Of you it is required to forgive all men, reads the scripture. That’s not an easy one. It’s a topic that has been on my mind of late, however. Forgiveness is a surprisingly complex topic. The injunction is easy to repeat, but in application, it raises a number of questions that I sometimes struggle to answer.
An initial question is, what does forgiveness entail? Does it require simply grudge-dropping? Can we check off our forgiveness boxes if we adopt a guarded cease-fire? Will grudging neutrality suffice? Or does forgiveness require me to rebuild bridges, reextend a hand, work towards reestablished trust and friendship with another person? My temporal side wants to justify some set of minimal requirements — as long as I’ve ceased any active hostilities, I have satisfied my obligations. I don’t know if I believe that, though. My sense is that Christ would do more. And this is, of course, an area where my theorizing and my application don’t always match up.
A set of related, complicated questions arise, at the intersection of forgiveness and communication. Forgiveness may require communication; yet all too often, the kinds of situations in which I find myself where forgiveness may be sought are precisely those where open communication is absent. It’s hard to seek or give forgiveness when bridges are burnt — yet it is often at precisely those times that forgiveness is most necessary.
If someone wrongs me, I’m liable to ignore him, and vice versa. This makes the forgiveness process more complicated. Even trickier is where our own bad acts are so hurtful that they drive the other person away entirely. Someone driven away by my bad acts or angry words may be understandably chary of further discussion. The severing of communication has many consequences. It may be adopted for pragmatic reasons, such as to limit future harm. Still, it also serves to limit our opportunity and ability to seek forgiveness. In such instances, where all communication may be severed, there is little we can do. We can say to the empty ether or the empty space beside us, “I’m sorry that I hurt you, and I hope that some day you can forgive me.” We can pray that people we’ve hurt will eventually find peace. And we can hope that time and space and God’s healing power will allow for eventual understanding, and that forgiveness may follow. The infinite atonement will eventually heal all; our earthly capabilities to seek forgiveness and atone for our missteps and misdeeds are much more limited.
Equally frustrating at times is the uncertainty inherent in the dialogue of forgiveness. Seeking forgiveness entails placing oneself in a position of assymetrical power; granting forgiveness entails reliquishing satisfying emotions and giving up leverage. We can’t force others to forgive us. (I can’t tell anyone else when or how to forgive – much as I’d like to sometimes!) This can create reluctance to take steps that might mend fences. As wrongdoers, we may worry that our gestures will not be accepted, and that forgiveness will not be forthcoming. Part of the process is taking those conciliatory steps anyway; making known that we are seeking forgiveness, even if this makes us vulnerable, and even if there may be no forgiveness forthcoming. That’s the duty of the wrongdoer, and only by doing so can we cleanse ourselves and move forward. The wronged party, meanwhile, has a chance to act as a Savior, by extending forgiveness to another.
Finally, there is self-forgiveness. This is sometimes the hardest of all. I sometimes wonder why I make the same mistakes over and over again, why I do things that hurt me or people I care about, why I seem to have trouble learning some lessons. In such cases, self-forgiveness is necessary as well, to move forward.
In a relatively recent talk, President Hinckley spoke of a woman whose life was altered by the thoughtless act of another. Quoting a news story, he read:
How would you feel toward a teenager who decided to toss a 20-pound frozen turkey from a speeding car headlong into the windshield of the car you were driving? How would you feel after enduring six hours of surgery using metal plates and other hardware to piece your face together, and after learning you still face years of therapy before returning to normalâ€”and that you ought to feel lucky you didnâ€™t die or suffer permanent brain damage? . . . .
The victim, Victoria Ruvolo, a 44-year-old former manager of a collections agency, was more interested in salvaging the life of her 19-year-old assailant, Ryan Cushing, than in exacting any sort of revenge. She pestered prosecutors for information about him, his life, how he was raised, etc. Then she insisted on offering him a plea deal. Cushing could serve six months in the county jail and be on probation for 5 years if he pleaded guilty to second-degree assault. . . .
Cushing carefully and tentatively made his way to where Ruvolo sat in the courtroom and tearfully whispered an apology. â€˜Iâ€™m so sorry for what I did to you.â€™ Ruvolo then stood, and the victim and her assailant embraced, weeping. She stroked his head and patted his back as he sobbed, and witnesses, including a Times reporter, heard her say, â€˜Itâ€™s OK. I just want you to make your life the best it can be.â€™
The story is one of a tremendous act of forgiveness. I don’t know if it’s one that I would be capable of. But I like to imagine and hope that I would. And I hope that forgiveness is contagious – because Heaven knows, I need it myself.
I offend and hurt others much more often than I like to admit. I wrote an early draft of this post, months ago, after a heated and hurtful argument with a friend. I’ve since thought about the topic more often than I thought I would, as I’ve repeatedly found myself in recent months seeking forgiveness from others for my thoughtless words and acts. (And every time I’ve thought of posting this, I’ve stopped, thinking “maybe I shouldn’t post this quite now — so-and-so will be sure I’m talking about him/her”).
I’m well aware of my own catalogue of faults — inconsiderateness, selfishness, rudeness, anger, deceit. I’m often in need of forgiveness from my fellows. But more so, I’m in need of forgiveness from God. And on that score, I’m no different from anyone else. We all need forgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer contains the line “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” That sums up the dynamic that makes forgiveness so necessary. As we forgive, we make ourselves more worthy of God’s forgiveness. And in a not unrelated way, we make ourselves more like God, who also forgives.
It’s a lesson that I work to incorporate into my own life. I’m often too slow to forgive, and too quick to hope that others will forgive me. As I work on changing that ratio, I become a better person, and closer to God. And I become more worthy of His forgiveness, which I certainly need.
It’s a hard lesson, but it’s one that helps me mature and grow as a person, and to feel closer to God. And I have to admit, that’s a pretty good reason to drop a grudge.