I believe that real relationship isn’t truly possible without continual forgiveness. I say continual because the reality is we hurt each other all the time. As humans, we are a mysterious paradox: we are capable of the most atrocious evil and we are also capable of the most magnificent beauty. Not one of us is above reproach of falling into either camp. And most often we fall somewhere in the middle.
The more I have confronted the ugly in my own heart, the more compassion and empathy I have for the ugly in others. I realize we are not as different as I think. It’s only when I get high and mighty and deceive myself with self-flattery and conceit that I can easily turn others into an enemy and fail to see my own crooked ways. The older I get, the more I realize that another’s wrongdoing toward me, big or small, is a result of their brokenness. Just as my wrongdoing toward another is a result of my own brokenness. The hurt may be big, like betrayal, or it may be “small” like a friend flaking out on lunch plans. Whichever the case, both invite me to forgive. The only other option is to stuff it, to lash out, to dismiss my hurt, to merely excuse the other, to retaliate, and ultimately – to resent.
Forgiveness is such a practice. It is a way of being, a disposition of the heart. Yes, God said we must forgive others as he forgave us. Easier said than done. I think some of us, mostly Christians from what I have seen, hold forgiveness as a task, an obligation, a “something I have to do because it’s the right thing.” And in doing so, I think we’ve missed forgiveness altogether.
Sure, it is the right thing – and it’s so much more than that. It’s a giant well of freedom, of healing, and it ushers in the possibility of creating a new story, instead of the story we continue to tell ourselves and others, wrought with resentment and bitterness.
Depending on the fracture and the hurt, the forgiveness process is usually quite messy and painful. There is no time limit on when we have “fully forgiven.” It is not merely an act of the will either. It may start there, even with a weary willingness to walk the path, but will alone does not heal the wound.
I believe that to forgive, I must feel the hurt first. I must touch my pain. It requires I go to the heart of it, and give name and expression to what aches. It means I have to be specific about the detail of it all – the when, the what, the who, the how, the where. The more detailed I get, the more pain I usually feel, and I know I’m on the right track. It’s not fun and I don’t like it.
Ultimately, forgiveness means I must grieve. And grieving can feel like a scary black hole – does it end? And when? It can be tempting to turn it into an intellectual exercise “am I doing this right? How do I do this?” There is no right, there is no how – there’s simply expression.
Grief feels like toxins leaving the body. And when not done – when the hurt is simply “passed over” with a trite “I forgive you” (because it’s the “right thing to do”) and no matter how many times its said, the forgiveness is only a veneer for the rotting going on beneath. Brene Brown has said “… with forgiveness, there has to be blood on the floor.” In other words, something must die. That’s the only way rebirth can happen.
Maybe it’s the death of the relationship as you’ve known it, because it’s the only way a new one could be born – if reconciliation is on the table. Maybe it’s the death of being right, remaining nuclear welded to your version, your perspective, your experience, without the willingness to see there were other variables at play. Maybe it’s your own self-pity, your woe-is-me, your “I had it so much harder” story you’ve told yourself and others countless times. Maybe it’s time for a new story, a different way to tell it, which means death to the one you’ve found comfort and identity in for so long. Whatever it is, forgiveness costs you something – or else its not forgiveness.
I think people bypass this grief. I get why, I’ve done it myself. That’s the part that hurts, that’s the confusing piece, the out of control place, that’s where emotions surface that make you want to rage and scream and throb and weep. And yet the only way out is through.
I can’t forgive someone if I haven’t felt the hurt first, if I haven’t gone to the heart of it. I have to get alone and cry, wail, and get angry. I must get out the poison in my car, in my room, in my journal. I have to confront what hurts.
Except I cannot stay there. If I do, it’s not forgiveness – and I’ve only made myself a victim. Even though I may have been victimized by someone, I determine whether I become a victim – that part is on me.
In the aftermath of my expression, if I continue to dehumanize the other, it’s a resentment red flag. As difficult as it can be to see, this other person has a story too. They have experiences and wounds and ways of orienting their life that led them to cause harm, even if that harm was unintentional. They were most likely acting out of their own brokenness, out of their own unexpressed grief and stuffed pain – knowing their story doesn’t make what they did okay, and it won’t take away my hurt, but it does provide context. It allows me to turn them back into a human being again – instead of what I’ve turned them into in my own heart. Then I begin to see them in a larger landscape.
