The idea of forgiveness after being falsely imprisoned for nearly four decades might seem impossible to most of us. But not for Ricky Jackson, who was recently exonerated with his friends Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman, for the 1975 murder of a Cleveland businessman (see “After 39 years in prison, an epic tale of innocence found and bitterness lost,” CSMonitor.com).
Even though the prosecution’s case was based solely on the false testimony of then12-year-old Eddie Vernon, Mr. Jackson says of Mr. Vernon coming forward only now to set the record straight, “It took a lot of courage to do what he did. He’s been carrying a burden around for 39 years, like we have. But in the end, he came through, and I’m grateful for that” (see “Man cleared of murder after 39 years in jail gets just $2M payment – despite being longest-serving wrongfully convicted prisoner,” DailyMail.com).
Such compassion and forgiveness are essential to our own health, happiness, and well-being. We may not want to forgive, but whatever drives our failure to do so can be more harmful to us than the original acts themselves. Hatred, jealousy, resentment, and revenge are self-imposed – that is, we choose to indulge them. And they can be harmful to everything in their path. If indulged, they fester and imprison the one who indulges them.
Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, gave wise counsel on the suffering imposed by those who hate. In a collection of essays she published is one that says: “Hate no one; for hatred is a plague-spot that spreads its virus and kills at last. If indulged, it masters us; brings suffering upon suffering to its possessor, throughout time and beyond the grave. If you have been badly wronged, forgive and forget: God will recompense this wrong, and punish, more severely than you could, him who has striven to injure you. Never return evil for evil …” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 12).
While we may be able to understand the need to forgive, it’s entirely another thing to actually relinquish all feelings of resentment, hate, and vengeance for genuine forgiveness. However, our desire to forgive is a good starting point. It is not in itself enough to free the struggling heart, but our desire is a prayer that leads us to humbly turn to the power of divine Love, God, the Father of us all. This prayer serves to open our hearts and minds to the transforming power of Love. It gives us moral courage and the recognition of Love’s constant care for us, whereby we gain spiritual strength – and our hearts are cleansed.
Christ Jesus gave us the ultimate example of true forgiveness. From the cross on which he was unjustly crucified, Jesus prayed for his accusers saying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Jesus taught that God is Love, the source of the universe, including man. As the image and likeness of God, man reflects divine Love. Therefore, hatred, resentment, jealousy, and revenge have no part in God’s spiritual creation. The recognition of this divine nature that characterizes all of us as God’s children gives us the courage and power to forgive. Understanding God, good, as everyone’s creator allows us to see the individual as being separate from an offense, because the offense has no part in God’s creation. Knowing this opens our thought to the realization that the offense has no actual power or reality, and gives us the strength to forgive.
Our forgiveness does not condone wrongdoing, approve of it, ignore it, or pardon it. People need to be held accountable for acting on evil impulses and suggestions. Our utilization of the love imparted to us by divine Love to renounce anger or resentment, and stop blaming another, is our refusal to be captured by the wrong ourselves. Through God’s grace, we can “let the peace of God rule in [our] hearts” as the Apostle Paul explained (Colossians 3:15).
The heart of forgiveness is a love that rises above self and is Christlike in mercy, compassion, and patience. Such prayerful thought and action result in contentment, health, and peace. As the forgiver, we gain a higher humanity, and it is the best gift we can give to ourselves – and to others, even those who have committed wrong.