We have a tendency to view forgiveness as something which should be earned. Taking that perspective, we await an apology or resolution from those who have wronged us in some way. Unfortunately, all too often their perceived offenses were unintentional, and so they do not realize that they need to be forgiven. Or their transgressions were intentional, and they have no desire to "clear the slate" by offering an expression of remorse. Either way, we are left carrying the burden of our hurt feelings, replaying the mental soundtrack or videotape of insensitive or scathing words or actions, and harboring resentment toward those who have offended us. Waiting for another person to restore the relationship can bring us hours, days, or even years of hurt and resentment, along with ailing health, both physical and emotional.
Many people have discovered that there is a better way! Forgiveness doesn’t need to be something for which you wait endlessly. Instead, it can be a choice; a gift that you give to yourself as a means of setting down your burden of pain and moving on with your life. Catherine Ponder has written, "When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.” Similarly, Lewis B. Smedes has written, "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Initially, or perhaps ultimately, forgiveness isn't something you do for another person; it's something you do for yourself. It's choosing to let go of your right to hold onto the pain caused by someone's words or actions (or to exact revenge), and deliberately moving on. It's choosing to not dwell on the offense; to refrain from re-playing a painful virtual video or audio cassette.
Forgiveness is not a decision to completely forget what happened. It is not the same as forgetting where we put our car keys or the name of our new colleague, although that idea is perpetuated in the common and sometimes flippant advice of "forgive and forget." Lewis B. Smedes further explains forgiveness in this way, "When we forgive evil we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look the evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it…Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.” Paul Boese described it this way, "Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”
We can learn from the wrong that is done to us, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by other people. And then we can choose to move on. This sort of "deliberate forgetfulness" serves us well. In fact, research has shown many positive effects on our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being when we choose the path of forgiveness. You can choose to be positively changed by the experience, even if the other person never changes or apologizes.
And if we are tempted to think that forgiveness is for the faint of heart, we can consider what Mahatma Gandhi once said, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
As I mentioned last week, I forget some things all too easily. However, I am learning to "forget" others more deliberately--for my own good, as well as those around me. And we'd all do well to remember that sometimes we ourselves are the ones in need of forgiveness for the hurts that we cause others! I suppose that's one of the most important "social incites!"