03/25/2013 05:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2013

Do You Need to Forgive?

When we don't forgive,
we drink the poison ourselves
and then wait for the other person to die.
And we take the knife that has hurt us
and we stab ourselves with it again...
But when we forgive,
We pour out the poison of the enemy and of the devil
and we don't let the poison stay in us
and we don't let the poison make us into poisonous snakes!
So that we don't become like the person we despised
and who persecuted and tortured us.
(Iranian prisoner, Pastor Saeed Abedni in The Christian Post 22 March 2013)

Several weeks ago in a discussion I was leading on spirituality, justice and prisons, the subject of forgiveness came up. For some people in our group, forgiveness was a compelling and challenging notion, while for others the very idea of forgiveness was quite troubling if not even philosophically and rationally repugnant. We enjoyed a lively discussion and in the end nothing was resolved. The fact remains that for many people forgiveness is as controversial a concept as it is an illogical one.

Yet for most of us, even while forgiveness is personally desirable when we desire mercy for our own misdeeds, it is totally abhorrent to us when we are faced with a remorseless person who has deliberately aggrieved or injured us. We even wonder if there is any justification in forgiving someone who doesn't deserve to be forgiven, let alone when that person persists in an attitude of indifference and impenitence. Somewhat unconsciously we draw a dividing line between ourselves as being among the good and the deserving, and others who are less good and less deserving, not to mention those who are evil and completely reprehensible. And as a result most of us don't even entertain the possibility that criminal offenders should be forgiven until they have fully paid their "debt to society."

It has become of great interest to me that prisons are a prime place in society where the great questions of our human condition converge -- spiritual questions of truth and falsehood, life and death, human worth and dignity, purpose and meaning, good and evil, guilt and forgiveness. It wasn't until he found himself imprisoned that Alexander Solzhenitsyn awakened to the realization that the dividing "line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts." Moral imperfection and a tendency to hurt other people is as much a part of our human condition as is our subsequent sense of guilt and desire to be forgiven -- whether we give voice to that desire or not.

On the backside of our own need for mercy and forgiveness is our need to forgive others. It is not a need we feel, but it is a real need nonetheless -- something we need to do for ourselves even if not for the benefit of the person who has aggrieved us. By forgiving a person who has afflicted or tormented me I am first of all refusing to let the wrong and evil that I am suffering to control my life - my thoughts and my emotions. Such uncalled for forgiveness is a spiritual not a rational act, by which I detach myself from the anger and violence of resentment and retaliation.

The period of Great Lent culminates with forgiveness in the aftermath of the arrest, torture, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus the Christ, a completely innocent man who was humiliated and brutalized as the victim of religious bigotry, political totalitarianism, and corruption. Amid public taunts and jeering spectators and his own searing agony Jesus refused to respond in anger or hatred or to be drawn into the cycle of violence and evil perpetrated against him. From the anguish of the cross he prayed forgiveness on those who had so viciously abused and crucified him -- "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." That is the heart of forgiveness.

And in this dark and evil time,
we can live full of love and full of peace and full of joy...
I forgave the prison doctor who did not listen to me
and did not give me the medication I needed.
I forgave the interrogator who beat me...
We have to get rid of both poisons;
first the poison of the snake that bit us
and also the poison in us that was created by that bite.
We can get rid of the first poison by forgiveness
and we can get rid of the second poison by humility,
by dying to ourselves,
and allowing the band-aid of love and goodness
to replace the empty place of wound.
So that we are not a tool of darkness and revenge,
But that we can be light and love...
and we can be transformed in the process.
(Excerpts from a letter by Iranian prisoner, Pastor Saeed Abedni to his wife
as quoted in 'The Christian Post' 22 March 2013)