Practicing Forgiveness

A few months ago an old friend of mine emailed and asked me to forgive him for any harm he had done me in the past. It seemed odd to me. I told him he hadn’t done me any harm but if it would give him any peace then sure, I forgive him. The very next day I saw a Facebook post from my friend and fellow “Good Letters” blogger, Caroline, also asking for forgiveness.

What was going on? Had Caroline and my old friend both joined AA and it was time to start telling everyone sorry? I didn’t even bother telling Caroline she had nothing for which to apologize—which she didn’t; she’s only ever done good by me. I just commented, “Done.”

Then I watched the same response, by different people, pop up over and over again. There was some variation in wording, but it was this: I forgive and God forgives. Please forgive me.

It was only then that, feeling rather stupid, I realized this is an Orthodox practice. The tradition in which I was reared eschewed every kind of liturgical practice, and I have to admit, though I’m somewhat familiar with the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar, the Orthodox tradition is still something about which I am largely ignorant.

I googled the response phrase and discovered Forgiveness Sunday: on Sunday the eve of Great Lent, Orthodox Christians attend Forgiveness Vespers. The two teachings that Sunday are on forgiveness and fasting. I wondered why these two teachings are paired, but was satisfied with this explanation for the strange string of mutual forgiveness running on Caroline’s timeline.

A couple days later I heard a piece on NPR about how studies have shown that, while people feel better when they apologize, they also feel pretty damn good when they flat out refuse to apologize. As a matter of fact, according to researcher Tyler G. Okimoto, “in some cases it makes them feel better than an apology would have.” Apparently, though it doesn’t heal relationships, it does boost self-esteem and give a sense of empowerment.

So if you want to feel empowered, in control, if you want to have good self-esteem, sometimes it is best to not apologize. I suppose refusal to forgive probably works in the same way.

In Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard examines Christian love. He differentiates between the poet’s love of the admired, and the Christian love of neighbor. C.S. Lewis broke love down into four types of love (natural affection, friendship love, erotic love, and agape love). Kierkegaard does not bother with natural affection, and he groups together friendship and erotic love into the love of the poet, or the love of preference. His focus is on love for your neighbor, which, if you are a Christian, you are commanded to practice.

The love of preference is focused on self, and is necessarily limiting, grows more intense the more exclusive and focused it becomes. With this love, “the intoxication of self-esteem is at its peak, and the peak of intoxication is the admired [the one who is loved].” I am not disparaging the romantic love of the poet. Lord knows it is rich and beautiful and worthy of praise, tacky and trashy as that praise may be in pop culture.

Love for your neighbor is the opposite; it grows and spreads as it intensifies. That doesn’t mean it feels rewarding. Most of the time it does not, because this kind of love requires self-denial, which, Kierkegaard writes, “is Christianity’s essential form.” Nietzsche agrees with him on this point: oh how Nietzsche despises the self-denial of Christianity; at the same time, he claims most Christians neither understand nor practice it.

His example is of a military officer crowing about his Christianity even while he rattles the sword on his hip and warns you not to cross him. I think of the scene in the movie Saved when Mandy Moore’s character blasts another girl between the shoulder blades with her Bible and shouts, “I’m so much more full of the love of Christ than you are.”

The purest expression of this love for your neighbor is in forgiveness, giving and receiving. Both in asking for and in offering forgiveness, you put yourself in a place of vulnerability, deny yourself. You are also offering a gift in both cases, a chance to experience eternal love.

Kierkegaard’s conclusion on love of preference versus love for your neighbor: one is temporal and passing, the other eternal and lasting.  “Love for the neighbor has the perfections of eternity. An accounting can take place only where there is a finite relationship….But one who loves cannot calculate. When the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing, it is impossible to make an accounting.”

This is where fasting relates. The Forgiveness Sunday reading on fasting stresses the necessary secrecy of it, of not letting the right hand know what the left is doing, not seeking recognition. Most of the people I know who give up something for Lent like to trumpet it, make a game of it like a New Year’s resolution, which of course misses the point entirely.

The common ground of the teachings on forgiveness and fasting is self-denial. Not much fun either one. Fasting is training in self-denial. Forgiveness in love is putting self-denial to work in the world of human relationships.

Kierkegaard again: “However ludicrous, however frustrating, however inexpedient loving the neighbor may seem in the world, it is still the highest a person is capable of doing.”

Forgiveness—giving and getting—is the load-bearing point, the place at which human love breaks into the realm of the eternal.

Vic Sizemore earned his MFA in fiction from Seattle Pacific University in 2009. His fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, PANK Magazine, Pembroke, Saint Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and elsewhere. An excerpt from his novel The Calling was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Award; other excerpts from The Calling are published in Portland Review and are forthcoming serially in Connecticut Review. His short story “Hush Little Baby” won the 28th New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction. Sizemore teaches at Central Virginia Community College.

  • John B

    Thanks, Vic. Well-stated.

  • Amelia

    The line from Saved is “I am FILLED with Christ’s love!”

  • Thomas McCullough

    For me forgiveness is central to Christianity. The disciples asked Jesus how we should pray and he gave us an explicit prayer. In the Lord’s prayer we make four explicit requests. Three are straightforward requests: our daily bread, lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil. The other request is explicitly provisional. “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus tells us that we can ask to be forgiven just to the extent to which we are forgiving others. I judge forgiving to be THE Christian act. It is in my experience and the experience of some wiser than I, the most difficult one.


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