Forgiveness December 16, 2013


It sounds easy. People often claim that they have forgiven, when, in fact, they are a long way out from anything that approaches actual forgiveness.

To forgive when there is no love is a practical impossibility. To forgive when the person or people who have harmed you refuse to admit that they’ve done anything wrong can seem as if you are agreeing with them. To forgive when they are actively continuing to harm either you or other people feels as if you are cooperating with your own abuse.

The greatest challenge of forgiveness in the face of truly horrific harms against you as a person such as rape, battering, murder and prolonged, vicious slander is that it raises the specter in your mind that you are in fact acquiescing to the thing that was done.

Too often, people say they have forgiven when what they are doing is becoming passive in the face of crimes against their own person. Forgiveness of horrific crimes against your humanity has to count the cost and know the full measure of the crime which is being forgiven.

People oftentimes push forgiveness on a victim of great violence and trauma far too soon. Everyone deserves the dignity of their anger. Anger can cleanse and heal. It can be an assertion of your humanity in the face of actions and people who have denied by what they have done to you that you are human. Anger is a necessary claim to your own worth and to the fact that those who hurt you were and are deeply wrong to do this to you.

It harms people to try to deny them their anger and push them into a faux forgiveness. When this happens, the forgiveness is not real, and the anger festers and turns inward.

Forgiveness comes after anger, not before it. Anger comes after numbness and shame and denial. Anger is the first step out of the darkness, and it is, at this point, a righteous assertion of your right as a child of God not to be treated this way.

But anger, if it takes on a life of its own, can become pernicious. Anger, if you stay there in it and just wind and rewind yourself around the shame and bitterness of what happened, becomes a cancer, eating at your soul. It can separate you from God. It, and the denial it feeds, the shame it covers, can isolate you in a small room with what happened to you. Either that, or it can push you into little enclaves of fellow sufferers who seem to be the only people who “get” you, who understand what you’re about.

The antidote for this illness — and at this point, your anger and shame have become a spiritual and emotional illness — is to face what happened to you in its full, hideously painful ugliness, and forgive.

But how to forgive without implying that what was done to you was nothing? Many times, victims of violence, in particular such things as rape, are faced with a world that belittles both them and what happened to them. They are sometimes called liars, or told that it was their fault. People back away from them and treat them as if they are not the same as they were before.

Rage is the only defense they feel they have. The humiliated rage of the victim is a shield against the claims that what happened was nothing and that they are nothing.

How do they lay down this shield of rage, which has been for many of them their only defense? When anger and resentment are the slender shards of broken self-respect that you hold onto in the face of what feels like public disregard, it can be more than you can face to lay them down and forgive.

That is the point where the grace of God is your only friend. The human portrait of that grace is Jesus, your fellow sufferer of injustice, shame and pain, hanging on the cross. The grace you need to forgive is found in the memory of God, almost bled out from a savage beating, staggering under the weight of the cross on which He was going to be murdered while the crowds jeered and the soldiers beat Him more.

You don’t need a circle of fellow sufferers to understand you and what you are going through.

He understands.

And because He forgave those who murdered Him, because He forgives you now of everything, including your anger and the hurtful things it’s made you do, you can forgive too.

Forgiveness, at this level, isn’t an act of will. It is an act of trust.

That trust is in Jesus Who tells you that even the hairs on your head are numbered, that there are many mansions in His Father’s kingdom, and He has prepared one for you.

You are a child of God, and this brutality you have suffered is an offense to God.

The world needs forgiveness. Without it, we will eventually destroy everything we love, including our civilization.

On an individual scale, you need forgiveness. We need to forgive one another and lay these heavy burdens of shame and bitterness down. We need to forgive. And we need to be forgiven.

This is Advent. Emmanuel is coming.

