What is Forgiveness All About?
Posted on June 26, 2015
Here are some forgiveness tropes I’ve read the past few years that tell me we’re confused about forgiveness:
- Forgiveness means “moving on” or “letting go” of your hurt. When you forgive, you feel better.
- Forgiveness is something you do for yourself. It’s an energy management device so you don’t focus your time and attention on the wrong things.
- Forgiveness is choosing not to take revenge. You hope instead that God will get them back for you.
- Forgiveness is about forgetting. You forgive and forget.
Even though there’s a measure of truth in these ways of thinking about forgiveness, I have found them unsatisfying. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I can tell you this: I have peace in my life, and most people who lived through what I lived through are dead by now. What I am going to tell you is what I learned in tears and years of gutting self-hatred and pain that would make you drink if I went into it. I learned it by asking every wise person I have met about how to forgive, and I learned it by facing my own deep inadequacies. What I found is a treasure I want to share with you. Here goes.
What Forgiveness Means to Me
First of all, I am a Christian. I have thought that meant a lot of things at different times in my life. But now, one of the things it means is that I believe that God loves every person the same, and the sameness with which God loves everyone is the love of a father to a child. I believe this because Jesus is God the Son, and God the Father loves him and loves every human person with the same love he has for Jesus. Big words, but what I mean is: God couldn’t love you more. Or me more. Because whatever LOVE is, that’s God, and God loves us all.
That’s the beginning. Because what I’m going to say now is hard to hear.
God loves the bad guys, the bad girls, the mean people, the haters, the horrible doers of cruel deeds, just the same as God loves me. Or you. Or an innocent baby. Or an old lady. Or a saint.
Secondly, being a Christian means I believe that God has a prior claim to us. God has say in who and what we are. I want you to hear this, wounded ones. The people who hurt you don’t get to say who you are. What they did to you was treat you as what you are not. But what you are, who you are, is beauty that the evil ones cannot touch. They may have broken your body, but they cannot make it, cannot make you, unbeautiful. They cannot undo you. Before even our abusive parents had a claim to us, God had a claim. God sees you as so, so beautiful. You can be glorious.
Third, being a Christian means I see brokenness and sin as an illness that God heals. We were made in God’s image and were meant to grow into God’s likeness. We are supposed to be like God. That’s why the Church is here, so we can grow through sacraments and virtues and prayer and holy moments and good deeds into kids that look like their Dad. We pray and study and become filled with love and kindness, and we start to look like Jesus. People start to recognize that glorious beauty that I talked about before –the way God sees us and can bring forth in us all.
Fourth, being a Christian means I don’t think healing ever ends. Ever. We are always going to have room to grow into the infinite fullness of God. Neither life nor death nor anything else can separate us from the love of God. Well, then we can always grow. This means that I don’t even have to see the healing with my eyes to know it’s happening. Time means something different to God. In Greek Orthodoxy, we call God’s time kairos, a time that encompasses past, present, future, in God’s presence.
Those are my starting places. Now, here is how I talk about forgiveness.
Forgiveness means being like God.
When Jesus healed the paralytic, his opponents accused him of blasphemy. Who can forgive but God? Well, those to whom God has given the power, that’s who.
Forgiveness means trying to look at people and at ourselves like God does.
I’m going to list the usual ideas about forgiveness now, then tell you what I think about them.
Forgiveness means “moving on” or “letting go” of your hurt. When you forgive, you feel better.
Forgiveness is not letting go of your hurt.
-First, feelings take a long time to heal. You have to establish new patterns of life to make yourself feel safe again. A wise woman told me to think of it like a weed pulled up by the roots. You got the weed out, but the dirt scattered everywhere. Forgiveness is a good start emotionally, but you still need time to heal. This is important, because forgiveness does not curtail healing or the need for time; it makes the healing possible.
-Second, and more importantly, forgiveness is not letting go of your hurt. It is releasing people who hurt you. Let them go. The power to forgive is a divine gift. You can release the other person(s) from their debt to you. Forgiveness takes that impartial love of God and applies it like a healing balm to everyone involved in a wounding. We cannot be whole alone.
Forgiveness is something you do for yourself. It’s an energy management device so you don’t focus your time and attention on the wrong things.
Forgiveness doesn’t work if it’s selfish. Why? Because you are broken. Even before the bad thing happened, you were broken. You can decide not to focus on your hurt, and you will eventually stop feeling it. But what caused the hurt will still be there, aching your mind and body, if you did it for any reason other than the love of God. Only God can forgive. You can only forgive by being like God, and that is a profoundly humble act. You must be like Jesus washing the feet of Judas. Then you will be free to be who you are in God’s eyes, that beautiful glory, and you will be free to let God’s people go.
Forgiveness is choosing not to take revenge. You hope instead that God will get them back for you.
Sometimes it feels as though anger and hate is all that’s protecting us from being eaten alive by our enemies. I get that. You want to pop the ones who hurt you like a tick. You have no mercy in your heart toward them and can only manage to obey God’s words that vengeance is His. I understand. But those feelings don’t mean what you think they mean.
When you’re so angry that you think forgiveness means you’ll take a pass on vengeance, you are in a place where you think you are unsafe. Hear me. You think that you are unsafe – that glorious beauty that God sees – because the trauma has confused you into seeing yourself in the lying way that the evil deed portrayed you. This is one of the devil’s meanest tricks. We are supposed to love one another, so we are built to know who we are by how we’re treated. But what we are meant for, and who we are, is hidden from us when someone hurts us bad. It’s awful hard to stop letting horrors tell us who we are. It’s a battle every day to unlearn lies.
But forgiveness is not an anger management trick.
Forgiveness means that you have to see yourself beyond the lies. You cannot forgive without being divine. So you have to stop thinking of yourself as the horrible things people told you you were when they hurt you. Maybe they said it in words, maybe in actions, but you heard it and clung to it.
Forgiveness means you have to trust that God’s view of you is better than that. When you see yourself in the glorious beauty God sees you, in the safety God gives you, then you can let those monsters go. Don’t hold them close to you anymore. Don’t let them whisper in your ears. You were never strong enough to fight them off, but you can kick them out with a gesture, a word, a kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy).
Forgiveness is about forgetting. You forgive and forget.
But this one has alliteration! True, but it’s a flat lie. You can’t heal by forgetting. You heal by telling a new story. In the new story, what happened still happened, but what it meant is different. Forgive, and you are like God. Forgive, and the person left behind in the dust and blood is of infinite worth, glorious beauty, someone so loved.
And here’s the best part: God is already with you in the dust and the blood and the hurt and the muck, and God is already working to redeem you. You can do this divine work of forgiving because the God who sees you, that beautiful glory, is right with you.
If a pearl drops into the mud, you don’t call it a loss. You wash it off. God doesn’t leave us lying in our pain. He picks us up and washes us until we shine. And we can do that, too, for others. We ask God to lift us up into the glory-beauty-love for which we were made. We ask God to do the same for those who hurt us. We let them go. We don’t stay in the mud holding them down. They may ask God for mercy or not, but we will not block them from the chance to shine.
Forgiveness is a divine act. When we forgive, we are like God. We do it because God is with us, and because God loves us all.
What are your thoughts? Do you struggle with forgiveness?