As we forgive

When I feel attacked, I don’t want to feed the other person’ 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.

The Return of the Prodigal Son – Rembrandt, 1669

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8 thoughts on “As we forgive

  1. “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.” 

    I’d composed a long answer to this, Lory, but suddenly all my text disappeared, no doubt because I was briefly distracted. I’d put in a discussion on how pure a petition the Lord’s Prayer was, the relationship between debts and trespasses and the stages where reconciliation might be possible —recognition, regret, reparation—in the particular case of domestic abuse but as applied more generally. Luckily you’ve been spared all that!

    So I’ll just get to the nub of my points: the old proverb ‘To err is human, to forgive, divine’ (Alexander Pope, apparently) is the key here. It’s really hard for us humans to forgive and forget, because the forgetting is equivalent to cancelling all debts; but what we can do is forgive, for now. However hard that may be.

    But what we mustn’t do is forget that the hurt has been done, because if your hurtful friend doesn’t acknowledge the hurt caused, nor yet apologise for it, they may well do it again — and you may then find yourself back at square one.

    Perhaps the true forgiveness and forgetting comes with tackling the friend about what they’ve done. If they don’t ‘fess up to it, then you will perhaps know that they aren’t a true friend.

    I hope that makes some sense; I’ve just read it through and am not sure I’ve put it as well as I hoped to.

    1. I think we’re on the same page. To call someone out for unworthy behavior in a way that also embraces forgiveness is a very high and noble deed. I think the great spiritual leaders give us many examples of this; I can only aspire to be in some small measure like them.

      thanks for your comments — seen and unseen 🙂

  2. This is something I am struggling. I found your point about forgiveness of debt particularly helpful and I am still mulling it over.

    For a number of years I had a tumultuous relationship with very dear friend. I (unwittingly) offended her quite often and, hurt, she would react very angrily and hurt me back. While I always apologised, she never did. I thought that I had accepted this was just the way things were in that particular friendship. Things came to a head almost a year ago and the friendship was finished. I realised afterwards that actually I was, deep down, angry with her; I had in fact not forgiven her as I had thought because she had never once acknowledged that she had hurt me too, and had meant to. This made me feel very ashamed – not only for hurting my friend but also deceiving myself about my ability to forgive. And I still feel ashamed about this.

    So your post is very welcome and I hope that your path to forgiveness is less hard than mine is proving to be. And thank you. 🙂

    1. I can sympathize with your predicament, I’ve definitely been there myself. I think that our cultural conditioning pushes us to be “good” and to forgive on the surface without penetrating into the real depths. Your friend certainly sounds like she is in need of deep healing, and your innocent wish to be kind and forgiving didn’t really help. On the other hand, getting angry at her very likely would have made things even worse, so please don’t blame yourself. Seems like the situation was just beyond you.

      I agree that the self-deception one discovers is the worst part of such situations, but I’m increasingly interested in how our bodies have unconscious defense mechanisms that step in when we’re being threatened. This means that our brains actually shut down when confronted by an aggressor, putting us into a “frozen” state or causing us to pacify them at all costs. Your friend was being aggressive by never apologizing, and your unconscious stepped in to protect you. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.

      One can actually be amazed both at the wondrous power lurking in our bodies and our brains all unknown to us, and at our human capacity to slowly wake up to those processes and shift them by exerting our free will. But it takes time! Our instincts were formed over millions of years, so we shouldn’t expect to overcome them in an instant.

      So I hope you can forgive yourself for whatever you feel you didn’t do well enough in the past, and learn something to help you in the future. That’s what I try to concentrate on at this point. 🙂

      1. Lory, how very kind of you to take the time to write such a splendid comment, thank you! You have given me another and more useful way of looking at the situation, and I have to say it has made me feel better too. 🙂 Trying to learn how to do things better is what it’s all about, I agree; I think I need to find ways to be able to call people out on things without being unkind or hurtful (at the moment I tend to just let it pass and that’s not really good for anyone) but I really do find that a continuing struggle. Perhaps this is helping me to take a step further along that path, and I appreciate it.

        1. Thank you for sharing your experience, I’m grateful for the blog community that helps me with my own questions. Let’s keep the conversation going!

  3. Lory, I think God asks us to forgive for our own sakes as much as the other person’s. It will only hurt yourself to carry around bitterness, hatred and the hurt someone else may have caused you. However I don’t always believe that forgiving will always mean the relationship will be fixed, sometimes there has been too much hurt and it is kinder to part ways. As for people who consistently throw back your apologies, kindness or advice there is the proverb: “Cast not pearls before swine”. A warning to not to waste good things on people who will not appreciate them.

    1. Certainly holding on to bitterness, hatred and hurt can’t benefit anyone. We have to let go of that before anything good can come in — but even so, you’re right that some relationships can’t be mended. Giving up can be hard but sometimes it’s the most positive step.

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