I WANT TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT FORGIVENESS, and in particular, should we forgive Jehovah’s Witnesses—our family and friends that are shunning us, the elders that disfellowshipped us, and even the governing body that mandates shunning?
It’s a difficult question for me to answer, since the treatment I’ve personally received from what is essentially a cult, amounts to nothing short of abuse—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. While individuals I’ve known have carried out the abuse of abandonment and shunning, they act as a much more complex entity, as an organisation, which seems to have a life of its own. There’s no doubt in my mind that the individuals within the Witness organisation are brainwashed, but nevertheless, each is still accountable for their own actions. How they act in terms of shunning is not okay. Following orders is not an excuse for committing atrocities, which disfellowshipping is, I believe. So, the question is, should I forgive my abusers, whether I think of them as individuals or as a collective entity?
Well, after much thought, the answer, I believe, is yes, I should forgive them, and I will try to explain my reasons why in this episode. Of course, forgiveness means different things to different people, but for me personally, it has nothing to do with whether those who have hurt me and even continue to hurt me, deserve forgiveness. It has everything to do with how I feel.
Forgiveness is not about saying, “How you treated me is okay.” It’s not about saying, “You can continue to abuse me with my permission.” Quite the opposite! Forgiveness involves first of all assessing exactly what wrongs have been done to us and establishing that a) it was wrong, and b) we do not give our consent for the person to continue to treat us that way moving forward. It’s often been noted that people will treat you the way you let them. When you establish a boundary and say, “No, this is not acceptable!” it [it] can make them think, and it can even change their behaviour, but—here’s the thing—there’s no guarantee. It’s really impossible to force anyone to treat you in a certain way. You can only change your reaction to their behaviour, and if they refuse to acknowledge your boundaries, it may be that your next move may be to distance yourself from them.
As an example, let’s say someone is in the habit of verbally abusing you. You may ask them to stop, but you can’t force them to. What you can do is set a personal boundary. Now, a personal boundary is not so much for them, but it’s for [it’s for] us. It’s not saying “You can’t cross this boundary”. You don’t have that level of control over another person. They will, ultimately, do what they want to do, including crossing boundaries, but what you’re saying when you set a personal boundary is, “If you cross this boundary, then I will do this”. Straight away, can’t you feel how empowering that is? Of course, you need to be prepared to follow through on your statement of intent, otherwise, they will just think you are making empty threats, but it [it] may be that by setting boundaries, by teaching the other person what is and is okay, it may be that they change their behaviour. They may apologise. They might stop abusing you. They might even actively seek your forgiveness. Or they may not. What then? Is forgiveness possible?
Well, it is, I believe, and not only is it only possible, I think it’s vital for our own well-being and happiness. You see, when treated badly, or unjustly, when abused by another person, when they refuse to change despite us setting boundaries, we might find ourselves becoming swallowed up by a sense of injustice, even feelings of bitterness and hatred. Now, these are quite normal feelings and even fitting reactions, but here’s the thing—holding onto these feelings is unhealthy for us. For our own well-being, we need to let go, and this really is the essence of true forgiveness.
So, forgiveness is not about saying what they did to us is okay. What it is about giving up the option to retaliate, whether that be literally hurting them back, or just harbouring ill feelings—sustained ill feelings—towards them—holding a grudge, which is essentially what this is. It’s like holding a leaky container of acid. Over time the acid will drip onto our hands and slowly eat away at our skin. It will damage us. The only way to avoid this ongoing hurt is to put the container down, so to speak. Let it go—for our sake, not theirs, for us. As one quote goes, “Forgive others, not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.”
So, let’s think for just a moment about the effects of holding a grudge:
- The anger and bitterness we feel towards the person who hurt us can spill over into every relationship and new experience, robbing us of the full joy that we deserve.
- We can become so wrapped up in the wrong that’s been done to us, constantly focussing on why the other person is wrong, that we find we no longer enjoy the moment.
- It can lead to depression or anxiety, or an unhealthy obsession with seeing the other person brought to justice.
- It can even affect our spirituality, who we are at our very core.
Now, these effects can apply whether the one that wronged us is a person, or in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, an organisation, or even, for example, the governing body, which brings me back to my opening question: Should we forgive Jehovah’s Witnesses? I believe we should, but how can we go about doing this?
