To forgive generally means to absolve debt or guilt, to relent a desire for vengeance, to defeat anger and resentment. There are variations of the concept according to different religious or philosophical systems. My personal conviction (obtained by first principles) is that the source of forgiveness, as a concept or idea or practice, is divine. I mean to examine forgiveness as the primary salvific principle and practice described in Christianity.
One might argue that forgiveness can exist outside of religious or other intellectual social frameworks, that it can arise from a presumed basic goodness of human nature? — there may be other, more eloquent arguments but I dismiss them with prejudice as mere conjecture contrived to oppose the reasoned view that forgiveness is an intentional, transcendental practice, of divine purpose.
I have also heard it said that forgiveness is weak and unbecoming. I think this is related to a constant confusion expressed over “forgiving but not forgetting.” In the first case, I reject the notion that the practice of forgiveness is negative in any way, let alone weak. In the next, I posit that it is not possible to forget. Forgiveness is the transcendent answer to the human dilemma of never, ever being able to forget anything.
Forgive what cannot be forgotten.
As I know it, forgiveness is fundamentally a spiritual practice. I was introduced to forgiveness through my Christian faith, probably first in kindergarten Sunday School. In this way I understood forgiveness to be the central, practical teaching of Christianity.
Although my faith, as I then understood it to have been, lapsed in adulthood, I never lost sight of the primacy of forgiveness. And now I seem to have rounded a full circuit, convinced that God’s forgiveness is the keystone of my salvation.
If forgiveness is the keystone, the arch it braces is my salvation. Without its keystone, the arch will not stand.
I do not mean to be glib when, for expediency’s sake, I explain the Christian concept of salvation as a formula. Corrupted by Original Sin, humans are fallen. This grieves and offends God, and so people are doomed. To achieve our salvation, God was born as the man Jesus, who gave up his life as blood sacrifice to atone for the sin of all who believe. When I accepted Jesus and asked for God’s forgiveness, I was saved.
These religious words and phrases can be like hypnotic incantations — perhaps they distract. One who knows the Christian way at least as well as I may speculate about many omissions from what I wrote above. I have a great deal to write about the details of my pilgrim’s progress, to explain more fully my outrageous heresies, and my relationship with God. Here I will allow that I call myself a Christian by traditional standards, and I admit that by these same standards I have been a blaspheming apostate and I am yet a heretic, an unbeliever of much doctrinal orthodoxy. I can hardly wait to tell you all about it.
The critical item is that the faith I do have is that God forgives me. When I confess and ask, I am forgiven even for heresy and blasphemy, yes even for unbelief. This is my faith: God knows my heart, God loves and God forgives — unconditionally.
Jesus blessed Thomas for his doubt. This is God’s grace.
Lord knows, I do need a lot of forgiveness.
The Transcendent Principle and Radical Practice
The tradition I was raised in emphasized forgiveness so strongly that it became second nature to me early on. Perhaps most people experience innate appreciation of forgiveness, surely when they are forgiven; but it is the practice of actively forgiving that seems to confound many people — especially those who have not been taught Christ-like forgiveness.
Many religions include mention of virtuous forgiveness in one way or another. From most of these I distinguish Christian forgiveness by its imperative centrality, as God’s grace the keystone of salvation, and as Jesus commanded his followers to practice it. As I understand it, Hoʻoponopono is a pre-Christian religion indigenous to Hawaii that also holds forgiveness as its core sacred tenet and in a similar way compels adherents to actively practice radical forgiveness. The two traditions differ tremendously of course, but they both share the primary transcendent principle of forgiveness.
It used to surprise me to find out how little others in this world value forgiveness. But eventually I understood its rarity. The default reaction to being wronged is to desire retribution. Revenge. What good does vengeance achieve that forgiveness does not? Justice was invented to intervene. But does justice heal a soul maimed by hatred? Forgiveness must be taught to be learned. It must be practiced to be known.
Whenever forgiveness is most needed, it is the most difficult to achieve. Again, I state that it is forgetting that is the impossible part of the equation. Therefore, forgiveness is necessary.
