Last week, Anderson Cooper did a number of segments about forgiveness on his CNN show. Topical for the week, I suppose, since it was Holy Week. But it was interesting to see a national news show tackle the subject.
One of the segments dealt with how unforgiveness can be detrimental to one’s health. The stress of carrying a load of anger and bitterness can undermine the resistance to illnesses. And that choosing to forgive can spark a vast improvement in health.
It seems to me that we all do intuit that much about forgiveness. What we find hard is the forgiving.
I think part of the problem comes from how we think the mechanism of forgiveness works. We know it has to do with the interaction and/or relationship between two people. And because of that, we tend to look at the matter as being outside ourselves.
Bobby Perpetrator hurts Johnny Injured. This creates anger, hostility and bitterness in Johnny. And Johnny finds it hard to let go of those feelings unless and until Bobby admits to what he did and apologizes, and possibly even makes amends for what he did.
It makes sense to us to look at it that way, because we all want to have our injuries acknowledged. But sometimes Bobby Perpetrator doesn’t realize that what he did created an injury. How can he know that Johnny was injured? Johnny’s bitterness becomes a negative energy between them, fending Bobby off. So the acknowledgment and apology never comes. Sometimes Bobby doesn’t care one way or another, and again the apology never comes. How can Johnny forgive Bobby, without the acknowledgment?
I don’t claim to know a lot about Judaism. But what I have picked up indicates that in the Jewish mind, forgiveness can happen only between Perpetrator and Injured. And if one or the other is dead, nothing can happen. A third party cannot apologize for a dead Perpetrator, nor grant forgiveness on behalf of a dead Injured person. One would think that the deaths of one or the other would end the matter, but alas, it doesn’t happen. Particularly because the loved ones of the Injured actually do suffer, because of their love, for what happens to the Injured one. But since they aren’t really the Injured Party, under the direct tit-for-tat mechanism of forgiveness, they’re stuck with their negative feelings.
I grew up in a family of Christians, so this outlook was not the entire aspect of forgiveness for me. For which I thank God. Certainly, I’ve had my bouts of it, though. Like with my Mom. Now, mind you, I do love my Mother. But she and I are very different personalities, and she can press my buttons, and frequently did. I suppose it’s the case for all parents and children that the parents have blind spots about the personalities of their offspring. That injuries are done by the parents, which the children resent for the rest of their lives. I’ve certainly been there.
But when I was in college, I thought about this matter. My Mom really did not know how she had affected me. I remember once trying to explain to her how she had injured me. Her blank look of puzzlement jarred me greatly. She did not understand what I was getting at, or why it was so important to me. The moment I realized that, it was like yet another stiletto jabbing into my heart. She could (and did) say the words “I’m sorry”, but she didn’t understand. How was I supposed to give her the forgiveness I wanted to give her, when I wasn’t ever going to get an understanding apology, never mind any sort of “making amends”?
This is where the Christian understanding of forgiveness kicked in. Because forgiveness is not really dependent on the actions, or understanding, of the Perpetrator. It depends on the Injured one. It was my choice about what to do. I could wait around forever for that understanding apology, or I could let go of the bitterness, and start behaving as if the injury had not happened.
So often we hear the phrase “forgive and forget”. And we know that a lot of the time, forgetting an injury is actually impossible. People do try, of course. And the psychological impossibility of it gets pointed out in the cliche “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” But, it is possible to chose to act toward a person as if they never had injured us. And mean it.
Learning to do that also started me thinking about the matter of the forgiveness of God. Because, of course, it’s a matter central to Christianity. We say that Jesus died for the forgiveness of our sins, making the payment - making the amends – for how we injure God (because, I think we can look at our wrong-doings as injuries to God). We are basically saying that Jesus is apologizing to God for all the things humans do wrong, and that God has accepted this as a sufficient apology for everyone. All we have to do is believe that.
If we believe it, then God’s forgiveness is available immediately to us.
On the one hand, it seems such a simple (though profound) thing. On the other, it seems impossible. How can someone else make amends on our behalf?
Jesus was once teaching a crowd of people at someone’s home. The place was packed. There were even some scribes present. Maybe they were there to check him out, find out what he was really like. By this time, his reputation for healing had gotten around. There was a man who was paralyzed. He had some friends who cared about him so much that they brought him to the house. But because of the crowd, they couldn’t get in. So they went up on the flat roof of the place, and broke through the ceiling. They were very determined to get their friend to Jesus. They lowered the man into the room below, right down to Jesus.
Jesus was impressed by the friends. And I’m betting that everyone in the room knew why they were doing it, that everyone present had heard that Jesus could heal people. Maybe those skeptical scribes wanted to find out for sure.
But Jesus, instead of healing the man, says to him, “Your sins are forgiven.”
We aren’t told what type of sins the man may have committed. I imagine that he wasn’t aware of many of them, things he didn’t even know he needed to repent of. In any case, the scribes were upset by what Jesus said, because in their minds, only God could forgive sins. Jesus could tell what their reaction was, so he asked them, “Which is easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to tell this man to get up and walk?” Well, the second one is easy to say, but difficult to make happen. But to prove the point about the first possibility, Jesus turned to the man and told him to get up and walk. And the man did.
The point being that God’s forgiveness is easily and readily available to us.
However ... Confession time: sometimes, there are people I do not want to forgive. It was, when I got down to it, easy to forgive my mother, even if she never understood the injuries she did to me. Because I love her. But frankly, there is the occasional person that I just can’t quite like. People I don’t really want to be reconciled with. I’m only human, and therefore flawed.
I’ll admit, I’d rather ignore that matter. But it’s not part of the package of being a Christian. But I can’t escape it. Because the reality of forgiveness is not outside myself, like an object between me and that other person. It’s inside myself. My choice. And if God has made the choice to forgive me and everyone else, regardless of whether or not we acknowledge the things we do wrong, do I really have an option when I’m dealing with others?
God waits, ready, willing and able to treat us as if none of our injuries to him ever happened. Surely, I can at least behave in a similar fashion. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to at least try that. Because if I’m at least making an honest attempt at it, the action eventually affects the emotions, and I find that I no longer feel the resentment and hostility.
Yeah, I know. It sounds simple and easy. But even in the course of writing this, it’s occurred to me that there are some things in my past that I need to review. Places where I’ve skipped over acknowledging that I was even injured. I guess that realization could be a gift of Easter.