Here are some of my thoughts on forgiveness – both human and divine – and how we can reap the benefits of forgiveness in our daily lives. It’s a bit of a rambling essay, but I hope you find it helpful.
Forgiveness is about restoration of relationship, or at least the opportunity of such restoration.
Unforgiveness is one of the most debilitating of human conditions. It is not a physical condition, of course; it is a condition really of a person’s soul. But it can indeed lead to physical illness, psychosomatically if you will, if it is not dealt with. But the main illness it produces is emotional illness. It will eat you up from inside and its fruit is things like bad moods, snappiness, preoccupation, and eventually conditions as serious as depression.
It’s essentially unilateral. You forgive the other person. Forgiveness can also be received, but it doesn’t have to be received – (it can be rejected by the other person) – for it to be effective for you. If the other person rejects the forgiveness, the chances are they have not forgiven you, but that burden is on them.
This is because, again, forgiveness is unilateral. It is asymmetric. There is always a giver and a receiver; if two people forgive each other, that is actually two separate acts of forgiveness.
Why do we need to receive God’s forgiveness? Surely, if God forgives us because of the Cross, even if we do not accept it, then we are still forgiven. That’s true; our forgiven status does not depend on us; our acceptance of it does, and repentance is still what is needed…..because unless we admit our fault, we do not admit that we need forgiveness. Not because God is all angry and radgy and all, but because then we know the relationship is restored. We ourselves know we’re forgiven, and that’s why we need to receive the forgiveness.
And remember that God does not forgive with strings attached. Whatever you’ve done is forgiven. You can debate as much as you like about ‘nice God, nasty God’ and why you need to be forgiven, and what you need to be forgiven for. There’s a fair chance that many of us feel that God will not accept us for some reason, whether that’s because of being made to feel guilty by things you’ve heard in Church or for some other reason. But whatever it is, release it, accept the forgiveness, and stop feeling guilty. As for strings being attached, I read recently that a lot of people think along this lines of ‘Right, you’ve been forgiven and now you’re a Christian, so now you need to do this, this and this in order to move on in that forgiveness’. This is plain incorrect, except for just one thing: yes, you do need to move on in your forgiveness but only in the sense of leaving all the guilt behind. Let it go. It has no power over you any more. Your guilt was nailed to the Cross; you can leave it behind for ever!
Now on to us forgiving others. The decision to forgive can be instantaneous; it can be as quick as you want it to be. However, applying that forgiveness, in terms of it changing the way you feel – and that’s the most important part about forgiveness – can take a long time. You may have to constantly keep reminding yourself that you have forgiven. The power is in your hands but so is the responsibility – and so is the burden. Remember that the goal of forgiving someone, which gives you the freedom from the burden of unforgiveness, is that you yourself take on the blame and the guilt of the offending party – let’s call them the ‘offender’ for now. You can then choose to let that go because it doesn’t belong to you, and equally the offender does not owe you a debt either.
Forgiveness is in fact independent of the offender, it is *entirely* in your hands. Whether or not the offender is penitent (admits their fault) is irrelevant because the initiative has to lie with the forgiver. You don’t even have to announce forgiveness to anyone except yourself. You don’t need to tell anyone. However, again, you will find that as you release the burden, any need you may have to make the offender feel bad about what they’ve done will naturally fade away – sometimes quickly, sometimes not. The need to let the offender know and feel what they’ve done wrong tends to abate when you forgive them. If you hold on to the unforgiveness, then the bitterness becomes a desire for revenge, a perceived way of punishing the offender for what you feel they have done.
Forgiveness is not a warm fuzzy ‘that’s all right then’ feeling. In fact forgiveness is often painful. You see, forgiveness is where you decide to take on board all the hurt that someone has put on you, whether deliberate or unintentional, and keeping it for yourself. And then letting it go; it has nothing to do with the offender any more. The forgiven person then owes you nothing. For any Star Wars fans reading this, It’s like when Yoda absorbs Dooku’s Force lightning in the cave in Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones; he just absorbs it into his hand and it has no power over him any more. If you’re interested, it’s at 1:15 in this YouTube video
Think of forgiveness as a lifeskill. There’s no getting away from it: people are going to hurt you all your life. The trick is to not let this damage you as a person – if you do not forgive, it just eats you up from inside and you are the only one that will hurt. Your lack of forgiveness will not make others do what you want them to do; they will just blissfully get on with life and you are the only one who will still be harbouring bitterness about the event, long after it’s happened. Decide to forgive and then move on and get on with life; there’s no point brooding about things and holding on to the hurt because the only person it damages is yourself. It doesn’t matter whether or not the person acknowledges their role in your hurt or not; you need to forgive. This is how some people seem to manage just to let all the hurt slip off them. Water and ducks’ backs, and all that.
If you are going to hold on to any kind of relationship with anyone, you need to learn this lifeskill. Otherwise every time anyone hurts you, your relationship will break down and it may well stay broken. I’m not saying ‘forgive and forget’. Certainly you need to forgive, but also remember your experiences during the episode. Otherwise there is no learning involved, so the whole experience has been a waste. Try to get something out of each experience that teaches you something else about life. Once you have forgiven, the memories can be stored and accessed without bitterness.
The trick is to work out for yourself just how much you need to forget – but still the forgiveness has to happen, and it’s 100% from your end, not from anyone else’s. The responsibility lies with you to forgive, or not to forgive. It’s probably also worth pointing out that you don’t have to actually declare the forgiveness to the other person or people; however, if you feel you can, and at the right time and with the right attitude, such a declaration can go a long way towards restoring the relationship.
Asking someone else for forgiveness means that you are offering them a chance to experience the same freedom that you yourself have experienced when you forgive.
And an apology should be viewed as the opportunity to let someone know you have forgiven them. It brings release to both of you. Whether you think that the apology is genuine or not, it is always best to act as if it is genuine.
I’ve saved the best till last. After all that essay, the best news of all is that when you forgive, you are set free. You are set free from the need to feel bitter, from bad feelings, and you are set free from the power of the event, and of the offender, to continue hurting you.
Now that’s good news!