In the Sunday Gospel readings over the last couple of weeks, it seems that Jesus has been really challenging our built-in attitudes with his demands. Moreover, those challenges he sets for us seem to be getting more demanding every week. Today’s non-negotiable demand to forgive every time we have been wronged is pretty much impossible. What’s next? Loving our enemies?
‘Must I forgive my brother as often as seven times?’ Peter’s question describes the limited patience and sympathy everyone has for those who keep on hurting us time and again in one way or another. In other words, surely there ought to be a limit to the number of times one forgives, followed by punishment or harsh treatment when that limit expires. Jesus’ answer – to forgive seventy-seven times – must have raised a few eyebrows: it’s so easy to lose count! In the Old Testament there was a law in place to limit the extent of corporal punishment: 40 lashes. In practice, 39 were administered to avoid going over the top in case the executioner made a mistake while counting. How much more difficult it is to count seventy-seven instances of forgiveness over a much longer period of time, especially when I’m surrounded by so many whose wrongdoings I have to forgive. That would require me to keep a ledger! The real difficulty with Jesus’ demand, however, doesn’t lie with the actual counting. In fact, in the symbolic language of the Bible ‘seventy-seven’ – translated by some as seventy times seven – means always, without putting up any limits. That’s harsh! That’s impossible, isn’t it?
Well, such a demand is impossible to fulfil if we stick to the common misconceptions about forgiveness. Based on my own experience, and on the experience of the many people I’ve helped over the years, I’d like to share with you a few discoveries. Hopefully, these will help you to see that forgiving is possible, and that in fact the only way to have a happy life is to forgive. Here are these discoveries, in no particular order.
Firstly, we need to recognise that forgiving is not a matter of feelings or emotions. Forgiving is a mindful, conscious decision made by an individual; it’s a deliberate resolution to reject vengefulness and hatred as motivations to respond. Feelings, because we have little control over them, have nothing to do with coming to such a decision.
Secondly, we make the mistake of equating forgiving with forgetting. They are not the same. Our memories cannot be erased. When I forgive, I can’t forget. However, after I have forgiven, those painful memories fade with the passing of time and loosen their grip on my life. They remain part of my life experience, but cease to cause me pain. In fact, forgiveness is the way to deal with the painful past.
Thirdly, we make the mistake of thinking that those who have hurt us ought to show genuine remorse in order to deserve our forgiveness. I have to forgive them not to set them free, but to liberate myself. The hurtful experience is like an invisible but extremely strong tether, binding us to those who have hurt us, and robbing us of our lives. When I forgive, that tether is broken and I’m set free. Moreover, those people don’t have to know that they have been forgiven. My late father probably never learnt that I had forgiven him. It wasn’t about him, it was about me.
The last misconception I want to put right is that, when I have forgiven someone, the person in question and I automatically start from scratch with a nice clean slate. But that’s obviously wrong: we learn from our own mistakes and – hopefully – from other people’s mistakes too. Forgiveness is part of a lifelong learning process. Each act of forgiveness gives me a new opportunity, it opens a new chapter, it leans towards the future, but it must be anchored in my past experiences. Rejecting the past is naïve and it’s the perfect recipe for repeating the same mistakes and being hurt in the same way.
Let me sum up briefly. Forgive people who have hurt you, not because they deserve it but because you deserve it. Let all your resentments go to make room for peace of mind. Abandon vengefulness and hatred as your driving force, and set yourself free. Forgive but don’t forget to learn from your hurtful experiences.
Perhaps we can take into consideration a piece of advice from Nelson Mandela, a man who knew a lot about hatred: ‘Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.’
Photo by qimono