I learned an important lesson when I was about 5 years old: If you are going to draw with muddy fingers on the neighbors garage door, it is probably best to wait until you know how to write a few words and not just your own name. It didn’t take a CSI team to figure out who had expressed their creativity with the messy hand prints and the beautiful stick dog since I had proudly signed my name. I quickly learned that garage doors are not a suitable canvas for aspiring natural media artists and at my mom’s not so subtle prompting made the necessary apologies to the neighbors. As I remember it, the neighbors were very gracious and seemed to treat me with more kindness after the misguided artwork display than before it. They were quick to forgive the actions of the budding artist; turning the wrong that was done into an opportunity for learning and eagerly mending the relationship between our two families.
But what happens when the wrongs we have done are not easily washed away with a garden hose? What happens when the memories of the wrongs we have perpetrated are not transformed into learning but instead linger corrosively in our being? And what happens when the wrongs that have been done to us leave lasting scars?
We have all been wronged. And we have all wronged others. It is part of the life that we share. The timeless challenge is that of response. Do I turn the pain of being wronged into greater pain upon the original perpetrator by seeking vindictive revenge? Do I demand fairness (equal pain) with a mandate of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Or do I overcome the wrong while passing through the pain and choose another way?
Most world religions extol the virtue of forgiveness and often provide the framework for the manner in which forgiveness is to be exercised in the larger religious and cultural context. As Gandhi is often quoted as saying, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” If we give the state of the human condition even a little thought we know that forgiveness is necessary for us to thrive as we live in community. But as the hurt becomes more personal or the offense becomes crueler our ability or willingness to forgive is put to the test.
Forgiveness has become a prominent subject of study among psychologists and social scientists. Their research indicates that forgiveness is beneficial to our health. Studies indicate that those who forgive readily are happier and healthier than those who retain resentments around the behavior of others. Further research indicates that self-forgiveness addressing our own ethical and moral failures reduces the negative effects of guilt, shame, regret and remorse that can adversely affect our mental health and spiritual well being. Forgiveness gives us freedom from the burden of laboriously lugging around both the wrongs that have been done to us as well as the strain of carrying the pain we have perpetrated upon others.
Forgiveness as a concept is not difficult to understand. As a practice it is a life-long endeavor that takes strength, courage, commitment, and sacrifice.
Within the faith tradition I am a part of, we use ancient creeds written in the 4th and 5th century as a part of our community life and worship. As a community gathered in faith, we often recite one of these ancient creeds and together declare that we “believe in the forgiveness of sin.” For much of my life I thought that this declaration was primarily about the benefit for us as individuals in receiving forgiveness from God for the wrongs that we have committed; that when we come together for worship we receive forgiveness as a gift and then go on our way to live another day. And while I continue to see this forgiveness from God as a personal benefit, I have come to understand our ‘belief in the forgiveness of sin’ in a more collective manner.
I have come to see that we are called to go on our way with forgiveness of others as a principal aim for our interactions with those around us, those we love and those we’d just as soon not even know because they seem to be forever a pain in the neck or the posterior region. I have come to see forgiveness not as an auxiliary benefit of a life of faith but as one of God’s key strategies in healing the wounds of the world.
To ‘believe’ in forgiveness is to understand the power that forgiveness has in the larger community and the way that forgiveness positively shapes the world in which we share life. To ‘believe’ in forgiveness is to commit myself to a predisposed posture toward those who do me wrong, to lean into forgiveness as the default position for our relationship; thereby freeing both me and the person who has wronged me from the weight of the transgression. To ‘believe’ in forgiveness is to know that I have the power to set others (and myself) free from the corrosive effects of holding onto anger and resentment.
And when we do the difficult work of moving beyond ‘belief’ in forgiveness to the actual extension of forgiveness we offer a precious life-giving gift to our selves, our neighbors, and the world; washing the garage door and saying all is well between us.