I’ve been reading this month about forgiveness – it’s a long story really. A series of situations made me realize I didn’t know as much about this Biblical mandate as I wanted.
I knew it was important, I knew we should practice forgiveness, and I wanted to forgive certain people in my life, but when actually trying to forgive, I sometimes found myself hitting a brick wall.
This made me take a big step back and ask myself, “What does it mean to forgive?” How do you keep forgiving someone who injures you over and over? Obviously it would be ideal to minimize contact with this person…but what if you can’t?
I realized I had held a lot of misconceptions about forgiveness – like it was a magic wand you could wave to wipe everything away and return it to the way it was before.
Among other things, I picked up a copy of Forgive for Good, by Dr. Fred Luskin, which made me look at forgiveness from a angle I had never considered.
In short, I learned:
- Forgiveness does not equal amnesia. As a child I had grown up with the words, “Forgiveness is acting like it never happened.” This is not necessarily true. Forgiveness is not forgetting the incident took place – it is dealing with the injury, releasing the ill-will you feel towards a person and moving on.
- Forgiveness is for you. It’s a choice – and whether the other person chooses to forgive (or even admits any wrongdoing) is immaterial. It’s nice, but not necessary to have reciprocal admittance and forgiveness.
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean the offender wasn’t wrong, and it doesn’t condone bad behavior. You might still have to set some boundaries. It just means you are moving on with your life. Your mind is like a television channel, Luskin writes, and you control the remote. You control what you “watch” all day long, whether it’s the positivity channel, the woe-is-me channel, or how-could-they-do-this-to-me channel.
- Forgiveness isn’t a magic virtue – like anything else (peace, self-discipline, generosity, patience, etc.) it must be cultivated and practiced.
- Forgiveness isn’t just a Biblical command – it can actually affect our health in ways we can’t see. People who hold on to things in their mind have a higher incidence of stress, irritability, road rage, high blood pressure, sleep disorders, digestive complaints, heart problems, and a whole host of other illnesses than people who learn to simply let things go.
In my case, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of letting things go – I would try to let it “roll off” when an offense happened. I realized later that while I may have been putting it out of my mind, I wasn’t actually dealing with it – it all came rushing back one day like a crashing wall of frustration.
In Forgive for Good, Ruskin describes the human mind as a busy airport. When someone creates a grievance or offense, it’s like a airplane with an endless gas supply that starts circling in your mind. Sure, it may fly out of the picture temporarily, but it always comes back, circling the runway, until you command it to land. Imagine the clutter of several planes circling the tower over and over. To achieve peace, forgiveness (and health) you’ve got to land some of those planes.
Still, I find that it’s the repeat offense that’s often the hardest. When Jesus was asked how many times to forgive (“Should I forgive my brother seven times?”) Jesus replied, “No, seventy-seven times.” It’s like God knew we would keep injuring each other over and over. And while our human sense “fairness” kicks in to protest, we should be reminded of the ledger we have already run up against God.
Despite our best intentions, in a way we are destined to keep injuring him over and over and over.
Only unlike us, he has closed down that airspace for good.
He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself, for every man needs to be forgiven.
– Lord Herbert