It’s Good Friday today, a day to remember that Most Epic of Days, the day when the framework for relationship between God and humans was permanently changed. On that day the old terms of engagement between God and people were ripped up and new ones were forged. There was a new way of having a relationship with God, and it was suddenly, radically, available to anyone and everyone who wants it.
So I post this post about forgiveness today, on Good Friday, because that moment – the moment where Jesus gave up his spirit and the whole structure, foundation, framework of how God and people relate was broken open – that epic moment is my touchstone for everything I believe and practice about forgiveness. It’s the day that made it possible for me to be forgiven for all the things that would have stopped me having a relationship with God, and it’s the day that made it possible for me to forgive.
If you are not a person with the same faith as me, I’m pretty sure this post will still be helpful, but I don’t know – either way, I’d love to hear from you! In any case, I have decided to write it from this personal point of view, because that is the most honest thing I can offer, and because that is really all I know.
So…I’ve spent quite a lot of time in my last two posts talking about what forgiveness is not, but what is it? It’s an important question – the important question when I’m angry at someone, and holding on to that anger with tight fisted pain. When I’m wrestling with the idea of forgiving someone, I grasp for a simple and meaningful understanding of what forgiveness is that cuts through all the noise in my head and emotions.
My go to phrase for defining forgiveness in the heat of rage is “Do you hold this against them?” An even simpler way of saying this is “forgiveness is release.” A very frustrating truth is that when someone hurts me or wrongs me, I am tied to them through what I hold against them because of what they did. Basically, I am holding on to my right (or perceived right) to hold this thing against them – I am within my rights, I believe in that moment, to see them punished, to see them get what is coming to them, or simply to always know what they did. I am within my rights to hold this thing against them, till the day they die if that’s what it takes.
The opposite of forgiveness is not justice, it’s vengeance.
I’m not going to talk here about whether or not it’s true that we really are within our rights to hold these things against people. I know when I am holding something against someone that is really ALL I want to talk or think about, but it actually doesn’t have a lot to do with forgiveness. What is important is to recognise that those rights – whether real or perceived – to vengeance, punishment and holding a thing against a person – are like a chain, like a chain that is around their feet and in our hands. The chain is real, whether the rights are real or perceived. The way I think about it, whether or not they recognise it, when people wrong us they link themselves to us…they have some debt owed to us now represented by this chain that we are carrying around with us. They may be oblivious, but in our hearts we’re like “Oh dude, I know, I KNOW. Look at this huge chain I got on you. You got it coming to you one day.”
The problem with the chain is that to the exact same extent that they are linked to us, we are linked to them. This sucks, because who is the last person in the world you want to be linked to through some super strong ugly-ass chain? THAT PERSON, right? Also the chain is heavy.
Un-forgiveness is carrying the chain around.
Forgiveness is letting the chain go.
Forgiveness is unclenching your fists, letting go of your grip, letting the chain slip through your fingers and crash to the floor. It’s leaving it lying there on the ground, and walking away from it. The killer thing is that this means they can walk away too – maybe not from the consequences, but from what they ‘owe’ you. I know I sometimes feel that if I’m letting go of the chain, I’m letting the person “get away with it.” The crazy thing is that a heck load of people who have wronged others don’t even realise that anyone is holding anything against them. Un-forgiveness is a really ineffective way of serving justice, even if it makes us feel better, or at least more justified somehow. Be that what it may, the choice still stands. You can carry the chain, hold that thing against a person, and not release them. They may not know it, they may not suffer, but you will. Or you can choose to let the chain go and be free of being tied to that person through that incident.
Forgiveness is release. You can think of it as releasing yourself or as releasing the other person – they are one and the same thing. It’s the same chain; forgiveness is letting go of the chain.
