Why Should I Forgive?

Pentecost w Artist Effects

“I’ve said a lot of things in my life that I wish I could take back,” she said.

I had run into her in a restaurant, years after we had stopped being friends, though we treated one other with civility when our paths intersected.  We had a lengthy conversation, catching up on each other’s lives.  In my mind, I can still see the scene—the tables in the restaurant and even the periwinkle sweater she was wearing.  But I can’t recall anything else in the conversation.

I remember it because it was an implicit apology.  Our friendship ended when someone repeated to me something deeply hurtful that she’d said about me at a time when I was vulnerable.  At the time I was indignant, and though I’d like to think that I would have accepted an apology in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, I’m not certain I would have.

I have to admit, though, that I, too, have said things I wish I could take back.  It’s human nature to give voice to thoughts we know should never migrate across the slippery terrain between the brain and the lips.  We speak in a conspiratorial whisper to people we trust, and, inevitably, it makes its way back to the person who is the object of our derision, our mockery, our cattiness.

When we suspect we’ve been found out, the last thing we want to do is apologize.  Generally, we do just as this woman did and say something that will imply our sorrow but avoid giving us away, just in case the person really doesn’t know.

Even my mother, perhaps the kindest person I’ve ever known, wasn’t immune to human nature, though she tried hard to teach her children to be.  After my ten-year high school reunion, I made snide comments about a popular classmate who had been unkind to me.  The ten years had worn my classmate down, and I was gleeful in my derision of her to my sister and my mother.  Shortly after I returned home, I received a long letter from my mother, chiding me for my comments and reminding me to treat others as I would want them to treat me.

But that same mother was famous among her children for talking to one of us about a friend or a sibling’s shortcomings.  Whenever she was particularly miffed with one of us, we seldom heard it from her first.  Instead, we’d get a call from a sibling that we’d better make things right with Mom.

And if this is the way we behave in the face of small hurts and tiny indignities, how can we possibly forgive when others deliberately calculate to do us harm?

I have forgiven and have come to understand some loved ones who have dealt me the biggest hurts in my life—largely because they either apologized or showed their regret through their actions.

But there are two people, far less significant in my life, that I do have to work to forgive, and if I’m honest, I have to admit that while I’ve made progress, I haven’t yet fully forgiven them.

One hurt my daughter emotionally at a young age when she was vulnerable.  Surprisingly, my daughter remembers the person with dispassion.  Or perhaps that isn’t surprising.  I’m her mother, and I’d still shelter her from every hurt the world might fling at her if it were in my power to do so.

The other is someone who deliberately and methodically sought to do me harm and enlisted others in the enterprise.  I should have recognized it from the beginning.  I had once watched the person do the same to an acquaintance, and the encounter ended with the clueless acquaintance hugging her and thanking her as they parted ways, unaware that this woman was responsible for her downfall.  But I never thought I’d be a target.  As often happens, though, the gossips who love a juicy story couldn’t wait to enlighten me.  But I didn’t believe it until the woman’s closest allies thought she was unjust and told me so I wouldn’t be blindsided.

Much time has passed since then, and I don’t think of her often.  But this week at work someone told a story about her, and while I didn’t feel the anger I once felt, the righteous indignation came flooding back in a torrent.  In one of those interesting coincidences, though, the lectionary reading from the Old Testament that day was the story of Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his own brothers.  After most of a lifetime, his brothers, at the direction of their elderly father, come to Egypt to ask forgiveness.  Joseph’s response is one of the anchors of forgiveness in the holy texts of Jews and Christians:

Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:17b-21, New Revised Standard)

Having read that text earlier that morning was, for me, one of those unexplainable moments of God’s grace.  Though my wounds were small by comparison to Joseph’s, I had to admit when I heard the woman’s name that the life changes I made in the aftermath of my relationship with her have been overwhelmingly positive.  And I can’t write that off as coincidence.

It would be nice, of course, if she were ever to offer an apology, even an implied one like that of the woman in the restaurant.  So what do we do in the face of someone who has no regret and no desire for our forgiveness?  We work at forgiveness because we need to forgive—not for the other person but for ourselves.

Theologian Frederick Buechner said it well in his book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC:

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

For those of us who are Christians, we have in Jesus the ultimate example of what it means to forgive.  He told us and lived for us the importance of forgiveness.  But because we get the Gospels from the perspective of those who were on the receiving end of Christ’s grace, we can’t know how much being able to forgive changed even him.

But if, as we believe, Christ was fully human as well as fully divine, I can’t help but think that it did.  When we humans can find it in our hearts, as Christ did, to forgive and to have a small measure of understanding for those who hurt us, we diminish their power over us.  And that is the beginning of resurrection.

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