The Healing Power of Forgiveness

The Healing Power of Forgiveness

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories of Faith

The Healing Power of Forgiveness

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

~Lewis B. Smedes, “Forgiveness—The Power to Change the Past,”
Christianity Today, 7 January 1983

I thought about her. I dreamed about her. I saw her in every woman I met. Some had her name—Cathy. Others had her deep-set blue eyes or curly dark hair. Even the slightest resemblance turned my stomach into a knot.

Weeks, months, years passed. Was I never to be free of this woman who had gone after my husband and then, following our divorce, married him? I couldn’t go on like this. The resentment, guilt and anger drained the life out of everything I did. I blamed myself. I went into counseling. I attended self-help classes, enrolled in seminars and workshops. I read books. I talked to anyone who would listen. I ran. I walked the beach. I drove for miles to nowhere. I screamed into my pillow at night. I prayed. I did everything I knew how to do.

Then one Saturday I was drawn to a daylong seminar on the healing power of forgiveness held at a church in my neighborhood. The leader invited participants to close their eyes and locate someone in their lives they had not forgiven—for whatever reason, real or imagined. Cathy. There she was again, looming large in my mind’s eye.

Next, he asked us to look at whether or not we’d be willing to forgive that person. My stomach churned, my hands perspired and my head throbbed. I had to get out of that room, but something kept me in my seat.

How could I forgive a person like Cathy? She had not only hurt me, but she’d hurt my children. So I turned my attention to other people in my life. My mother. She’d be easy to forgive. Or my friend, Ann. Or my former high school English teacher. Anyone but Cathy. But there was no escape. The name, and the image of her face, persisted.

Then a voice within gently asked, “Are you ready to let go of this? To release her? To forgive yourself, too?”

I turned hot, then cold. I started to shake. I was certain everyone around me could hear my heart beating.

Yes, I was willing. I couldn’t hold on to my anger any longer. It was killing me. In that moment, an incredible shift occurred within me. I simply let go. I can’t describe it. I don’t know what happened or what allowed me at that moment to do something I had resisted so doggedly. All I know is that for the first time in four years I completely surrendered to the Holy Spirit. I released my grip on Cathy, on my ex-husband, on myself. I let go of the rage and resentment—just like that.

Within seconds, energy rushed through every cell of my body. My mind became alert, my heart lightened. Suddenly I realized that as long as I separated myself from even one person, I separated myself from God. How self-righteous I had been. How arrogant. How judgmental. How important it had been for me to be right, no matter what the cost. And it had cost me plenty—my health, my spontaneity, my aliveness.

I had no idea what was next, but it didn’t matter. That night I slept straight through until morning. No dreams. No haunting face. No reminders.

The following Monday, I walked into my office and wrote Cathy a letter. The words spilled onto the page without effort.

“Dear Cathy,” I began. “On Saturday morning...” and I proceeded to tell her what had occurred during the seminar. I also told her how I had hated her for what she had done to my marriage and to my family, and, as a result, how I had denied both of us the healing power of forgiveness. I apologized for my hateful thoughts. I signed my name, slipped the letter into an envelope, and popped it in the mail, relieved and invigorated.

Two days later, the phone rang. “Karen?”

There was no mistaking the voice.

“It’s Cathy,” she said softly.

I was surprised that my stomach remained calm. My hands were dry. My voice was steady and sure. I listened more than I talked—unusual for me. I found myself actually interested in what she had to say.

Cathy thanked me for the letter and acknowledged my courage in writing it. Then she told me how sorry she was—for everything. She talked briefly about her regret, her sadness for me, for my children and more. All I had ever wanted to hear from her, she said that day.

As I replaced the receiver, another insight came to me. I realized that as nice as it was to hear her words of apology, they didn’t really matter. They paled in comparison to what God was teaching me. Buried deep in the trauma of my divorce was the truth I had been looking for all my life without even knowing it. No one can hurt me as long as I am in God’s hands. Unless I allow it, no one can rob me of my joy.

~Karen O’Connor

Chicken Soup for the Christian Woman’s Soul

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