Which Way to Forgiveness?

“Forgiveness is not just an occasional act: It is a permanent attitude.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

Living, breathing mercy. Living, breathing grace. Living, breathing peace. Some people seem to embody it. “My mother didn’t have a bitter bone in her body,” a friend told me. Living, breathing forgiveness. It’s an inviting picture. I can sense the possibility. But I’m not there yet. I’m still learning. My guess is that most of us would love to have a permanent attitude of forgiveness. My guess is also that many of us have pretended we had it. And my guess is that most of us will have to work pretty hard to get to that permanent-attitude place.

In the process, we come to several crossroads. One asks us to choose whether or not to confront the person who offended us. We have to be pretty settled in ourselves to confront someone face to face. After all, forgiving is based on an accusation that a wrong has been done. If the person who hurt us hasn’t acknowledged the wrong, it takes courage on our part to approach them. To be honest with myself, I need to make sure I’m not confronting someone expecting (or worse, demanding) that they feel remorse and make amends, which they may or may not do. Of course, the other person may be completely gracious and open to discussing the grievance and receiving forgiveness, and confrontation – in the spirit of working it out to restore the relationship – may be exactly what’s needed.

But to confront or not confront – that’s not the most important question. To forgive or not forgive – that’s the question. The truth is, forgiveness does not depend on an apology. We can set hurts aside without a big confrontation or ritual. I’m not talking about stuffing our hurt or ignoring it, in which case it bides its time only to roar back to life later. I’m talking about acknowledging the hurt, forgiving it, and then allowing time and daily living to dilute the offense (as opposed to stoking the fire under it and letting it ferment into poison). We can refuse to let the offense taint our present or our future. The point is not to deny the fact that there was a wound but to let the wound heal. And if we’re left with scars, we don’t deny those, either. But neither do we let our scars define us.

As we look to the future, we come to another crossroads: We can either close our hearts and protect ourselves, fearing we’ll get hurt again, or we can open our hearts, trusting ourselves to be able to deal with whatever lies ahead. When I was wrestling with this choice one time, a friend asked, “Can you be open but not porous?” It seems to me that a permanent attitude of forgiveness would be just that: open but not porous. Opening our hearts makes life so much richer. It makes what we do more effective. It leads to our own health and growth as well as promoting the health and growth of others.

Speaking of our own health and growth . . . there’s a tricky twist to the whole forgiveness issue: forgiving ourselves. Poet and painter William Blake said, “It is easier to forgive an Enemy than to forgive a Friend.” I would add: It’s easier to forgive enemies and friends than to forgive ourselves. But how can we truly extend grace to others if we can’t extend grace to ourselves? It’s the same principle as loving others as we love ourselves. If I have a hard time forgiving myself, I’m sure to have a hard time forgiving someone else.

Self-condemnation turns our life journey into a slog. For our health and peace, and for the health and peace of the world, we need to be free from self-condemnation. There is an open-eyed, open-hearted leap that takes us to that spacious freedom. We’ll look at that next week as I share my final thoughts on forgiveness.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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