Recently I was hit by a blast of anger from an unexpected direction, from a person I thought I was on good working terms with. She was upset about something I had done, which I was willing to hear and take responsibility for as necessary, but I was stunned by the virulence of her reaction, the depth of her refusal to hear and understand me. It frightened me and left me feeling there was far more negative emotion at work than I could handle.
I don’t want to feed her negativity by adding in my own anger and hostility. That means I need to forgive. But how can this be rightfully done, when I feel truly threatened? It doesn’t seem correct to “forgive” a hurtful act in the sense of saying it wasn’t wrong or doesn’t matter. It’s not good to enable abusive behavior through a too-tolerant attitude. So what is forgiveness, anyway?
In the Lord’s Prayer, I often get stuck in these words:
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
When I get to “as we forgive,” it’s so difficult to give up the hurts and losses I’ve incurred. Am I just supposed to forget about those? Don’t they matter to God, to the world? Where will I find justice, reparation, healing?
It helps sometimes to remember that this passage can also be translated as “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” When I see it this way, I’m not cancelling out the harm someone has done, the loss of what he has taken away from me; I’m just renouncing the desire to get paid back by that person.
If I forgive him that debt, in the sense of not requiring him to pay me back, then I’m no longer stuck in a hopeless relationship with someone who is lost in his own cycle of lack and emptiness. The substance he took has already been spent and wasted, and angry recriminations are not going to restore it. But if I humbly express my need, my indebtedness to the divine wisdom, unexpected sources of life may reveal themselves. I open myself to being paid back in another way.
My own debts, my own dependence on the surroundings, cannot be paid through my feeble efforts. How much I owe to the world, to life, to other people! Forgiveness seems to me to supply the extra, superabundant substance that upholds the world while we struggle to comprehend our own divided, limited, frequently self-destructive nature. Without that substance, we would all be dead long ago.
It strikes me that in this prayer forgiving is the only thing we humans are asked to do; every other deed mentioned belongs to God. But when we forgive, it seemingly sparks the divine activity that flows back to us, uniting and healing all. When we forgive, we touch upon the divine nature in ourselves.
And so I struggle to foster that welling-up of life within, countering the rage born of emptiness and impotence. If I can contribute even a few drops to the unseen ocean of love that surrounds us, at least I will have done something creative, rather than destructive. Right now, that’s all I can ask for.