A New Spin On Forgiveness

I’m not so much into spring cleaning. I prefer a winter “sweep and cleanse”. This includes clearing out both material items that clutter the home space and spiritual stumbling blocks that clutter my heart and mind.

This January I have been thinking deeply on the concept of forgiveness and what it means to me.

Coming from an evangelical Christian tradition, I have always viewed extending and receiving forgiveness as something required in order to be in good standing with God –    “… and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us …”.

I have to admit, I have struggled with this concept over the last few years since I left my church. I now consider myself to be “spiritual but not religious”. That being said, I still love God, I still want to be faithful, and I still need peace within me. I recognize how vitally important forgiveness is to my spiritual health.

This morning I came to a bit of an epiphany, and I would like to share it. By way of illustration, I will use the experience I had of an unhappily ended friendship.

I once had a friendship with a woman which ended in disappointment for both of us.  Upon reflection, I wonder if our individual definitions of friendship differed greatly. Or, perhaps we simply had different ways of communicating. No matter how hard each of us tried (and we both did put in honest efforts) we could not seem to understand each other. In the end, I decided to cut off contact with this person for an indeterminate length of time. I felt I needed to do this for the emotional health of us both. She wrote to me and messaged me a few times, but I did not read what she had to say and I did not respond. At that point I simply felt too hurt and too vulnerable, and was going through some other challenging issues that I needed to prioritize and focus all of my energy on.

After about a year, this woman sent me a letter apologizing for anything she may have done to upset me. At that point, things had settled down in my life enough that I felt less vulnerable and was able to reply, telling her I held no resentment or anger against her, and I wished her well. I kept my reply brief and I did not leave an opening for a reconciliation of the relationship. I was content to leave things as they were. A little later I was comfortable to be in contact with her again, and unfortunately another misunderstanding erupted. At the end of the day, we have left each other on what I would consider to be extremely bad terms.

Which brings me to the forgiveness quandary.

Due to my evangelical Christian background, I am not content to leave a situation like this hanging without addressing the forgiveness issue. From my past church experience, I had been taught to view forgiveness as a kind of discharging of a debt. In other words, I commit a “sin” against someone, I owe them, they clear the debt. And in the same vein, someone commits a “sin” against me, they owe me, I clear the debt.

But this has never sat well with me. Especially lately. Here’s my thinking.

If I have the power to release someone from their debt, this seems to put me at a “higher” level than them. I’m not comfortable with that and this is why. I know that I am not perfect. I know that I have done things in my life that have hurt others. So how would it ever be that I would sit in a position of judgment wherein I have the right to pronounce someone free of their debt? And who is so perfect that they have a right to “release” me? Shouldn’t such a position be held solely by God? In fact, isn’t it?

To me the bottom line is this – we are all human, with flaws, bad days, bad moods, misinterpretations, disconnections, fatigue, errors in judgment, etc. Maybe the type of forgiveness God requires from us is to simply accept this.

Maybe forgiveness simply means that I acknowledge the other person’s right to be who they are, even if this does not please me. Now, this is not to say that forgiveness means I become a doormat. Absolutely not. It also includes accepting myself and my own right to live and speak my truth as well. I don’t have to be around anyone who, intentionally or unintentionally, hurts me, disrespects me, misunderstands me, etc. Let’s face it, some people are best loved from a distance. And we can acknowledge that. But it’s not healthy to live in resentment or bitterness either. In the case of my broken friendship, I have no desire to ruminate over who is ultimately at fault for the demise of the relationship. It does not matter anymore. What matters is I respect her right to live her own truth. I don’t wish her any harm. Actually, I wish her well. And now I can let the whole matter drop. Because in the final analysis, I know we are both just doing our best to live out our own destinies. I believe this applies to most everyone in the human race. We are all just pilgrims on a journey doing our best.

I have found peace in this.


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