Have you ever had one of those moments when you thought you had forgiven someone, and then they do something bone-headed again and your old feelings come surging back ? Forgiveness is a powerful force that is contradictory to human nature. It has the ability to change the course of events and is a catalyst in the hearts of those who choose to embrace this gift. However, those who are not able to master this skill are fated to have lives tainted with bitterness and unrest.
Since I was a little girl, Les Misérables has always brought tears to my eyes, and not just in the broadway remake when we had to listen to Russel Crow struggle through 2 hours of musical dialogue. This classic tale paints the portraits of two men, one who embraced forgiveness and the other who could not. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, a newly released thief, had served nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. After his release, no one but a priest would welcome him in, his papers stained with sins of his past. Even after receiving this gift of generosity, Valjean fell into old patterns, assaulting and stealing from his host. Quickly captured, the thief faced the priest who had every right to send his assailant back to prison; instead the priest gave unmerited favor, giving the thief not only forgiveness, but his silver candlesticks as well. This act and acceptance of forgiveness transformed a thief into a philanthropist, who would spend his days trying to reflect the mercy he had received by serving others.
The antagonist in this story, Javert, however, could not forgive Valjean, who had already fulfilled the punishment for his crime. Javert, ruled by the law, refused to grant grace for his family, his enemies, and least of all, himself. At the close of the book, rather than accepting forgiveness and pardon from Valjean, Javert takes his own life.What a sharp contrast the presence of forgiveness makes in one’s life.
Though the stories of most marriages, families, and relationships are far less dramatic than this classic tale, the lessons of how to forgive and commit to that promise are resolute. Without this element, a relationship will crumble. Forgiveness is neither easy nor natural, but a conscious decision that can have lasting power with strategic interventions. Meta-analysis research studies seem to concur that the many forms of forgiveness interventions have lasting, measurable impacts. So why could one man forgive and the other could not? Some people forgive easily and others are haunted with bitterness of their past offenses. Lasting forgiveness is not as simple as declaring “I forgive you” and having ill-feelings evaporate, in the same way you cannot just scream “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!” (ala Michael Scott) and expect your financial troubles to automatically disappear. It does take some work.
The REACH model for forgiveness is particular affective in that it prepares for the road-bumps for the on-going process of bestowing grace to another. “REACH forgiveness is based on a stress-and-coping theory of forgiveness” (Ripley & Worthington, 2014, loc. 5174). This acronym holds powerful tools for helping the gift of human grace endure through future disappointments and trespasses.
- Recall the Event: The first step is to Recall the Event; it is vital for both parties to share their perception of what occurred that requires forgiveness. In this stage, it is not a place to rebut or give excuses, but voice how each person remembers the event (Ripley & Worthington, 2014, loc. 5181). Valjean’s relationship with the priest opens with his confession of wrongdoings and his shady past as a thief , which is revisited upon his arrest.Each person needs to voice how it happened through their eyes, not excuses, just clarity between people.
- Empathy for Your Offender– This listening exercise serves as a segway into the next step of Empathy. Jesus challenged his followers that “he that is without sin…cast the first stone” (John 8:7, KJV). In this second stage, the couple reflects on time were they have been the perpetrator of hurt and realize that the partner is not ill-willed, but, rather, human and flawed like themselves. The goal is that the partners will be able to walk in each other’s shoes, and learn to understand why they do the things they do and how to help change negative patterns by having greater emotional intelligence in regards to their spouse (Ripley & Worthington, 2014, loc. 5205).
- Altruistic Gift– Then comes the Altruistic Gift of forgiveness. “The important part of recalling the experience of having been forgiven…is to get the person to reflect on how receiving forgiveness felt” and passing the benevolence on to another (Ripley & Worthington, 2014, loc. 5213). In Les Misérables, the benevolent priest remembers to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” when at the crossroads with his assailant (Ephesians 4:32, NIV; Hugo, 2014).
- Make a Tangible Reminder— The fourth stage, Commit to Forgive, challenges to make the act of forgiveness public as it makes it more memorable and tangible. Some examples of this are writing a letter, making a certificate, or creative ways like creating a poem or song (Ripley & Worthington, 2014). Like the cross serves as a visual reminder of our own forgiveness through Christ’s altruistic sacrifice, or how the priest’s gift of silver candlesticks was a life-long, tangible reminder for Valjean of the forgiveness he received, symbols have power of lasting change in our lives.
- Hold Tightly to Forgiveness- Finally, the last challenge of the REACH methodology confronts the reality that people will re-experience hurts and not always feel forgiveness. Thus, this step is to make a conscious choice to Hold to Forgiveness. This stage verbalizes that forgiveness is “both emotional and decisional” (Ripley & Worthington, 2014, loc.5252). At the end of Hugo’s classic tale, Valjean has his oppressor, Javert, at his mercy. Instead of killing the man who has followed and tortured him throughout his life, Valjean rejects his emotions and extends a intentional gift of mercy and forgiveness. Though not always aligned with momentary feelings, the decision of forgiveness leads to lasting healing that will develop through time.
Forgiveness studies show lasting results. Forgiveness is both a cognitive choice and an emotional response. It a brain issue as much as a heart issue… when you are not feeling it, you need to choose to forgive. Because this act is counterintuitive to human nature, the REACH model effectively prepares a couple with strategies to endure the long road towards healing . However, like in the story of Les Misérables, only a person who had truly experienced being saved through forgiveness themselves can authentically bestow it to another. May we be thankful for the grace and mercy we have received and be willing to reflect these gifts to others in our lives.
“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.”
All my love,
Some Helpful References and Resources for You 🙂
Baskin, T. W., & Enright, R. D. (2004). Intervention Studies on Forgivenss: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Counseling and Development , 82, 79-91.
Hugo, V. (2014). Les Misérables (Digital ed.). BookByte Digital.
Ripley, J. S., & Worthington, E. L. (2014). Couple Therapy: A New Hope-Focused Approach. Christian Association for Psychological Studies Books.