“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” – Louis B. Smedes
I have been reflecting on forgiveness. Periodically in my life I find myself revisiting this topic, either because I am seeking forgiveness, I need to forgive – myself or others, or I believe I need God’s forgiveness. The ‘evolution’ of how I see forgiveness in my life has been extensive.
There have been times in my life that the idea, or the circumstance, of ‘forgiveness’ made me very uncomfortable. It was here that I learned the limitations of my humanity, and the shallowness of my being. It was a time or circumstance where I wasn’t ready to forgive; I was still busy holding on to my anger or guilt. What was I getting from this state of mind? Initially, something ‘felt good’ about being angry at someone, including myself – “you are not worthy of forgiveness.”
What I learned is that almost always the person that was most harmed was me. There was a negative energy living within me that increased my migraine headaches, reduced my sleep, and generally created a feeling of ‘malaise.’ My favorite quote about this is, “Holding onto our anger or guilt is like drinking poison and thinking the other person will be affected.”
For me, the evolution of my need to ask and offer forgiveness hit at the very heart of my growth as a person. The ability to ‘let go’ of an event that deeply wounded me was powerful. I remember one such ‘event’ that occurred when I was 29. My mother died. It wasn’t that she died, it was how she died. It seemed she died by inches (pancreatic cancer). I was angry at God. “How can a merciful God allow this to happen to one of his servants?!”
I stayed angry at God for the better part of two years. It was a surprisingly visceral response. What changed? I came to understand that my anger was misplaced; that people, good people, can have really bad things happen to them. Sometimes there was a choice, an explainable cause, when bad or good things happened. Sometimes not.
When I found a different perspective, I was able to ‘forgive’ God. I know. As I write that now it seems ludicrous that I would be forgiving God. The truth is that I came to see life more as a gift than an entitlement.
The next part of the evolution was learning that forgiveness didn’t mean that you forget. I used to believe that until I was ready to ‘forget’ I wasn’t ready to forgive. When I first heard of forgiving, but not forgetting, the next question I had was, “How do I do that?” The secret was in the willingness to move on. I needed to be able to let go of the anger or guilt towards someone, including me. That was not easy.
As I look at my path in learning how to give and receive forgiveness, I see where there is a tendency to get stuck. I understand why people get stuck in their ability to forgive others, and the ability to ask for forgiveness. I am most curious about the unwillingness to forgive ourselves. I see high performing people get stuck here, many times with sad consequences. I suppose self-forgiveness can be the most difficult because these high performing people (and many others) are often the harshest critics of themselves. I watch them graciously forgive others, yet, because they hold themselves to a higher standard, they don’t take others’ ‘failures’ as intimately as they do their own.
I understand this. I have lived this. The last part of my evolution was the ability to forgive myself. To accept that I make mistakes, sometimes with dire consequences. This took time. I had to be willing to accept all of me, included the parts that were less lovable. It took me years to become that honest with myself, and to learn grace with myself.
Speaking of ‘grace,’ I don’t believe you can talk about forgiveness very deeply without touching on grace. I think of grace as the ability to grant favor (or forgiveness) even when the other person may not ‘deserve’ it. Has there been a time in your life that someone granted you grace when you didn’t deserve it? Perhaps it was a teacher, or a coach. Perhaps it was a friend, a parent, a stranger. How did you feel?
Was there a time when you granted someone grace when they didn’t deserve it? Maybe you didn’t feel like it, but you did it anyway? What was the difference for you between receiving grace and giving grace?
When I receive grace, I am humbled. It is a beautiful thing to receive grace while you feel unworthy. It can also be uncomfortable. Without entering a theological discussion, my observation is that we can spend much of our life by being ‘in debt’ to one another – “You did something for me, so I need to do something for you.” I get that. To give and receive grace when nothing will be done in return is one of the most powerful acts we can experience as a human being. To learn to give without expectation of anything in return is very freeing.
As I see/live in the world today, I believe that we need to experience more graciousness and forgiveness in the very moments where it is least expected. Perhaps, starting with yourself might be the most important gift you give yourself this holiday season.
Whatever your faith tradition, I hope that your holiday will be full of love and celebration, and that your new year will bring you closer to the highest version of yourself.
To a better you…