As I write this, I must take a moment to acknowledge the rather monumental elephant in the room that is ever-present in all of our lives: Hypocrisy. I’m no different than you, dear reader; I have my own flaws (too many!), and for the topic of this post I’m no different. I’ve contemplated forgiveness for many people I’ve known over the years, repeatedly falling short and never truly forgiving them in my heart.
In this post, I’ll explore a little bit about the underpinning reasons for this (my ex-girlfriend) and what it means. I’m writing this only for the sake of completeness for the handful of friends who’ve read the rather painful post that predated this and serves to provide some context.
What Forgiveness Isn’t
Forgiveness isn’t about reconciliation–that’s a myth. Far too often, I’ve heard many of my friends and acquaintances lament forgiveness as a binary thing: Forgive someone and reconcile with them or remain angry with them and never forgive. Except that this isn’t true. Forgiveness certainly can coincide with reconciliation. Oftentimes it doesn’t.
Forgiveness also doesn’t mean that you accept what ills someone inflicted on you. You accept the outcome, but you need not accept that their behavioral pattern is justifiable or should be encouraged. If someone flings arrows at you, forgiveness means that you accept the new-found knowledge that this individual isn’t who you thought they were. You move on, taking this lesson to heart, and accept that your own response and understanding of their particular situation must adapt. Sometimes this means adjusting your relationship with that person. Sometimes this means leaving the relationship entirely.
Forgiveness isn’t even about the third party in your life that has done wrong. It’s about you.
Where the Lesson Started
My mother had been not-so-subtly encouraging me to attend church with her in the weeks following the demise of my then-long-term relationship. I resisted, but after many long evenings of prayer and thoughtful contemplation, I relented.
Before I continue, I wish to point this out: I know some of my readers aren’t especially religious–if at all–so this isn’t intended to be a near-Pharisaic display of my faith. This is provided for completeness and to explain some of my reasoning behind this post.
The first sermon I attended after a long hiatus from church services was, perhaps ironically, on anger (and forgiveness). This didn’t surprise me; I felt that I was being drawn to church for a reason, and I knew God had a message for me if I were only to obey His call. Specifically, the sermon was part of the pastor’s series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and more topically, it was a discussion of Matthew 5:21-26.
Under God’s law, anger and murder are treated the same. Except that anger has a few special conditions: If you’re angry with someone, you must forgive them. If you know someone is angry with you, you must ask them for forgiveness; if they don’t accept, then the responsibility is upon them and your involvement is washed clean.
Matthew 5 isn’t particularly clear on this point, and it requires reading associated texts (some from the Old Testament) to gain a complete understanding of Jesus’ message that may otherwise be somewhat cryptic to modern audiences. With sufficient due diligence, an understanding can be made that in Christendom, forgiveness is a particularly important concept. Indeed, it’s one that appears throughout the New Testament, up to and including Jesus’ sacrifice.
The crux of this didn’t impact me until the very end of the sermon when the pastor ended with his closing prayer. While it’s been many weeks since, and I’m paraphrasing his words; he said something to the effect of: Lord, if there is anyone here who is angry with another, possibly because that person was done wrong by someone else or they were hurt by that person, help them forgive the wrongdoer so they can be right with you.
It struck me at that point that the message I was called to hear was one I’d already anticipated–but sometimes knowing the answer and hearing the answer from someone else are opposite sides of the same actionable outcome. Oftentimes I’ll know what I need to do, but it may not seem like the correct outcome until I hear someone else verbally repeat the knowledge I though I had internalized.
As I struggled with finding my own path toward forgiveness, I ran across an article on NPR titled “Why Forgiving Someone Else is Really About You.” Curious timing aside, the article makes a strong case toward painting forgiveness as resolving internal conflict and finding freedom from one’s own emotions.
It was a particularly well-timed read since I’d felt myself occasionally vacillating between mild anger or resentment whenever I’d think about my ex-girlfriend. Sometimes I’d see or hear something that would bring back a couple of memories, and I’d relapse into thinking nonsense thoughts like “Why did you do this to me?” Then I’d snap back to reality and recognize that the path forward, thus far, has been incredibly positive compared to the path I was on with her.
But the chains of resentment are difficult to rid yourself of, and I think forgiveness truly is the first step toward freedom.
What Forgiveness Is
By forgiving someone, particularly a person who inflicted great pain or misery, you rob them of whatever power they might hold over your life. Forgiveness if the first step toward accepting past events and finding a way forward. By forgiving someone, you begin a healing process that will help mitigate how often you find your thoughts consumed by their actions toward you.
It’s incredible how freeing that feeling truly is. By forgiving someone, you can accept the way things are and deal with them accordingly. You reduce the influence of negative emotions toward someone else and (eventually!) find a resolution where positive emotions take priority.
Again, forgiveness isn’t about reconciliation. Of course, this is situational: Sometimes reconciliation is a valid outcome as part of a forgiveness strategy, but it shouldn’t be seen as the only outcome. In some cases, as with my failed relationship, reconciliation simply isn’t possible or desirable. Shifting toward a friendship after many years of romance rarely works. Perhaps this is a tremendous understatement if the romance ended in a substantial breach of trust or as a consequence of underlying trust issues or repeated dishonesty (each of which I had to endure). If the person in question simply isn’t trustworthy, or if continuing any relationship with them would result in worse outcomes, it’s apropos to cut your losses instead and walk away than it is to endure more of the same.
It took me years to recognize these truths, and I’m sure there will be many more examples where my decision-making process falls short of any semblance of “did you learn something from this?” But I fully expect that the long term benefits of finally understanding the importance of forgiveness will be everlasting.
I would encourage you to consider forgiveness if you’re in a situation where someone’s actions are eating at your soul. It doesn’t mean you have to reconcile with that person–or go out of your way to be friendly!–but by forgiving them, you deprive them of the power they hold over your life; power they may not even be aware of! You start the important process of ridding them from your conscious mind, and only then can you begin to heal. Suffice to say: Sometimes healing the wounds inflicted by another and finding your own path toward happiness is the best form of retribution.
Misery loves company, but it loathes happiness.