Friday, April 11, 2014

On Forgiveness

Must we forgive whenever someone does us wrong? Forgiveness was perhaps "the" central word that was emphasized to me when I was growing up in the Christian church. We were to forgive one another, even turn the other cheek when someone did us wrong. But mostly, forgiveness was central to the Christian story. It was Jesus' reason for being. God sent his son to earth in human form in order for him to make the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross, his side pierced in our stead, for our transgressions. Even 15 years after I stopped believing in the evangelical church's interpretation of the Jesus narrative, I am still emotionally compelled by it. I still vividly remember sitting through Good Friday services and having tears stream down my face as members of the church portrayed centurions marching up the center aisle. And then came "Jesus," carrying his cross, stumbling under exhaustion, with "blood" dripping down his face from the crown of thorns that pierced his head. I wept for him, but even moreso out of guilt because I put him there.

But this post isn't primarily about my shift of how I view the Christian Easter story or who Jesus was, it's about forgiveness in general. I do think that the idea of forgiving others comes largely, at least for me, from the huge influence of Christianity, but I have a couple other views that I have been presented with and have been thinking of in recent years that I'd like to write about.

1) Forgiveness is something that you do more for your own well-being, than it is for the person who has done you wrong.

I think there's some creedence to this idea. Basically, it says that by forgiving wrongs done to us by others, we let go of the bitterness, anger, or hatred that we may hold inside ourselves. By forgiving, we do ourselves a service, even if the person is dead or no longer part of our lives. It can give us a sense of letting go - not forgetting - but letting go as much as we possibly can of that bitterness.

However, my own problem with this is that if we see forgiveness in this light, then it shouldn't be called forgiveness. It could be better, and much healthier, to call it for what it is - "letting go" or "releasing." These are very personal things that we do primarily for ourselves, and that's perfectly OK.

2) Perhaps an even more radical idea is that sometimes we do not need to forgive at all. This may seem to, and may indeed actually fly in the face of much we have been taught and believed about the subject. But perhaps sometimes it may not be possible - or more importantly healthy - to forgive. This may be temporary, or long term.

By saying, or "deciding" to forgive someone who has caused us harm, especially devastating harm, we may feel we are doing the honourable and right thing, but it can also serve to further bury our valid emotions of anger, bitterness and hurt, which must be respected and given room to breathe. I can be wronged by someone and not wish them any future pain or ill will, but still be unable or unwilling to forgive them. We must dig deep into our hearts and psyches and visit our dark places, and sometimes "deciding to forgive" someone may whitewash this important, pivotal process. The important thing to come to know is that if we consciously realize that we simply can't forgive someone - either immediately or long-term - it doesn't make us a bad person.

Wherever you are on your journey, I wish you peace, mercy, and grace - toward yourself.

Mark Andrew Nouwen