“Forgive and forget,” we are told growing up. We know that grace and mercy make life easier. As imperfect people, we experience misunderstandings and hurts on a daily basis that are readily amended. When it comes to deep emotional scars, that simplistic cliché does not describe our natural reaction to such an intense struggle. Forgiveness seems like an irrelevant church concept we learned long ago. In a cutthroat, self-centered world we cannot afford to be doormats. Victimizers deserve to experience everything they inflict on others. We take pleasure in mentally picturing what we would say or do if we had the opportunity. Does this dark portrait illustrate and encapsulate all of life?
Abuse, neglect, betrayal, rejection, and a host of other offenses can all lead to bitterness. This is a legitimate human response. Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice demonstrates his humanity as he enacts revenge on Antonio who has hurt and ruined Shylock’s life. We root for the villain, the antihero, because we too relate to Shylock’s pain. We feel in the darkness of our own hearts that Shylock is justified for demanding the pound of Antonio’s flesh above his heart—and we ponder if Shylock would have discovered a heart if his vengeful act had not been thwarted. Yes, the desire for revenge is natural, but is it right or healthy? An act of revenge may satisfy us, but a deeper recess of our hearts yearns for something more. We all have been hurt, but we know the guilt of hurting others. We desire the demonic villain to receive his due punishment, yet we desire absolution and healing, if only unconsciously. We have squelched this positive desire under the pressure of cynicism and pride. Yet I don’t think we long for tragic conclusions to our life stories. We want happy endings but are afraid to believe they still exist in such a messed up world.
We all likely know that person who justifiably claims he or she could never forgive their hurter for whatever offense was committed. I know what hurt and anger feels like from my own experiences of hurt. My pain may not be as severe as others, but I, like anyone else, can relate. We know what we have been told to do, even believe it would be the better action to take. Bitterness holds on tightly like shackles and chains. We feel the knotting, sickening sensation when we remember that hurtful person or relive the traumatic experience. Yet Christianity and other religions would have us release the accused and let him or her go free from the prison of our hearts and minds. Even psychological research has demonstrated the benefits of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not about the person who abused us. Bitterness allows the offender to repeat his or her crime like an endless skipping record player in our minds. Forgiveness frees us from the ubiquitous presence of the offending party. The forgiven may or may not experience shame from their offenses. Regardless, by resigning ourselves as the judge of their lives and turning them over to God, we will begin living life unfettered. We have the ability to emancipate ourselves. We stand in a prison cell that has always been unlocked and unguarded. We have the option to open the door and walk out into the fresh air and sunshine.
Life is not an inevitable cycle of hurt and anger. We have a choice whether or not to perpetuate the cycle in our own lives. We know that revenge and bitterness is human, but we tend to forget that bad choices have rationalizations. We don’t have to be social science experts to realize our environments and circumstances have led us, ourselves, to make stupid decisions. At times we have even said or done things that were unquestionably wrong, even evil. Knowing that we, too, have wronged others should make us capable of perspective taking, the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. We do not excuse the offenses that have been done, but we realize the perpetrator of our pain is human. Part of our healing comes through this understanding. If we can see the world through the other’s eyes and see him or her as human, we can lose our hatred and regain our humanity. Forgiveness and love are not primarily feelings but choices. Forgiveness doesn’t mean giddy feelings bubbling up in one’s gut. It means letting go and hoping both parties can move forward in healing, proactively ensuring the remainders of our lives will be spent for the good of others and our own growth and happiness.
The church may seem out of step with our lives and experiences, but the metanarrative theme of grace and forgiveness in scripture beautifully answers all the pain and difficulty we feel. It also extends healing and restoration which we ardently yearn to embrace. The scriptural narrative tells of a deity who made mankind to share in the divine community of the Trinity. Man and woman rejected God’s love and created a gulf of separation between God and mankind. The Old Testament, filled with all kinds of symbolism, pointed to a great reuniting of these two divisions. It took a fusion of God and mankind in the person of Jesus the Messiah to heal the relationship. This God-man character lived among his enemies and willingly died to pay the blood debt they owed. He experienced brutal atrocities and yet forgave and loved His enemies. Thus, mankind has been restored into familial community with their Heavenly Father. This story beautifully paints a picture of how life can be lived if we have the courage to make it happen.
Forgiveness does not mean being a doormat. We must protect others and ourselves from future hurt. Part of forgiveness involves taking responsibility and ensuring the perpetrator of our hurts cannot harm others if the offenses were serious. Forgiveness is a journey. The old saying to “forgive and forget” is wrong because we cannot forget. It’s a gradual process to remove the hand grasping our heart—one finger at a time. We may eventually feel freedom from bitterness only to suddenly come across a hurtful association of an offense, sending us spiraling in vehement rage once again. Yet we keep moving forward despite relapses. Some people use prayer, mediation, or faith to help along the journey of forgiveness. There are likely many ways to reach forgiveness—we don’t have to be saints. The point is to begin walking away from the prison. It’s never too late to experience freedom. It’s not too late to feel human again. Forgiveness, like life, isn’t easy. Yet we can forgive and forgiveness is within our reach.