Who is forgiveness about?

Forgiveness lightens my load and clears my vision to see the perfection in the world.

Today let me forgive someone
Let me forgive myself
Let me clear my sight.

I remember as a child being expected to forgive someone just because they apologized for hurting me. It seemed like it was to allow them to feel better. Most often it was easy, I’d forgive, everyone would be happy and we’d move on, live happily ever after. There were those life moments when I felt forgiveness was impossible and relegate that person if not to hell, at least purgatory, sometimes for years. 

It was midlife when I finally realized that forgiveness had absolutely nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with me and my ability to live happily ever after. I also found that the act of forgiveness itself was but a small part of the process, though obviously essential. I also realized that God does not differentiate between big and small so any act of forgiveness is the same, we are the ones that put judgment on whether someone is forgivable or not.

The work begins when we find ourselves angry all the time or alone because everyone has betrayed or hurt us in some way and we can no longer trust the human race or we trust that they are out go get us. It is at this time we begin to look for a cave to live in or find a way of letting go of those hurts — find we’re still alive in spite of them (the hurts) and move into a new realm of vulnerability and trust. This process can be extremely painful but in the end, at the point of true deep forgiveness, it is here we find the freedom we have been searching for and the love that God is within us.

Forgiveness is the topic of our next Coffee Talk on July 6. Niemiec is a panelist.

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  1. Pastor Deb Conklin

    Thanks Joe, now I have to come up with a new idea for my blog… 😉 Good thoughts. It has troubled me since I was a child when an adult orders a child to say “I’m sorry” before they can possibly BE sorry. And then another child is required to offer ‘forgiveness’ before they are able or ready. By doing so, we’ve interfered with our ability to offer healthy remorse or true forgiveness…

  2. I think there is a learning period for saying “I’m sorry” and learning to forgive by parents standards, the challenge is we are never really taught the deeper value of forgiveness when we grow up. I also believe that many believe holding a grudge is normal, healthy human behavior.

  3. I think it’s important to consider that forgiveness has two faces. When we forgive, we forgive in two very different ways for very different reasons. We forgive debts, and we forgive grudges.

    When we forgive a debt, we have done something to help someone, and we forgive that debt. This may be a debt of gratitude, and I think it’s hard to forgive this kind of debt. When we do right by someone, and they feel gratitude, that debt lies in their heart, not in our own. Their need to discharge that debt is probably more a source of motivation for them than for us. People forgive financial debts as well. I think this is a very real kind of forgiveness, and it comes from the fact that we keep score. We are not the only animal to do so by the way. Vampire bats for example have been shown to keep score around which female has (or has not) fed the other’s child from their supply of cow’s blood for the night’s hunt.

    Animals are cool.

    Another kind of forgiveness is when we forgive grudges. But why hold grudges in the first place? It turns out that other animals bear grudges too. In the absence of priests, cops, and attorneys, animals bear grudges as a way of punishing cheaters. That is to say they bear grudges as a way of making sure that the cost of cheating (failing to share food for example) is higher than it would otherwise be. This serves to perpetuate the genes of the species because of a dynamic process: Groups that cooperate tend to survive better than groups that don’t, BUT individuals who cheat and only PRETEND to cooperate survive better than individuals who never step out of line, BUT the best way to make sure your contribution is reciprocated is to punish free-riders, BUT the best way to show that you are a trustworthy cooperator is to BE a trustworthy cooperator, BUT the best way to beat that system is to be better at LOOKING trustworthy than your fellows can tell, BUT, BUT, BUT. So what we have is an evolutionary arms race between cheating behaviors, honest behaviors, faking honesty, and detecting fakes.

    This dynamic process has been hard-wired by evolution into our psychology to encourage us to form cooperative social groups and to use them as best as we can for our survival and reproduction. It may well have been a driving factor in the evolution of consciousness.

    BEING an animal is also cool.

    Forgiveness is an important part of this process, because even though a person might be a dirty-rotten-cheater, they are STILL capable of being a valuable resource in your life. So forgiveness evolved right along with grudges as a way of normalizing relationships that are too valuable to throw away (or too dangerous to crush).

    With me so far?

    OK, so where do gods come in? EVERY culture that’s worth its salt has rules around when to forgive and when to punish cheaters. EVERY culture seems to use mythological characters to rationalize and justify these rules. It seems that the supernatural nature of the characters is a feature, not a bug, because these characters have the magical superpower of seeing you when you cheat, and therefore serving as a psychological reminder that punishment awaits. They also have the magical superpower of being able to notice and reward forgiveness. Which is nice. It’s value-added marketing. After all, isn’t forgiveness its own reward?

    One final note: Guilt. We feel guilt when we notice that we are doing things that are destructive to relationships. Often this feeling is associated with belief in the supernatural as a part of the process. Similarly we judge people as guilty; in other words we label a person as bad, and we formally punish them using socially acceptable punishments. I can’t imagine that it’s a coincidence that we use the same word “guilty” for the feeling and the stigmatizing social label. We are assigning a feeling to another when we call them “guilty of a crime.”

  4. Oh yeah, and I want to just add: I disagree with Joe, when he said that forgiveness is not about the other person. Both bearing grudges and forgiveness are important features of how human beings negotiate our social landscape. After all, if you bear a grudge against a person in your world, it tends to cause rifts in the social group precisely BECAUSE your grudge is causing loyalty conflicts among other people besides you. You may judge this as “bad” but the fact is that we do this stuff for a reason.

    That said, people who make conscious choices to forgive tend to be happier. Just be careful not to turn yourself into a doormat.

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