Forgiveness is key, but what about when we don’t feel like we have much we need forgiving? I love Philippa’s exploration of this topic, and when I lead retreats, I emphasize that this may be the case for some of the participants. We have the freedom not to go digging!
Have you ever been on a retreat where the participants are asked to make a list of people they need to forgive and then destroy that list as a symbolic act of forgiveness and relinquishment?
The retreatants choose a quiet place within the venue – the chapel, the art room, the garden, the lake – in order to reflect and write. They are given plenty of time in which to do it – 45 minutes, an hour. And people write reams. They write pages. Long lists of people to forgive: abusive parents or partners, adulterous spouses, insensitive doctors, vicious bullies, family feuds, appalling treatment from churches – gut-wrenching stuff, devastating wounds which are anything but easy to forgive. I’ve been to workshops led by sexual abuse survivors who talk about how it’s possible to forgive the perpetrator (in addition to seeking justice, because a serious crime has been committed) and I marvel at these people who show such courage and grace.
I’ve taken part in exercises like this and I find it hard. For an unexpected reason though: not because my list of people to forgive is long, but because it’s so short. Usually only about three people come to mind. I can never quite believe it’s so few. Have I sailed through life so serenely that I only need to forgive three people? Seriously? Am I in denial?
Here they are:
1.The snappy cookery teacher who, astonished by my eleven-year-old incompetence, shouted at me and humiliated me in front of the entire class. Forty-three years later, the sting has gone out of that ancient memory. Just about.
2. The good friend who once told me some ‘home truths’ which missed the mark. I had often valued her wise counsel and support, but on this occasion I found her words harsh and ill-judged – to be fair, this was the only time in our friendship this happened, but the people we love the most can hurt us the most, and I was deeply stung by her words. (It wasn’t so much what she said as the way she said it …) I composed a cold, cutting reply in my head. I was even tempted to send a curt e-mail terminating the friendship (I’m very glad I didn’t!) In the end I avoided the issue, which was both cowardly and unfruitful, because I then brooded over it for years. It would have been better to be honest with my friend and confessed to her that she’d hurt me, yet without falling into the trap of being bitter, accusing and unforgiving. I have now forgiven her (thanks largely to a sweet gesture on her part) and the friendship is restored and flourishes – I would not be without this friend in my life. But the incident showed me that I am more than capable of holding one heck of a grudge.
3. My birth father. This is my weirdest example, because I never met my birth father or knew him. I can barely even remember his name. He has less substance in my life than a ghost, yet his existence casts a shadow. He was 26 when he dated my birth mother and when she got pregnant (with me), he abandoned both of us in the fifth month of the pregnancy, leaving my unmarried teenage mum to face the music alone. God made up the deficit by giving me a wonderful adoptive father who was everything a father should be – Dad was kind and funny, and hugely affirming of his daughters. But the fear of abandonment – the unconscious expectation that every man I am interested in will not return that interest – has cast a long shadow over my life. I realise I do have to forgive the man who was, to be blunt, no more than a sperm donor: it’s tempting to regard that primal abandonment by him as an excuse for avoiding intimacy.
I’ve had a reasonably happy and secure life, yet not having that much to forgive has not made me a person who forgives that easily. Rejection by a parent is weighty stuff, to be sure, but I am an easy-going soul (pretty much) and can even shrug off some things that others struggle with. But while the things that have hurt me deeply may have been few and far between, I have found it mighty hard to let go of them. I can chew over them, imagine all the things I might say to the person now, treating them with cool contempt or sarcasm.
So, no, I don’t find forgiveness easy. (Who does?!) Also, I have also messed up badly at certain points of my life and have needed other people to forgive me. I would be devastated if any friend held me to ransom over the stupid, thoughtless things I’ve said and done in my life … so I cannot hold anyone to ransom either.
As a young girl, I was often very passive and allowed myself to be dominated or manipulated. I have sometimes over-compensated for that earlier passivity by becoming overly aggressive in reaction to perceived manipulation. But that’s not the answer either. I have to tell myself: “If someone hurts you, and you know you need to confront them about it, don’t do so out of vengefulness. You can be assertive, in facing the issue head on, but don’t be unloving and unkind. Forgive them, as Christ forgives you.”
Forgiveness is a process, as Jesus tells Peter in Matthew 18: 21-22. ‘“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”’ His phrase “seventy times seven”, repeating Hebrew’s perfect number ad infinitum, illustrates his point: keep on forgiving if you have to, because it doesn’t come naturally.
So next time I’m asked if I want to make a list of people I need to forgive … I will be thankful that my list isn’t large, and thankful for the grace of God that transforms us and enables us to keep forgiving.
Philippa Linton’s day job is working for the education & learning department at the United Reformed Church in London. She is also a Reader (lay minister) in the Church of England. She likes J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, early 20th century feminism, and cats.