“This gets personal real quick”

I began a new series of forgiveness classes this week at two prison facilities — once again with revised material I seem to be endlessly revising. The first session is an introduction to forgiveness. Everyone has an opportunity to propose his own definition of forgiveness and to pose a vexing question about forgiveness. We also consider the first chapter in Helen Whitney’s excellent film, “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate.”

My previous revision of the handout printed material posed questions about the content of the video. I wanted to make sure everyone was paying attention. But I rewrote the questions to focus less on the facts of the video and more on the thoughts and feelings the video prompts in those watching it. I describe it as the characters in the video holding up a mirror and asking us to see ourselves in their shoes.

So the questions are designed to be personal. This was not lost on one of the participants who looked my way and whispered, “This gets personal real quick.”

I agreed, while also affirming that everyone’s answers could remain as private as they wished. No one had to share with the rest of the class. But as we went through the questions, some did share. One was raw and deep.

The participant, a military veteran who served several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he had participated in so many awful things that he harbored grave doubts that he could ever be forgiven. He shared that his wife had told him that his current incarceration was punishment for what he’d done in war and that he deserved it. His eyes filled with tears as he revealed his greatest fear — that God would not forgiven him.

I responded out of my heart, saying back to him that I could hear the ache in his voice and see how tortured he was over this. I also assured him that in subsequent sessions we would give serious consideration to his desire to be forgiven. He seemed grateful.

I’m grateful too. It is an honor to be present with men who are willing to consider what place forgiveness can have in their lives.

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