Forgiving is the hardest thing to do.
Forgiving doesn’t trivialize an offence – as if to say, “It doesn’t matter – I forgive you.” It does matter. If it didn’t matter, there would be nothing to forgive.
Forgiving isn’t about deserving. If someone has offended you enough that forgiving them is a challenge or even an impossibility, then they don’t “deserve” forgiveness. They may need it, want it, ask for it, or they may not even care about it, but no-one deserves it.
Forgiving doesn’t come naturally. Natural responses to offense would be to hit back, or to withdraw and hold a grudge, or to find a surreptitious means of hurting in return. Some people are more readily forgiving than others, but find an offence deep enough, and you’ll find that there is a point at which it doesn’t come naturally.
Forgiving isn’t about trading. “I’ll forgive you if you pay” never quite works. There is restitution, of course – and if the offending party is prepared to do whatever is possible to repair an offence, then forgiveness may flow more easily. But for the offended party, there is always a level at which some cost is borne. If it was possible for the offense to be paid for completely, there would be nothing left to forgive.
Forgiving doesn’t turn the clock back – not completely. It doesn’t mean you pretend it never happened. It means that you choose not to take revenge, bear a grudge, demand an eye for an eye or worse.
Why forgive, then, if it costs so much?
Forgiving is about releasing chains that hold us.
The offender is released – to some extent – by being forgiven. Often not scot-free, because forgiving doesn’t mean pretending something never happened. Forgiving a relative triviality might mean a total repair to relationship, but there are circumstances where even though forgiveness is offered, the offender still has to live with conscience or consequence. Not all relationships can be completely repaired, and the injury and memory of the past can’t be wiped clean even if the sting is removed.
But the offended party is released, as well as the offender, by forgiving. Carrying a grudge, a burden of anger, creates lonely souls. Unresolved, it makes some people explosive, and others depressed, and its corrosive effect produces points of isolation.
And further, forgiving draws a line under the offence, so that you don’t spread bitterness to those around you, or to the next generation. If you have unresolved grief, bitterness, resentment, it’s almost impossible not to hand it on to those around you. So it is, in a sense, a duty of care to the world to move towards forgiveness, for it stops the spread of the disease. This is true even if you are the offended party. Not to take the steps you can towards forgiveness (and sometimes it takes time and a lot of repeated baby steps to get there) is to create a further offence to others out of the one that was dealt to you.
Forgiving a deeply felt offence really doesn’t happen in an instant. Especially so if it changed the whole course of your life (although curiously it seems that sometimes people find relatively trivial offences harder to forgive than ones of gargantuan proportions). Sometimes you have to live with a repeating cycle of forgiveness – coming back to that decision every single day, until eventually it wears a deeper groove in your soul than the anger and hurt and grief. But what’s the alternative? It’s like choosing between which of two creatures you will feed. Feed the doves, and sooner or later their peaceful cooing will float through your window. Feed the wolves, and eventually they will eat you too.
(First published February 2014)