What is involved in the practice of forgiving someone—or indeed, being forgiven ourselves? Almost all of us sense the importance of forgiveness, aware as we are of situations and relationships where there has been a breach, or where unresolved conflicts cause harm year after year. Knowing these, we yearn for resolution, for ways of moving toward a future that is free of brokenness. But thinking about forgiveness, – to say nothing of finding the courage to practice it—can be difficult. <!–split–>
The very notion of forgiveness conjures up many painful images in our minds. Merely to consider this practice causes us to think about horrifying evil: slavery in the United States, or the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, or individual acts of rape, child abuse, and domestic violence. It is difficult even to comprehend the depths of pain and suffering in such situations. No wonder, then, that we are unsure whether forgiveness can make a difference—and if so, how.
Thinking about forgiveness also causes us to consider the smaller, day–to-day struggles involved in living with others at home, in church, or in the workplace. These struggles involve annoyances that seem petty but that nonetheless can sow the seeds of bitterness, as well as specific conflicts that sometimes fester into large and painful wounds. In these situations, it may be easier to understand that forgiveness is the right response than to be able to give or receive forgiveness, or even to want to do so.
Most of us would admit that sometimes we just don’t want to forgive someone or ask them for forgiveness, even when we know we should. The “should” may be based in our deepest beliefs; whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, after all, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Or the “should” may arise from our wish for peace, from our yearning for relationship restored. Even so, we just don’t feel able to forgive, or to ask for forgiveness; the
wounds are too raw, or we sense that the other person is unwilling to repent or to grant us the forgiveness we seek. And sometimes we simply prefer to let the conflict fester. Church council records from 16th-century Switzerland tell of a man who pretended that he could not remember the Lord’s Prayer because he knew that if he said it he would have to forgive the merchant who had cheated him. This was something he had no intention of doing!
Many of us believe in the importance of forgiveness and long to find ways of making it more central to our life together. Yet we wonder whether and how this can happen. On paper, forgiveness is great. The problem comes when we try to take it off the page and live it in our actual relations with one another. Can we do this?
Part of the problem is that we are often less sure of what and whom we love than we are of what and whom we hate. Indeed, we too often stake our identity on being against some person or group. We define ourselves against those who are strange to us, hoping perhaps to overcome our own uncertainty and vulnerability by defining them as less than human. Or we define ourselves against those from whom we have become estranged, whom we perhaps once loved by now see as enemies or threats to our well-being.
As a result, we allow feelings of hatred or bitterness to define and consume our lives, even to our own destruction. The story of two shopkeepers illustrates this. Their shops were across the street from each other, and whatever one did, the other would try to match and, if possible, exceed. One night, an angel of the Lord came to the first shopkeeper and said, “The Lord has sent me to you with the promise that you may have one wish that, no matter how extravagant, will be granted to you. There is only one catch: whatever you receive, your rival shopkeeper will receive twofold. What is your wish?” The first shopkeeper, thinking of his rival, responded: “My wish is that you would strike me blind in one eye.”
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.
– Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love