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19 responses to “Forgiveness”

  1. You make me think. No later than yesterday I was arguing with some other Italians that anger was not a righteous emotion as such, indeed that it often only proved a symptom of egotism and selfishness. This was in the context of current Italian politics and of the ghastly movements inspired by Berlusconi and Grillo. These parties, which together account for something like 35-40% of votes cast at the last elections, have no positive message at all. Don’t believe those who say that Berlusconi is “conservative” or “right-wing” or “centre-right”; all he has done is buy the votes of certain groups – including the Fascists, which until his arrival had been excluded from Italian politics – either by allowing them to express more openly their prejudices, or by blasting their enemies from the podium (“Communists! Communists! COMMUNISTS!”) Berlusconi has no policy or set of beliefs at all, as shown by the shockingly sparse crop of legislation from his parliaments – and that legislation was so poorly conceived and written that it has given rise to a novelty in Italian law, the interpretative letter or decree, issued a couple of years after a law to explain how it should be read and what it meant. Under his government, the problems and needs of Italy have been allowed to rot, because he simply had no notion what to do about them. And bad though Berlusconi is, Grillo is infinitely worse.

    Anger is the permanent condition of the followers of these men, and that anger has a precise meaning: it ain’t my fault, the fault is of all the others – those wicked, plotting, designing, dishonest, creatures that are covered by the dreadful pronoun THEM. AS with Berlusconi himself, there is no positive idea in any of their minds. Sometimes something like that will appear and seem to have something to do with policy and proposals; recently, in particular, some of them have picked up the contagion of similar lunatics in England and started to yell against the Euro (which was designed and set up by Italian politicians for the very purpose that it is now carrying out – force the accounts of member countries into some sort of order). The newly-elected head of the racist Northern League has celebrated his election in a speech in which he described the Euro as a “crime against humanity” – cheap, degraded language that makes me want to stick him on the last airplane to the Central African Republic and leave him there to learn what crimes against humanity look like. But as cheap as his invective is, so is his direction; because everybody knows that if he ever were in a position to start moving Italy out of the Euro, all the small entrepreneurs who support his party and who live on exports to Europe would rip him apart. But his supporters’ easy and vast store of anger is mobilized by the economic crisis; and instead of admitting that Italy has spent thirty years or more drifting and letting problems accumulate, they find it easier and more satisfying to blame the Euro. The Euro, after all, is another kind of “THEM”. It’s not our fault for having elected incompetent spendthrifts and for mindlessly supporting them, it’s THEM – the other them, of course, the ones we did not vote for – who want to destroy us to force us under their jackboot.

    This is anger in politics, and you know that quite as well as I do. But I also have to admit that what you say here has the sound of truth, golden, beautiful, and undeniable: ” Anger is the first step out of the darkness, and it is, at this point, a righteous assertion of your right as a child of God not to be treated this way.” Or that ANY child of God should not be treated this way, because you can feel anger quite as much for others as for yourself. (One frequent target of my own anger is the American health care system, whose ruinous effects I see time and again in the lives of friends of mine, and the Republican idiots who call it “the greatest health care system in the world” – not that I have any sympathy for Obama’s reforms either.)

    I think, then, that anger only makes sense if it is a stage, a force leading somewhere else; if it is dynamic, positive, and propositioning (“How do we get rid of this crap, then?”) in public life. And in private life? Not that I am the best person to ask – I have a lot of internalized anger that people get to feel at the most inappropriate moments – but I would say it only makes sense if it leads to the re-establishment of a whole person, a person who is not diminished and mutilated by the harm done to them in the past. If you carry anger with you all your life, all you are doing is carrying on a variant of your wound: your enemy, your aggressor, is still injuring you – ten, twenty, fifty years after the original evil. How much more of a victory, short of killing you altogether, could your enemy have gained?

  2. Everyone deserves the dignity of their anger?

    My own history is full of never deserving the dignity of my anger. Or at least, never having it validated. As such, I’ve learned at long last to be the master of my anger, instead of it being the master of me, in most instances.

