I've been thinking a lot about forgiveness. It began when I saw an old silent movie a few weeks ago, the plot of which revolved around someone who committed a pretty massive crime that needed to be forgiven. After seeing the movie, I was aware of just how angry I was. How quick I was to reject the forgiveness extended to that character. And I began to ask myself: what does it mean to forgive?
We are not a forgiving culture. In fact, I can't think of any cultures that have been. Grace simply does not come naturally. And one of the problems is that when it comes to forgiveness, there is a whole mess of feelings and ideas vying for dominance.
One of the most difficult things about forgiveness is that the question of blame becomes so important. If I have a wrong done to me, I should be given an apology, and I should then forgive. But because we are human, this spirals into fractals of complication, and there is seldom an occasion when pride does not come into the picture. The times in my life when I have been most reluctant to forgive have been the times when someone offended me so deeply that he or she didn't fully understand the crime.
Yet what troubles me most, in situations where I must forgive, is the hardness of my anger—the “them verses me” mentality that I let myself descend into. It's as if I have never done anything wrong in my life, as if I am of a completely different sort of human than the person who wronged me. I want to divide humanity up into Mother Teresas and Hitlers, assigning everyone a slot either on the side of good or evil. It would be easier that way. I could feel secure and safe in the knowledge that I am on the good side. I don’t want to admit that I have the capacity to commit wrongs, large or small. I don’t want to admit that I have within me the same stuff that is the stuff of great evil.
But there is a voice in the back of my head reminding me that we are none of us white knights, riding against the dragons of this world. There are things I understand about myself partly because of the creeds and words in the Bible that I have devoted my soul to, but also partly because I'm just plain honest with myself. So many of my decisions and beliefs center around an awareness of the evil in my own heart, and I believe that when we are truthful with ourselves, we all know that there are no good guys and bad guys. We are on a trajectory, not opposing sides, and until we come to that realization, I’m not sure forgiveness is possible at all. We must acknowledge the wrong that was done, admit that it was not okay, and extend grace anyway.
Of course, there are those who will try to take advantage because of grace. As my brother Joshua pointed out in a recent conversation, this is an abuse of trust. “The division is not in the ability to do wrong, but in the ability to truthfully ask forgiveness,” he said. “Ignorance is understandable, but willful abuse of trust is different.” We must be wise about those who continue to do harm through supposed apologies, but we must also stop turning a blind eye upon ourselves.
It’s so much easier said than done. As much as people pay lip service to forgiveness, and remind each other that it’s impossible to move on until forgiveness has occurred, it’s just so hard to forgive. It’s the hardest thing in the entire world, sometimes. And forgiveness always feels inadequate, because the person who needs to be forgiven never really knows exactly how much they’re being forgiven for. They haven’t had it done to them, so how could they? They will never know what it cost to forgive them.
And still I go back to it: I forgive because I have been forgiven. Greatly forgiven. There was nothing at all easy about that forgiveness. It shook the sky and the Godhead. When Jesus was walking around on earth he didn’t paste on any band-aids. He turned over tables and told people to shake the dust off their feet. But he also told them, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37) There it is: the reminder that as much as we want to set ourselves up as the innocent party—as much as we sometimes are the innocent party—we have the capacity within us to forgive because we know the depths of our own depravity.
There’s no forgiveness without those depths, and forgiving does not necessarily mean trusting someone again or pasting over the wrongs done in the world. Those evils need to be exposed and dealt with. But forgiveness does mean having a clear picture of the state of our own selves, and understanding that the muddle of human existence is filled to the brim with people who need forgiveness.
As hard as it is to admit, we all need it desperately—and must therefore extend it.
Tomorrow: thoughts on apologizing.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard