Tuesday Night Education Class
The process by which we open ourselves to the reality of others and thereby undergo a profound personal change can properly be called "forgiveness." Why so?
In a class I was teaching twenty years ago, an older, very concerned woman raised an issue about forgiveness she said had been bothering her all her adult life. She said: "If you forgive somebody, you more or less say, 'There's something that person needs to be blamed for, something he's done wrong to me, but I'm a big enough person to overlook it.' You have to keep in mind what they've done wrong or else you don't have anything to overlook. So you can't forgive and forget, can you? You have to remember the wrong they've done. That doesn't seem to be very charitable. So I don't understand forgiveness. I've always been suspicious when people say they forgive."
This comment exposes a flaw in our ordinary, self-betraying way of thinking about forgiveness. This woman was right to say that we do not, we cannot, accuse someone in our heart and at the same time forget about the wrong we're accusing them of doing. The best we can do, as long as we continue to accuse, is to counterfeit a pardon for them and try our best not to think about what they have done.
But overlooking or "letting pass" a grievance or an offense does not qualify as forgiveness. Forgiveness is something else entirely.
First, forgiveness responds to the real issue, the real reason why we have felt offended. And the real reason, as we know, is not any wrong that others have done to us, but the wrong we are doing to them. Forgiveness concerns our wrongdoing, not theirs. And our wrongdoing includes our failure to treat them as we ought, our finding them at fault for this failure, and our refusal to forgive them for this supposed fault.
Second, our act of forgiving consists of repenting of this wrongdoing of ours, or in other words, ceasing to accuse those we have been accusing.
Third, when we cease to accuse them, we cease to feel there's anything on their part that needs to be forgiven! We no longer find them offensive. We see that from their point of view they are struggling against perceived offenses and threats just as we have been. Thus forgiveness involves opening ourselves to the truth, letting our former offenders become real to us, and no longer believing there is anything for us to forgive. As they undergo a transformation in our forgiving eyes, we undergo a transformation ourselves.
This must be so. As long as we see others as needing our forgiveness, we will continue regarding ourselves as their victim and will remain accusing still. We live free of the bondage of accusing, afflicted feelings only by ceasing to find and take offense.
Desiring Forgiveness for Not Forgiving
We need to note one more element of genuine forgiveness. Just prior to forgiving someone, we will have been finding him or her offensive. But with forgiveness comes a realization of the offensiveness of this. How accusing we must have appeared to that person! Whatever he or she may have done that we previously found offensive has changed in our memory of it—the past is not what we had thought. Recently we wondered whether we could forgive that person. Now we wonder whether he or she can forgive us.
This is our new attitude toward having previously refused to forgive. We feel a desire to be forgiven for it. Genuine forgiveness includes a desire to be forgiven and, if it is fitting to seek that forgiveness.
Of all the initiatives people can take who feel a devastating wrong has made them miserable, one stands above all others in effectiveness. It is actually seeking forgiveness for having refused to forgive. I have observed that when individuals have struggled for years to escape the effects of abuse and have tried everything they can think of to forgive their abuser, they rarely succeed. The reason is that the forgiveness they aim to produce is a counterfeit of real forgiveness. It could not be otherwise, because they continue to believe they have been offended. But when they recognize that the wrongdoing has been theirs, good things start to happen—but not until then.
Four years before approaching me, Ellie had gradually begun to recall having been abused sexually by her father when she was still a girl. She had worked with a psychiatrist for much of those four years. In spite of her efforts she had gained no fundamental relief, no healing. "I feel as if I am a flute clogged up with sludge. I make all kinds of effort, but no music comes out of me." I asked whether she had forgiven her father. She said she had thought she had but wasn't sure, because she still had no peace.
Then I asked her: "Have you sought his forgiveness for your hard feelings toward him all these years?" She had not. It had never occurred to her to do so. I suggested that forgiveness consists not of forgetting what happened, but of repenting of unforgiving feelings about what happened, and if possible seek forgiveness.
A light went on in her face. She pondered for a few moments and said, "I'm going to do that." The next day she told me she had written a letter to her father the night before, asking his forgiveness. She said, "I saw that by blaming him I was refusing to forgive. I was refusing to admit that he too had suffered in his life and needed my compassion. And now that I have done this, I feel free for the first time in my life. This morning, music is flowing through me and it is sweet." Since that day, this woman has written me letters filled with happiness. In one she said of her father, "Last week I even asked his advice, and he was shocked and pleased."
It is often said that we need to forgive for our own sake, to rid ourselves of resentful feelings. That's what Ellie tried to do and couldn't. Forgiveness cannot be done from self-concern. It must be done for the truth's sake, out of compassion for those we previously condemned by our refusal to forgive.
The preceding is an excerpt from C. Terry Warner's book, "Bonds that Make Us Free" page, 293.
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