May 2009

Forgiveness Is Healing

Good Friday started me thinking again about forgiveness. It is so central to our spiritual health and to our psychological health. And since everything in our lives is connected to everything else, it is surely also central to our physical health. Yet for most of us, it is very difficult to practice. It can be so hard for us to forgive those who have hurt or wronged us. It can be just as hard, if not more so, to forgive ourselves when we have failed to live up to our own expectations. Even God can be hard to forgive. When tragedy strikes, some feel God should have prevented it, and so they hold God responsible for it. Then they struggle to reconcile the event with their concept of God. Does God need to be forgiven?

Apparently Jesus did not think so. Although he wrestled with his sense of his destiny in the Garden of Gethsemane, and asked God to work out a different plan, there is no record of his blaming his death on God. Then as life ebbed from his body on the cross, he prayed for forgiveness for those who were putting him to death. How was that possible? There may be an explanation in his statement that they did not know what they were doing. But given the mockery and cruelty of their actions, it is hard to absolve them of all wrongdoing. Yet not only does Jesus pray for their forgiveness, he offers it without any indication of penitence or regret on their part.

As challenging as it is for us to forgive someone who has wronged us, we usually feel no need to do so where there has been no apology. Most of us need to hear the other person acknowledge that he or she has done wrong, is sorry for it, wants to make reparation where possible, and promises not to do it again. Such an apology can be very gratifying and make it easier for us to forgive, sometimes. When no apology is forthcoming, we can feel justified in holding onto our anger and resentment.

However, this is not exactly the way God operates with us, and apparently it is not the way God wishes for us to deal with one another. God was not hanging out in heaven, arms folded across the chest, foot tapping on the ground, in a huff about our failure to apologize for all our wrongdoing. God took the initiative to come to us with forgiveness. God has taken the initiative to heal our relationship. God forgives so that we might forgive. “We love because God first loved us.” (I John 4:19)

I heard the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rev. Rowan Williams (no relationship to me that I know of!) talking about this on the BBC on Good Friday. For me, the most striking point he made was that forgiveness is meant to heal both parties to the wrongdoing. Both are in need of healing, the one harmed and the one doing the harm. Both have been injured. When someone does another a wrong, it does harm to the wrongdoer as well as the one wronged. Consequently, each needs the other in order for healing to happen.

I am usually so focused on the injured parties (on my injury!), I have not thought much about the ones who caused the injuries, about what was going on inside them and about the damage it has done to them to have injured others. This is not to take away their responsibility for what they have done; it is rather to be aware that by extending forgiveness, we may participate in healing not only ourselves, but also those who have hurt us. Rowan Williams suggests that we need to be able to think something like this: “You caused me hurt, but you hurt yourself too; so now I want to have some part in healing the damage you’ve done to yourself – and I want you to have some part in my healing too. It is this possibility of healing one another that flows from God’s grace. To fail to take such an initiative is to choose to live in a prison of alienation and resentment. It is not what God wants for us. God wants better for us, and from us.

May we have the grace to extend forgiveness with all of its healing possibilities.