Forgiveness in Real Life

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July 31, 2006

A little education is dangerous. It tempts us to think we are absolutely right about this or that and that others are equally wrong.

I think nurtured knowledge (in-depth education), on the other hand, makes us humble; it moderates our judgments by keeping in the equation the consciousness of how much we don’t know. It also gives us great confidence. When we have done our homework, we are comfortable with what we believe, and at the same time are unafraid to confront other viewpoints that could modify or improve our current position. We are willing to change course — even at great cost to our intellectual pride — if the new course means thinking better.

I think this is why a series, like this one on forgiveness, is helpful. We’ve been mulling over the topic for a week, and have approached it in steps. We have matured our thinking and perhaps even changed our minds.

Here, in a few words, is a summary of some of my own conclusions about forgiveness. I would not have written these thoughts in the same way last week; you’ve made me think, and re-think. Thank you.

Defining Forgiveness — Forgiveness is the act of releasing another person or institution from the restitution they owe or the punishment they deserve. While forgiveness can apply to legal contracts, we usually use the term in reference to a person’s internal attitude toward another. In this context, forgiveness is an action-to detach our will (heart) from the emotions of anger and resentment we experience against a person who we believe has committed an injustice and who, in our estimation, has not yet made sufficient retribution. A true act of forgiveness is not always accompanied immediately by good feelings, in fact, it often hurts, but it begins the restoration of our soul’s interior order, which was tangled by our reaction to a real or perceived offense.

Forgiveness in Real Life — Let’s try to make the above thoughts practical by looking at five questions. Keep in mind I am approaching forgiveness on this blog from an ethical, not theological point of view. I am limiting myself to principles I think many of us share, based on your feedback. They bridge various religious traditions, but in no way intend to exhaust the teaching of any religious tradition in particular on the subject.

1) Can I forgive someone who has not yet asked for forgiveness?
Yes, I think we can, but don’t confuse forgiveness with perfect friendship. If someone has hurt me knowingly, it makes sense that our friendship can only return to the fullness of its prior state if that person chooses to acknowledge his or her fault, and in some way asks for pardon. Nevertheless, in cases where this does not occur, we can still choose to let go of anger and resentment--forgive. Besides the good this act does for the forgiver, it also is the best preparation for future reconciliation with the person who has offended (in cases where this is possible).

2) Can I forgive someone who continues to offend me?
This is a similar case. I can forgive the person interiorly, but I mustn’t pretend our relationship is in tact, or the person deserves my unconditional trust. Trust is confidence in a person’s future action. The continual offender is not deserving of trust. He or she is, however, deserving of love. I’ll explain the difference in case #3.

3) How do I know if I have truly forgiven someone?
Forgiving someone is an act of love. It is not necessarily an act of “liking”. To love someone is to want and seek the best for him or her. I have yet to hear a marriage vow that promises, “I will like you for the rest of my life, until death do us part” No, we can promise to love, but we can’t promise to like. Similarly, when we forgive someone, we don’t need to get warm and fuzzy feelings. It is a decision to let go of what we were purposefully holding on to, and to want and seek the best for that person (love). We shouldn’t be surprised if it takes time to feel the results.

4) If I forgive do I have to forget?
If we ask the question like that — “Do I have to forget?” — we probably have not forgiven in the first place. Even when there is true forgiveness, however, it is not always possible to forget what has happened. That’s part of our human condition. In my experience, a person who has forgiven is often better able to control his or her thoughts and memory, and is thus less a prisoner of the past. Since he has already let go, he finds no pressing need to continue to cling to what he cannot fix.

5) Can I forgive myself?
To forgive oneself is a metaphor. We can’t “release ourselves from the restitution we owe," as in forgiveness, but we can decide to stop wallowing in self-pity. If I find I can’t “forgive” myself for something I have done, it probably means I don’t think I can ever be properly forgiven by the person (or God) whom I have offended. Self-pity is a form of pride. It is placing our wounded vanity at the epicenter of our existence. A humble person, on the other hand, gets right up after a fall, asks forgiveness if necessary, and focuses the rest of his or energy on doing good and avoiding future pitfalls.

From the looks of things, our conversation about forgiveness has not solved the problems in the Middle East, even though these tragic events were the inspiration for our series. I have seen no breathtaking pictures of Israeli Prime Minister Olmert embracing Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

We can say the situation there is much more complex than kissing and making up. Who would deny, however, the world — including the Middle East — would be a better, more peaceful place if each of us, religion and cultural differences aside, had the courage to always forgive and always receive forgiveness.

This is my hope and prayer for the Middle East. It will not be easy, but it is possible.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. For those interested, click here to read a book review that explains some similarities of and differences between the Jewish and Christian understanding of forgiveness.

P.P.S: On Friday, I did a television segment on FOX News about the situation in Israel and the predictions of the “end times." You can find it above in the “video” section, just above the pictures.

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