Forgiveness really is a commitment to a personal process of change in our outlook and attitude. It’s all about moving from feelings of injustice, bitterness, hatred, retaliation to feelings of forgiveness and peace. Now, in order to do this, we need to:
- First of all, recognise the value of forgiveness and how it can improve our life.
- Next, we need to identify who needs to be forgiven and for what exactly. In the case of shunning, it may be family members, friends, the elders who disfellowshipped us, or even the governing body who mandate the cruel, abusive policy of shunning.
- So, once we’ve identified who’s hurt us, we need to acknowledge our emotions about the harm done to us and think about how our emotions are affecting our behaviour, and then we need to work to release these feelings. Remember, it’s not about saying that their behaviour is okay, it’s about letting go of negative, acidic, feelings that will, over time, harm us and prevent us from living our fullest lives.
- Finally, the hard part—choosing to forgive the person who hurt us. Now, note that this is a choice. We are now in control now. We’re not simply being swept along by instinctive feelings anymore. We are making an active choice to put the situation to bed, so to speak. We are moving away from our role as a victim of abuse and releasing the control and power that the offending person or situation has had in our life.
And so we find we can move on. We no longer define our life by how we’ve been hurt. We might even find compassion and understanding as to why the person—or in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, this organisation—that hurt us, acted the way they did. Now, that’s not to say that they were right, or that we have to concede that their behaviour was acceptable, but, for example, in the case of shunning, individual family members who have cut us off as dead may honestly think it’s what they must do in order to please God, and even what’s necessary to help us “come to your senses”, repent, and be saved at Armageddon. Of course, that’s rubbish, but remember, they are being brainwashed into thinking this, and at one point you may even have acted the same way. I know I did.
Perhaps the real blame lies further up the food chain, with the elders that carry out disfellowshipping, or even the governing body that mandates shunning. I personally think it’s the governing body that’s the real criminal in all of this. Their behaviour is inexcusable. I don’t think they are entirely brainwashed, although there may be an element of that involved as individuals. I think they do truly understand the harm that their policies cause—how can they not?—but they are blinded by the power, the control, and the adoration that they receive. They are truly culpable. What they’re doing is not okay, but—here’s the thing—I feel I’m at a point in my healing and rebuilding now that I need to choose to let go of any feelings of bitterness and hatred towards them and their organisation because I don’t want those feelings in my life anymore, and frankly, these eight men are not worth any more of my time or attention. So, I’m letting go of the feelings, and of those that want to hurt me. They are of no further importance to me. I’m choosing to live my life without them.
Of course, forgiveness can be challenging, especially if the person who’s hurt you won’t admit they are wrong, and let’s face it, the governing body is never going to do that. It’s possible that family and friends might eventually wake up and seek out our forgiveness, but it’s not guaranteed. So what to do?
- Practice empathy. Try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Why, for example, would a family member who loves you put their natural feelings of affection to one side and treat you as if you’re dead? Just ask yourself why they would behave in such a way, and was there any point in your life where you did the same? I know I did. Ask yourself why that was.
- You might find it helpful—I did—to journal your feelings. Or just talk with someone that you’ve found to be wise, compassionate, such as maybe a spiritual leader, a mental health provider, or an impartial friend.
- Finally, be aware that forgiveness is a process. You may not be ready to forgive at this time, and that’s fine, but don’t rule it out. At some point, you may find that it’s the right time for you to revisit the idea of forgiveness and finally be able to let the painful feelings go.
Does forgiveness guarantee reconciliation? No, absolutely not. Reconciliation may not only be impossible, but it may even be inappropriate, but that’s not really the point. The aim of forgiveness is for us to find peace, happiness, and emotional and spiritual healing. Forgiveness can take away the power that the other wields in our life.
Victor Frankel, a Holocaust survivor who suffered through several concentration camps once wrote:
Frankel chose to forgive his captors, which I find amazing. If Viktor Frankl managed to forgive, so can I. The atrocities he lived through during World War 2 are probably much worse than the things most of us have faced or ever will face. Forgiveness takes a lot of reflection and strength, but ultimately, I do believe it’s worth it. Forgiveness is the gift we give to ourselves and every misdeed we can forgive will make us feel lighter and will heighten our spirits.