This article was contributed by a guest columnist, Bob Knighton, from New Zealand.
Stephen Covey is an American management guru who has written a number of bestselling books on management including ‘The seven secrets of highly successful manager’. One of his talents is the ability to create visual images to illustrate his teachings.
In one of his books he tells the story of a man tramping in the American outback when he felt a sudden severe pain in his calf muscle. He looked down to see a rattlesnake slithering away from him. He realised he had been bitten and, in severe pain, he looked around for a stick so he could chase the snake and beat it to death. As he looked around he realised that the poison from the snakebite was coursing through his system and, that in order to survive, he had to let the snake go and focus his attention on his own survival. Covey went on to explain that anger is like that snakebite. We get injured by others and the deep hurt can lead us to rage where we no longer consider what we are doing to ourselves but only want to focus on retaliating against the snake. If we don’t let the snake go, the poison makes its way through our system and we become toxic not only to ourselves but to our relationship with God and others as well.
There are snakes in our lives who have hurt us and we can hold on to our anger for decades failing to let the snake go until it can become a dominant thought occupying much of our waking time. A few years ago I met a woman who spoke of her feelings after being brutally raped. She described the anger and hurt in the first months after the attack but then went on to describe how she had let the snake go. As she expressed it, “I decided that if I spend one minute thinking about my assailant he was taking that time away from me. I had been hurt enough; I did not want to give him any more of my time – to allow him to have any power over me.” She learned to forgive not for her assailant’s sake but for her own.
A few years later I had a snakebite experience where a trusted friend tried to destroy my career in order to advance his own. I held on to my anger for over a year, my blood pressure soared, my health deteriorated and my family suffered. In time I realised I needed to forgive but doubted I ever really could. I found somewhere quiet and prayed, and in my head I asked God to forgive the snake all the while having conflicting feelings of not wanting to forgive him as Satan wanted me to hold my anger in. Three times in my prayer I said “I forgive ….. for what he has done to me, please help me to be more forgiving. Immediately I felt that a burden had been lifted from me, I had let the snake go and could now focus on my own healing and move on with my life.
About five years later I met my snake in the street. As we walked towards each other I could see he felt very uncomfortable and he drew back, probably wondering if I was going to hit him. I shook his hand, asked after his family and wished him well before I left. Since my prayer of forgiveness I have not felt the toxins of anger pour though my system though I understand that for some people the prayer needs to be repeated.
Forgiving is a very powerful, empowering experience. It is a declaration that “I am not a victim”. I can look back on the events with sorrow at what happened but without anger. I feel sorrow for the snake, for the dysfunction he carries with him and the hurt he must be feeling. He destroyed his own career as a result of this and other actions. I feel sorrow for people who have been unable to forgive and hold on to their anger until it becomes an all consuming focus in their lives decades beyond the event.
For me, forgiving is not about forgetting; it does not mean I have to put myself in the same situation where it might happen again. It’s about letting the snake go so I can gain healing to carry on with my mission on earth without carrying a burden with me.
We often read of powerful examples of forgiveness where people who have suffered the loss of a loved one are able to forgive the person responsible and meet and work with them. We recall Pope John Paul II forgiving Mehmet Ali Agca for the attempted assassination attempt on him in May 1981. These are living examples of how God wants us to forgive, to reconcile ourselves with Him, with those who have assailed us and with ourselves. There are times when I find it hard to forgive myself for my past mistakes and even after going to confession I start to dwell on my failures. I recall someone saying that when I do this I am doubting God’s forgiveness and that is a sin. He who puts our sins away “as far as the East is from the West” has forgiven me; I need to learn now how to forgive myself.
It is important to realise that God knows how damaging to us that lack of forgiveness is, not just in this physical life but also in our spiritual life. We recall his words:
‘Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either. (Matthew 6: 14-15)
We have free will to forgive or hold on to our anger but if we open ourselves to forgive then God can heal us.