Say you’re standing in line at the Post office and someone accidentally steps on your toe. They quickly move back and say “Sorry!” and you say “No problem”. It’s over and quickly forgotten. But what if they say “Sorry!” and then continue to stand on your toe? Are you still going to say No problem?
What exactly is forgiveness? Is it condoning the other person’s behavior? Denying your own pain so another person can feel better? Letting another off the hook, and then carrying their shame for them? Is it as simple as letting go of a balloon that floats away into the atmosphere? I think it is much more complex than that.
Forgiveness is a huge buzzword these days. Everyone says you should do it. Oprah says you should do it. Doctors say you’ll be healthier if you do it. Jesus did it on the cross. Stanford University even has a “Forgiveness Project”, where researchers say it is a skill that can be learned, a decision you simply make. But I don’t see it as a decision any more than falling in love is a decision.
Forgiveness is a spontaneous shift in the heart, and like love, it can’t be forced. It is an unwritten contract between two souls. A door of genuine understanding and remorse must be opened before you can cross the threshold of forgiveness. You can’t bang that door down yourself. In other words, forgiveness is not a one-way street.
To me there is nothing worse than an empty apology. I remember on one occasion that I actually got my mother to show up for therapy, my therapist asked if she could apologize for lying to me, because her lies had affected my life and damaged my trust. The best she could muster up was an indignant, “I’m sorry you see it that way.” But she wasn’t sorry, and therefore no shift could take place on either side.
A forced forgiveness serves no one. Remember when you were a little kid, fighting with your sister, and your mom forced you to hug and say sorry, but behind her back you were sticking your tongues out at each other? I recently read about a woman who at 15 had been raped by her Sunday school teacher. Her pastor told her that she had to forgive him, it was the Christian thing to do. So she went to the rapist/Sunday school teacher and forgave him. And he would later rape her again. So what good did forgiving do? It wasn’t true forgiveness, therefore nothing changed, and no one was healed.
On the other hand, when a person is sincere in opening that door, you feel it in your soul and it changes you. True forgiveness is grace in action. I know because I have experienced this.
In 1995, after my house burned down and I lost everything, my best friend dumped me. I needed her more than ever, but she turned her back and never told me why. I was beyond devastated. Losing my home and all my possessions was nothing compared to losing my best friend. It was a hurt that took years, and much therapy, to get over. Eleven years later we bumped into each other in a record store. She seemed so happy to see me, while I was ambivalent. She hugged me with real feeling, and asked if I would meet her that week to talk, and I agreed.
We met at a Starbucks. As soon as I sat down, she took my hand, looked me right in the eye, and said tearfully, “I love you.” She squeezed my hand hard, not bothering to wipe away the tears rolling down her cheeks “and I have missed you in my life, so much. I am so sorry for the way I treated you. I don’t know why I acted that way back then, I guess I was afraid. Afraid of what was happening to you, and how it was affecting me. If you can forgive me, I really want another chance to be in your life, as the person I am now.” I felt the instant shift in my heart. Forgiveness. It wasn’t hard to do, because she opened the door. I knew her life had been turned upside down in the years that had passed. Her marriage fell apart, her career ended. Her heart had been broken open, and I was able to get in. That was four years ago and our friendship is still going strong.
What is forgiveness? I don’t know that I could encapsulate it into simple words. Like love, I know it when I feel it. When it happens, it is a beautiful miracle, like a butterfly landing on my shoulder. But I think it is a different experience for each person.
I’d love to know what forgiveness means to you, and how it feels.