Forgiving is fore-giving: giving what was before. To forgive is to give back the relationship as it was before. When the offense is slight, we can just say “I forgive you” and it’s done. When the fabric of relationship is ripped through, it will take more than that. These are the cases on which I’ll focus for the remainder of this blog series – the difficult kind of forgiveness that the heart resists tendering.
I said that in these difficult cases, if forgiveness does come, it is a grace -- an unearned good. Ultimately, yes, it is unearned. Yet we also have to work on it. We have to earn our way up to the point from which grace takes over. In other words, do the work, but don’t think the work alone is sufficient. It's necessary, not sufficient. Do the work, and see if the miracle happens -- the miracle of human reconnection in love. Just saying the words, “forgive me” and the answer, “I do forgive you,” is only a start.
One woman said to her partner, “Why do you keep talking about my past mistakes? I thought you had forgiven and forgotten.”
Her partner said, “I have forgiven and forgotten. But I want to make sure you don’t forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.” That’s a couple that only began the process. (And, in fact, forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. You can arrive at a place where you are able to forgive – to let go of the burden of anger and resentment about the hurt you have received – but that doesn’t mean you forget it.)
The whole forgiveness thing can have its pitfalls. There are ways that forgiveness goes wrong. First, as in the this case, we might think it is done when it has only begun.
We might think that saying the words “I forgive you,” – even saying them as sincerely as we can muster – means that the limbic system actually has released its attachment to rehearsing the narrative of its hurts. And we might be wrong about that: we can mistakenly think forgiveness is easy when it’s actually hard.
Second, forgiveness goes wrong when the forgiver comes off as superior. I say, “I forgive you,” and that can cast me as the magnanimous one, all superior. Rather than return the parties to equality, it maintains a reversed inequality. That can happen when we don’t seek a more extended reconciliation process.
Third, forgiveness goes wrong when it is expected or demanded. Recognizing the virtue of forgiveness, we can come to expect or demand that others – or ourselves – forgive.
“You should forgive him,” someone might say. Or, “You really ought to forgive her.” Or even, “you should forgive yourself.” The understanding that forgiveness is a noble and virtuous thing conspires with a misperception that forgiveness is always easy. When emotions are deep, forgiveness cannot be commanded.
Let me be concrete about this. Some minister or priest somewhere in North America, very probably today, will tell a battered woman that she should forgive her husband and take him back, no matter how much he beats her, because marriage is forever and good Christians forgive. It breaks my heart. I have some anger about that, and I'm not inclined to forgive those pastors -- though I think I would forgive any who recognized and repented that horrible error.
Situations of abuse require an intentional and extended process if the relationship is to be repaired at all. Yet a certain concept of "forgiveness" -- as if it were easy and instantaneous -- short-circuits the process that is needed. This concept of forgiveness undermines the possibility of the very healing that is needed. Gandhi could not have simply said to the man, “You’re forgiven,” or “Ask God to forgive you.” When the tear is substantial, it will take a lot of sewing to repair it – it doesn’t happen just from saying the words. Even if they are heartfelt words. Tears and emotions of the moment all too quickly pass without commitment to the long-term work.
Forgiveness also goes wrong if we think that’s the only important value. In the case of domestic abuse, we have to consider the possibility that no plan for repairing the relationship may have enough chance of success to be worth pursuing, and getting out of the relationship needs to be the priority.
Finally, things have gone wrong when we give up on the possibility of forgiveness at all. This is the flip side of expecting or demanding it or treating it as if it were an easy and momentary thing to do – a simple act of a moment that sets things right again. Once we see that forgiveness isn't simple and instantaneous, we might go the other direction and give up on it entirely. Don't demand it or expect it -- but please don't give up on forgiveness either.
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This is part 3 of 4 of "Forgiveness"
Next: Part 4
Previous: Part 2
Beginning: Part 1