Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa and anti-apartheid activist, remarked upon his release from a 27-year prison term: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” I believe he was referring to an emotional prison, in which anger directs thoughts and actions, stifling happiness and the freedom to start anew.
While comparatively few have endured such lengthy incarceration, many have been hurt by others – sometimes deeply and unfairly – resulting in feelings of bitterness, distrust, resentment, and the inability to forgive. If not curbed, these insidious feelings can lead to a tendency to be defensive, self-centered, and “quick to anger” – we might think of road rage as an example of this mentality. How can we free ourselves from the negative emotions that rob us of happiness and the ability to move on and interact charitably with others?
When it comes to forgiveness, Jesus is the greatest exemplar. If anyone had the right to be angry, it was he, because after a lifetime of blessing others, he was crucified. While on the cross, however, he said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He petitioned for the forgiveness of those who crucified him, and he harbored no resentment. It’s hard to imagine he could be so forgiving after having been treated so grievously, but understanding his motive is a helpful key to being able to forgive anything and everything.
Jesus taught his followers, and anyone who would listen, that life is eternal, spiritual, and intact. His teachings inspired St. Paul’s words to the Athenians: “For in him [God] we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Jesus knew this spiritual life could not be taken from him and that his spiritual being couldn’t be touched or affected by any unkind word or deed. Therefore, he left the forgiveness to his heavenly Father. Jesus also knew that everyone – even those who condemned him – shares that same spiritual life. He didn’t blame those who crucified him for not having the advanced understanding of God that he had, and didn’t take their condemnation personally. He realized that the purpose of his crucifixion and sacrifice was to demonstrate that his teachings were true.
Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, offers an enlightened explanation of the metaphysical effects of the crucifixion. She explains that it “unveiled Love’s great legacy to mortals: Love forgiving its enemies. This grand act crowned and still crowns Christianity: it manumits [frees] mortals; it translates love; it gives to suffering, inspiration; to patience, experience; to experience, hope; to hope, faith; to faith, understanding; and to understanding, Love triumphant!” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 124).
Jesus and Mary Baker Eddy shared a common goal: to show that God’s love is triumphant. According to Jesus, the way to prove this is to “know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). When we acknowledge that the spiritual truths he taught apply to all of us, we will gain freedom from our doubts and fears and treat others as we would like to be treated. A willingness to apologize (which requires humility) and to accept apologies with no hard feelings is essential to peaceful relationships and happiness. This is easier to do when we remember that “Love triumphant” is the goal.
It is clear that Mr. Mandela left his resentment behind, for over the course of many years, he has inspired people throughout the world to work together peacefully to promote equality – and in his own way has proved Love to be triumphant. If we feel condemned or hurt, we, too, can know there’s no need for bitterness or retaliation. God’s love provides a buffer against harmful actions or words. They can have no effect; they are like water rolling off a duck’s back. Christ Jesus demonstrated that the way to experience “Love triumphant” is to steadfastly express God’s love.