There are many reaches of forgiveness. There’s forgiving others. Asking others to forgive you. Asking God to forgive you. Asking God to forgive others. Supporting others in forgiving each other. Forgiving ourselves.
On the surface, I think that we generally believe that we have a grasp on forgiveness. What’s the big deal, after all? Jesus teaches us to forgive seventy-times-seven, so that just means that we need to keep at it until we can stand to be in the room with the other person and have a conversation with him.
I don’t think so.
I think that we are masters of forcing our outward expressions to conform with what it looks like to forgive, while finding niches deep inside us where our pain can curl up and grieve to its heart content.
We are masters of brushing away a tear that jumps out of us when an unexpected word, or sight, or scent starts the pain memory dancing again. We are masters of reassuring our loved ones, getting the tape of how we are over it, we’re getting back to normal, going again. And again.
Our lives are a constant blur, and there’s so much to contend with, just what is so wrong with being practical by settling for an outward truce and storing the rest away? For later. Or maybe not later.
We don’t want to be in a position of being hurt by someone else. Hurt so badly that we have to sit down and think about having to forgive them. More than we already have.
But, then, we don’t want to be in a position of feeling angry, harboring resentment, hating someone else either.
We’re good people, after all.
Love your enemy, we’re taught from earliest Sunday school.
But just how many enemies do we really have?
Aren’t most of the people that we have to forgive people who are close to us, or were once close to us? Aren’t some of the worst hurts we suffer inflicted on us by people that we love?
So I forgive you for lying to me. I forgive you for dropping me slowly out of your life. I forgive you for sinking my canoe. I forgive you for letting my seven-year-old daughter watch something that prompted her to ask me, “What’s a ménage à trois, Mommy?”
Life gets complicated. And we want to drop things, we really do.
But sometimes we just don’t.
I think that if we made a list of all the people against whom we still hold a grudge after all these years, going back to our earliest memory, we’d have a sizable tome in the making.
There are those pains that become an actual part of us, something that even defines us as a person. For me, in my early twenties, it was around an incident with my father. From time-to-time, I could feel the twinges. I even named them. I called them, heart stones.
Little grains of anger that rub their way into our beings, like sand sinking into a thick-pile carpet.
I tried everything. In addition to prayer, it was the early seventies, I tried some meditation techniques. I even talked with a therapist about it.
The problem with psychological therapy is that you are complimented for your suffering. You are coddled like a child with a skinned knee. You are understood.
Well, that’s all well and good, but being told that you have every right to hate your dad for what he said to you just reassures you that you are right in your resentment.
And rightness gets you absolutely nowhere with pain.
And even less far with forgiveness.
I went through a period of time when I recognized my anger with my father in incidents I experienced with other people. And I purposefully opened myself up to them, stayed in the incident with an open heart, and patiently recognized as the light of understanding of the situation felt its way into the dark corners of my heart.
I thought of it as laser therapy. For each exposure to the anguish, I checked off one stone.
But I’m old enough now to know that even that did not do the trick, that the essence of the hurt still haunted me. It may have lost the form of the stones in my heart, but it still infiltrated enough of me for me to recognize it one day.
How do I forgive someone when the substance of the trauma and I were essentially meshed?
In meditation, I talked with him. Or I tried to talk with him. I explained how I wanted to forgive him. But that I still resented him.
Night after night, I meditated on the same conversation.
Until, one night, I realized that before I could truly forgive him, I wanted him to forgive me.
That I needed him to forgive me.
That I wanted to be forgiven for being the kind of daughter that reacted so absolutely to what he had to say.
And held it against him my whole life.
Putting the reception of forgiveness before the giving of it in situations where the other person was the one who did “it,” is not admitting to the cause of the harm. It’s not a means of punishing yourself for something someone else did.
It’s not that co-dependency concept of claiming partial responsibility for the behavior of someone else.
Asking someone to forgive you for something they did that hurt you is merely putting down the weapons of defense (and possibly even offence) that you’ve stored up for so long.
The simple matter is, you cannot forgive someone else if you are still holding onto weapons — justifications for the anger, reasons for the resentment, and, worst of all, self pity.
As I get older I see that one of the greatest benefits of following a Christian spiritual path is that it teaches us to become flexible. To bend in the wind. To sway in the storm.
It’s the ultimate teaching of spiritual warfare: with God it is not a matter of holding our ground in our own righteousness until our enemy is defeated.
It’s letting the enemy know our love and understanding of God, even if it brings us to our knees, so that they have the opportunity to witness how God’s love for us shapes us.
And this flexibility works with our loved ones, too.