    Though there is a reason I don’t shop in downtown Portland alone. One autistic meltdown- one case of anger controlling me, could put me 6 feet under in that city.

  3. I was only mugged once in my life. Though they threatened violence, I just complied and none was done. They took a walkman and a cheap watch but nothing else. I was just walking to my mother’s a few blocks away and din’t even have my wallet on me. Even so, with no violence and minimal loss of property, I felt so violated (they stuck their hands into my pockets while being constrained) that it took me years to forgive those punks. I imagined all sorts of things to take revenge, like getting a gun and hunting them down. And if it were practical I might have done it. Can you imagine what someone who truly is hurt and violated must feel like? It must be incredible. I don’t know how they forgive, but God bless those that do. It’s a lot harder than it seems.

  4. I have struggled with the idea of forgiveness for my entire life. It is one thing to know the necessity of forgiveness, and another thing altogether to understand how to forgive.

    I can control my actions, but how does one go about controlling his emotions? When I am wronged, I am angry, and though my anger cools with time, that’s not the same thing as forgiving. When I am wronged, I feel an urge to strike back, to punish, to make my tormentor think twice about hurting me again, I restrain myself, but restraint is not the same thing as loving, and forgiveness is simply what we call one aspect of Charity.

    Popular wisdom infers a relationship between forgiving and forgetting, but after a long struggle, I have come to the conclusion that this association has things exactly backwards. Just as forgiving is not cooling passions, or self control, neither is it about forgetting. Forgiveness is about the very opposite of forgetting, it is all about remembering.

    When a person sins against us, they sin against themselves. They fall short of who they were meant to be. In their transgressions, they diminish who and what they are. Sin often, and seriously enough and a person can lose themselves entirely. When we forgive a person, we are not forgetting the sin – that is just petty dishonesty – we forgive by remembering, and loving the goodness of the person, even as their goodness is temporarily eclipsed by their fault.

    This is what we are asking of God, when we pray for His forgiveness. We aren’t asking Him to forget our sins, nor to magically make it as though we didn’t actually choose what we freely chose. We ask Him not to know us by our faults, but by our promise. We ask Him to remember, and by remembering, to renew the innocence we cast aside. God, do not abandon me to my vices, you who created me from your thought, and through your love, think of me anew according to your love.

    When we forgive those who trespass against us, it must be as our Heavenly Father forgives us – by remembering.

  5. Chesire, begin by praying for them. Don’t pray more than you can honestly say. Just ask God to take care of them (I am aware of the double entendre here 🙂 ) and then go on with your life. Then, the next day, when you kneel down to your daily prayers, remember to pray for them again.

    My experience has been that this simple action begins the healing process in you. I never knew what it did for those about whom I prayed, but I can say that it cleared my mind of the tumble of anger and rage and allowed me to think clearly again.

  6. Thank you, that is very sound advice, and one which I shall act. Forgiveness is a process, and I’m learning along the way. With grace, I will someday be good at it, I hope. 🙂

  7. Forgiveness is thought to be given to others. In truth, accepting it first; automatically gives it to others.
    Five years ago I was given the gift of realizing to some degree my own
    sinfulness. I was stunned and filled with sorrow, at the same time the
    Holy Spirit reminded me of the mercy that was there for the taking. I
    simply had to repent and commit to sin no more. I returned to confession
    for the first time in almost forty years. Now my hope is always for
    another’ s best. While I might not know what is best for another, the only thing I can control is myself.The statement for hope becomes a reminder to self.

  8. When Jesus said “seventy times seven times” I don’t think he was talking about for a single offense, but if that’s what it takes. And sometimes we think we have forgiven an offense only to have a memory creep up on us and we realize it is still an issue. I am glad you are bringing this up especially around the Christmas season as families get together, which is wonderful of course, but sometimes memories can be stirred up like sediment from the bottom of a pond and so too unforgivingness can emerge.

    Matthew 18:21 Then came Peter unto him and said: Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22 Jesus saith to him: I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times.