June 19, 2014
How do you define forgiveness? Seriously, if you were asked what it means to forgive someone, how would you describe it?
I ask this because, as you can imagine, forgiveness is an issue that comes up frequently in therapy and spiritual direction. Often it is not being able to forgive another person for a betrayal of some kind. Sometimes it is about not being able to forgive oneself for a past mistake or action. Occasionally it is about being able to receive the forgiveness of another person or even receiving forgiveness from God.
The holy scriptures of all religions address the issue of forgiveness, but mostly they all just say that it is important to forgive. Do it, they all say, and Jesus says do it seventy times seven. Wow! Still, what is the “it” that we do when we forgive?
I’d like to offer a few ways of thinking about forgiveness. Perhaps one of these will be helpful to you.
Forgiveness is being able to look someone who has hurt you in the eye, either literally or metaphorically, and say, “What you did to me hurt, AND, it has no power in my life any more.” This is a definition I first heard from Carolyn Myss.
I like that, although I might insert one word to it, which is the word “negative”. It has no negative power in my life anymore. This way of thinking about forgiveness acknowledges that actions have consequences. It doesn’t deny the pain of betrayal or the mourning and grief that follows. We get a sense that there is a process that might take a long time. But then it moves past that by saying that you are not trapped by that action and that your life has moved forward. It speaks to me of the energy of forgiveness and of the freedom that forgiveness is about. We are free when what someone did has no negative power in our life any more. Sometimes the way people work their way to forgiveness is by turning the action into something positive, so there can be a positive power. For example, when someone is killed by a driver who is texting and the hurt family become activists in getting “No Texting” laws enacted. That is positive energy and power.
Another way of thinking about forgiveness that I like is saying that when you have forgiven another, you no longer define them by their past action. Yes, you hurt me and it has had an impact on me, but I am not defining you by just that action. I see you as larger than that, more that that. The reason I like this is because it encourages us to look beyond one specific action and to see someone else for all that they are. In some ways it acknowledges that we are all on a journey toward wholeness. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to interact with this person in the same way we use to. We can make decisions about what feels right and safe to us.
This way of thinking is especially helpful with self forgiveness, which for many seems to be harder than forgiving another. When we forgive ourselves, we must be able to say that whatever that mistake or behavior was in the past, we no longer define ourselves by that action alone. We are more than that. Where we were then and where we are now are different stages of the journey.
So often I hear people say, “ I know that God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself.” When I ask what that means to them, they will say things like they believe God has wiped the slate clean or that everything is washed away. However, they still think about it and worry about it so they must not have forgiven themselves. If we expect forgiveness to mean amnesia, we are setting ourselves up for a lifetime of feeling unforgiven. We don’t forget what we have done, nor do I think we should. We know what we have done and we should have looked all of that squarely in the eye. We may have wrestled with those demons and spent hours being detectives about our own behavior. Good! And now we know that we are not defined by that. Whatever that was, it is woven into the tapestry that we are, and we are a picture much bigger than, more than that incident. To use religious language, we are not defined by that mistake but are defined as a child of God with amazing potential and possibilities. We must define ourselves differently. We must look at the whole tapestry.
Think about what you mean by the action of forgiveness. Do you have a way of thinking about it that is freeing and helpful, that doesn’t deny the reality of what happened but also doesn’t keep you stuck in the past?
Amy Sander Montanez, D.Min.
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