You see, you and I and the billions of people in this world are not that different. As I have heard it said quite perfectly, “we are uniquely the same.” If I were born and raised in Islam and through various experience found myself a part of the radicals, I don’t know what kind of person I would have become, the evil I could have committed. I like to think I wouldn’t have, but I don’t know for sure. I am not above reproach. And neither are you.
We are all capable of the cruel and we are all capable of the beautiful. And the more I place people in that context – as humans – the more grace and room in my heart I find for the pain we can cause one another.
Forgiveness comes more naturally when you’ve done your own interior work. When you’ve grounded yourself in love and grace, you’ve had to make room for your own darkness – so making room for the darkness in others isn’t as hard, it isn’t as surprising. Forgiveness makes you bigger – in other words, you’ve taken something hurtful and instead of passing it back (revenge) which keeps you small, you’ve allowed yourself to open-up, to make room for the immensities of human suffering and the ways we inflict harm on one another. Forgiveness increases your capacity to hold pain and to hold grace, which is going to make you a more compassionate and empathetic person.
Revenge and retaliation are the only other options – which roots its justice in you and me and what we deem the other “deserves.” And all that does is lead to resentment and bitterness, which will eat anyone alive. Not only that, but resentment makes it practically impossible to be present. It splits you between this moment and the moment of the wound and all the moments in between. Forgiveness brings you to the present. Which is one of the many reasons it’s so freeing. That person and that event no longer take up rent-free room in your heart. Hearing their name doesn’t make you shirk and eye-roll. You no longer want to fight back and demand they ask for forgiveness and be remorseful. You may never get that from them – and forgiveness isn’t contingent upon it – or else it’s not forgiveness.
More than anything, the process is for you and for me. It’s for your freedom, your healing, your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Scientists are now discovering effects of unforgiveness on the brain – its astounding. I can only imagine what unforgiveness does when it lives on and festers in the human body. There is no doubt, it is detrimental to the human spirit.
We hold on so tightly to our hurt, it literally becomes a part of us – and then we live out that hurt and inflict it on others the same way it’s been inflicted on us. We pass it on – our unforgiveness circulates the pain. You see this in generational family lines all the time.
Forgiveness in the Greek literally means “to send away.” When someone harms me, this hurt they give me, I get to send it away. The process isn’t overnight and the path of forgiveness can be lifelong depending on what it was, but without actively sending it away, it lives on in me and it is I (and those I love) who suffer.
I’ll never know what it felt like for Jesus to pay for all my wrongs by dying on the cross. That kind of forgiveness and atonement astounds me. It’s difficult to grasp, but it’s as real as can be. Without it, real relationship with him wasn’t possible – and even in all my wrestlings with him over these last few years, I never want to know what life without him feels like.
He tells us to forgive – and I don’t think it’s merely because it’s the right thing or the holy thing – I think because he knows we’ll die inside without it. Bitterness, resentment, anger and revenge will nag and gnaw until we’re a shell of a person – that and quite difficult for others to be around. I’ve seen too many relationships end and too many families and marriages divide over a lack of forgiveness – quite honestly, it fills me with sorrow. I’ve had my own journey on this road and it’s broken my heart.
I certainly don’t have all the answers and God knows I have a long way to go, but one thing I am committed to, and have been convicted over countless times in my adult years, is that I don’t ever want to become an embittered person. I don’t want to get older and more narrow in my reach for people, for relationship, and for the difficulties and differences and glories and grandeur they can bring. I want to continually deepen and widen in my capacity to hold human brokenness – in others and in myself.
It has been said that “those who forgive much, love much.” I think that’s so true – our love is most provocative, most scandalous, most vulnerable and selfless when we learn to love those who have wronged and hurt us. And oddly enough, that is what frees us. Forgiveness then, is not some intellectual, scriptural-command protocol – it’s an act of love, perhaps the highest kind.