I’ve talked a lot about choice in all of this, and that’s because I believe that forgiveness is an act of the will, much like letting go of a chain is. For me personally, I have made an overarching life choice for forgiveness. I forgive because I want to live a life of beauty, connection, adventure and freedom. There ain’t nothing beautiful about being encumbered with chains of vengeance which hold me back from going on adventures to both internal and external places of beauty. Chains of vengeance and connection are pretty much polar opposites, and most obviously of all, well – freedom. I want to live free. So, because I’ve made an overarching choice, I eventually get to the point where I choose, despite my emotions, to make a particular choice. This is where the chain analogy kind of breaks down, because once you’ve let go of a crazy heavy chain, you probably wouldn’t pick it up again, but in my experience that’s how it is with forgiveness. In my hurt and in my anger, I often have to make the choice to forgive, over and over and over again, for the same thing.
So why have I chosen to forgive, if it’s so hard? Well like I said, I forgive because of the life I want to lead – a life of connection, beauty, adventure and freedom.
I also forgive because of who I want to be. I want to be a person who is free inside. I don’t want to be carrying the raw wounds of the past around with me for the rest of my life; I want to heal. I don’t want to turn bitter or sour. I want to be a person who is filled with love and peace and freedom. I don’t want to be burned on relationships. I don’t want to get cynical.
I forgive because of who I am. No matter how much you hurt me, you can’t take away from me the fact that I’m a person who has chosen to forgive. That dignity will always be mine.
I forgive because I’ve been forgiven. This relates to that touchstone of the cross, remembered especially today. I’ve got plenty of wrong that I do and say and think and am, and way too much right that I don’t do, don’t say, don’t think and am not, but – joy of joys – it’s not held against me. I get the freedom and beauty and passion of a life with God freely offered and freely received, and I also get connections with people I’ve hurt and let down. So I forgive, because I’ve been forgiven.
I forgive because I want to be forgiven. Jesus was pretty straight up about this: don’t be a hypocrite. He even said that if we forgive others, we will be forgiven by God, and that if we don’t, we won’t. He taught us to pray “forgive us, God, as we forgive people who wrong us.” Forgive us AS we forgive others – in the same way, by the same measure.
Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven. Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back.
So I’ve chosen forgiveness in the bigger picture, but that doesn’t make it easy in the particular. It’s just that killer feeling that it’s so wrong to let go of the chain: “look what they did!” It feels like it’s letting them get away scot free. They don’t deserve it. Be that what it may, the choice still stands. I can carry the chain, hold that thing against a person and not release them. Or, I can choose to let the chain go.
I choose to forgive.
How to forgive
Once I’ve made the choice to forgive someone, all that remains is actually doing it (and then, you know, doing it again, and again, and again, and again till that chain ain’t no where to be seen). So this is what I do.
I’m honest about my hurt. I recognise exactly what it is I’m angry or hurt about, often by journalling, and I express that anger. Then I stop and think about what I’m holding against the person I’m forgiving, and I decide to let it go. Sometimes I need to remind myself of why I’m choosing to forgive. Sometimes it’s helpful to visualise myself letting the chain go.
Then I write or say out loud something like: “I forgive ______[the person]______ for ____[what they did]______. I choose to let go __[then I name the specific things I’m holding against them and the way it affected me]___. I let go of any right I may have to hold this against them. I don’t hold it against them.” Then I pray, saying more or less the same thing to God. “I thank you that you have forgiven me so much and right now I choose to forgive [this person]. I leave him or her with you. I no longer hold this against them. I pray you would work in their life for good. I pray you would help me to heal. I release this. I let it go.”
That’s it. I may not feel any different afterwards, but that’s what I do. Then the next time it comes up again, which it will, I do the same thing again. Some chains, especially ones we’ve carried around for years, take some time to break. I just keep doing it, day after day, until I find that I’m not longer thinking about it any more and slowly, over time, it stops coming up. It get easier with time.
So that my friends, is my take on what forgiveness is and how to do it. I know this is a big topic that brings up a lot of emotions. I’d love to hear any of your stories that you’d like to share.
Happy Good Friday!
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