? Forgiveness might be easier if we are honest with others about how we feel. Granting forgiveness is the third step, and this might need to be repeated over and over until we can actually let go of our hurt. One difficulty for Christians is that we jump directly to this step without telling the story and acknowledging our hurt. We offer others cheap and shallow forgiveness and it doesn’t set anyone free. The final step is renewing or releasing the relationship. We have a choice when someone has hurt us. Even though we may forgive them, we do not have to continue to be in a relationship with them. Learning to love means learning to forgive. But we do not need to hang on to toxic relationships where the other person has no regard for our feelings.
The final section, All Can Be Forgiven (learning to forgive ourselves), helps us deal with those who will not forgive us so we can learn to forgive ourselves. Again, we have to acknowledge what we have done wrong, how we have hurt another, and do our best to apologize and make amends.
There are three particular strengths in “The Book of Forgiving.” First, Desmond and Mpho Tutu have both worked with the rehabilitation of their country from the sickness of apartheid. Bishop Desmond Tutu was the Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Both of them have experienced systemic discrimination as well as personal attacks. They are writing from their own personal experience of being hurt and learning to forgive.
Second, Desmond and Mpho Tutu include stories of others who learned to forgive. People whose children were killed, women who were raped, young boys who were kidnapped and forced to be soldiers. There are many stories of people who did not let their circumstances steal their freedom, but learned to forgive. These are powerful, and sometimes upsetting, stories from real lives. Two powerful quotes from these personal stories follow. “Forgiveness didn’t save him or let him off the hook. It saved me,” pg 132, and “God does not waste his children’s pain.” pg 154.
Finally, each chapter contains a prayer, a summary, a meditation, a stone ritual, and a journal exercise. By doing these things at the end of each chapter, you can internalize and practice forgiving. I especially found the stone ritual to be very moving. This would be an excellent book for a Bible study on forgiving because the participants could read the chapter one day, do the exercises, through the week, and then come together to discuss what they have done, experienced, and felt during the week.
We need more forgiveness in our world today. People excuse themselves too easily, hanging on to hurts long past the moment when they should have let them go. “The Book of Forgiving” can help us learn to forgive others, whether the hurts have been large or small. It also challenges us to cultivate a lifestyle of forgiveness which might change societies and even our world. “When I cultivate forgiveness in my small everyday encounters, I am preparing for the time when a much larger act of forgiveness will be asked of me, as it almost certainly will.” pg 219