I want to elaborate on my last post. Forgiveness is not easy, and there are lots of useful tips that begin with something like, “In order to forgive, first . . . [insert important, worthwhile spiritual point].”
But before all that: In order to forgive, first someone must do something wrong.
Our culture is awash in fake forgiveness. Part of it is linguistic — the words “I’m sorry” mean “I have sorrow”, and you can grieve many things, not only your sins. The words “I apologize” have at their origin the idea of a defense, or explanation, that may well have nothing to do with guilt. But we respond “I forgive you” to some of these innocent sorrows and defenses, and that can create the false impression that we are frequently forgiving when really we are not.
My mother-in-law is half an hour late. I rant and stew. How could she make me wait?!! And then she arrives, and it turns out there was a bad accident, she had left home early but was stuck in traffic for an hour [of course I didn’t have my phone with me, she did call], she is terribly sorry [she really is] that I was inconvenienced. Well, I could say “I forgive you”, except she never did anything wrong. She’s completely innocent. If anything, I’m the guilty one, assuming the worst about her and getting mad before I even knew what had happened.
When we pretend we’re forgiving someone, but really they are innocent, that’s what I mean by “fake forgiveness”. It is a genuine letting go of anger and bitterness, but it’s not the hard kind of forgiveness that Jesus demands.
Another kind of fake forgiveness is the “I understand”. I once had a priest yell at me, in church, as I was saying my penance after confession. He was a crotchety old man, hard of hearing, in a lot of pain due to various ailments, and probably fed up to here with other parishioners that were eerily like myself. He was wrong. A priest certainly should not march out into the pews and loudly and angrily continue the topic brought up in confession. But I could understand. Grumpy guy. Grumpiness happens. I was glad it was me and not some other person whose faith would be more easily shaken. I argued with him, he took my point, two grumpy people satisfied to have each said our due.
–> But “I understand” can’t be the foundation of forgiveness. It is a help, for certain. It is the proverbial spoonful of sugar, that camaraderie and compassion for fellow sinners that makes it easier to overlook faults not unlike our own. But Jesus asks me to forgive even the people who are just really, really bad. The ones who have no excuse.
The nice thing is that many of us get to mostly wade in shallow waters. We get to “forgive” innocent people, and we can comfortably go about excusing the genuine but minor wrong-doing that we face from day to day.
But what if we kept our perception of right and wrong perfectly clear?
To my mother-in-law, I wouldn’t say “I forgive you”. I’d say: You haven’t done anything wrong. Thank you so much for thinking of me, that is very thoughtful, but I’d be foolish to be mad at you when you are perfectly innocent.
And to Father Grumpy, instead of “I understand why he’s so crotchety, he’s old and over worked and his knees are killing him today”, It would be just: That was wrong. He should not have done that. That was a real injustice against me, and against the sacrament, and against his ministry. But I forgive him. He doesn’t have a right to do what is wrong, but he does have a right to be forgiven, so I guess no excuse for me being Mrs. Grumpy the rest of the day.
Oh, I know. These are ideals. You think I’m any good at this? No way. I most certainly am not. And I don’t guess I’m explaining it well, either.
But this is the staircase of depravity I was talking about earlier. If I’m regularly patting myself on the back for “forgiving” innocent people, I’m fooling myself. I haven’t got a clue about forgiveness until someone actually does something wrong.
And then if I explain away every real wrongdoing with a “he had a good reason”, “nobody is perfect”, “I’d be tempted too,” then I’ve missed my chance. Of course I should understand — I could write a book on human weakness, of course I understand. But I need to go beyond that. Both so that my soul gets practice actually forgiving, and as a favor to my fellow sinners.
The first person who showed me forgiveness was a department secretary. I owed her a form. I didn’t fill out the form on time. She came to my cube and said, “You didn’t give me the form.”
I made a thousand excuses. I couldn’t bear to be actually wrong, because I didn’t know then that you could be wrong and still live.
And she kept saying to my every excuse, “I forgive you. I forgive you. Jennifer, I FORGIVE YOU. (Now please shut up and fill out the form.)”
I finally shut up and filled out the form.
What? I had done something wrong? And she freely acknowledged I DID SOMETHING WRONG? And she wasn’t mad? Even though I really had done something wrong? At cost to her? And she demanded nothing in repayment. Not an apology, not an ‘I’ll make it up to you,” not even an “it will never happen again”. Not even the pleasure of berating me for twenty seconds. Nothing.
It was a completely new world to me.
And that’s the world I was talking about yesterday. If that helps at all. I know, I know. Forgiving small things is so much easier. Yes. Yes. But it’s a start. I think we kid ourselves if we say we can tackle anything bigger, before we’ve got a handle on how to forgive the little sins first.
And yeah, supernatural aid definitely required.