Forgiveness in Three Modes
I can divide the practice of forgiveness into three modes that I hope will encompass my understanding of forgiveness.
The first mode is God’s forgiveness. My meaning can be accurately interpreted in a Christian context, to recognize Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross as the catalyst for my salvation through God’s forgiveness. In attempt to word it in a more secular way, the first mode of forgiveness is external, perfect, and universally available to all. This mode states that no sin, no amount of sin, is unforgivable. This mode describes our divinely inspired source of forgiveness, and our divine mandate to practice forgiveness in the other two modes. The practical application of this mode is to confess and ask for God’s forgiveness.
The other two modes of forgiveness are equal, perhaps not parallel but intersecting continua — one does not follow the other. Both modes are essential in practice. In one, perhaps more obvious mode, I forgive people. In the other mode, I must forgive myself.
The mode of self-forgiveness is understood in the context of the first mode, God’s forgiveness. Once I concede my own unworthiness, confess to God and ask for forgiveness, I must yet confront my own self-damnation for the sins I have committed. It is one thing to find comfort in God’s grace — it is quite another to absolve myself when I review the corrupted consequences of my wrong actions, willful or otherwise — my mistakes. If God can forgive me, if I can forgive others, I must also work to forgive myself.
The mode of forgiving others is understood in the same way. This is the more visibly practical of the two modes. Betrayal and offense appear at every turn in this human experience. It’s the same dilemma, and again the transcendental solution is to actively forgive those who violate us.
Refusal to forgive myself or others denies the authority of God’s forgiveness — as if to say I know better than God. Who counters the wisdom of God?
I can begin my description of practical forgiveness by dismissing what it is not. This practice does not involve asking other people for or otherwise obtaining forgiveness. In this practice I must never expect another person to forgive me — that burden is theirs alone. Nor does this practice involve apologizing to those others I have wronged. I don’t oppose apologies, in fact I want to to apologize, but apologies to other people are often inappropriate and so do not belong in this practice. The only apology required for this practice is in the first mode, when I confess to God and ask for forgiveness.
Asking for and accepting God’s forgiveness is essential to the practice. As for whether I can expect to forgive myself, that challenge is also essential.
Practical forgiveness is the practice of radical forgiveness. The clearest way to understand my meaning for radical forgiveness is in the context of explicit guidance given by Jesus. This teaching is at the very core of the Gospel message. With salvation dependent upon God’s grace, Jesus literally says if I won’t forgive my enemies, I won’t be be forgiven. When questioned, he insists there is no limit to the number of times I must forgive anyone for anything. To reiterate in summary, the practice of radical forgiveness requires me to actively forgive everyone for every evil done, always.
I actively forgive when I withhold or withdraw judgment, dismiss resentment. Imagine how difficult this might be — perhaps you know, as many do — to forgive the unforgivable. To forgive the unforgettable. Extend this practice from relationships and casual interactions to the historically reviled and to the most grudging memories of them what done me wrong. Immediately work to forgive.
In the broadest sense the practice is applied throughout my waking hours, as I am confronted with human failure at every turn. It can be compared with a mindfulness practice, or as a not-doing — I stalk myself, always searching for my failure to forgive. When I find it I strike! With forgiveness.
The more formal part of the practice requires me to ask for God’s forgiveness, which can only be done with contrite confession. I assume I am always in a deficit of guilt. I can ask for forgiveness in a silent prayer whenever I become aware of my sin.
When I am most disciplined, my habit is a prayer before sleep. I begin the prayer by confessing and asking God for forgiveness. If I don’t “feel” forgiven, this is due to my failure to forgive myself as God has done. Therefore, the next part of my prayer is to ask God for the ability to forgive myself, and to forgive others. Then my prayer turns to each person who I must yet fully forgive. I place them before me and I try to take on their fault, to assume their portion of blame for myself. In my prayer, with God as my witness, I say to them, to myself, “I am sorry, please forgive me,” and, “I forgive you.”
I spent decades of my adult life avoiding and rejecting many of the words and phrases used in this essay to describe my understanding of forgiveness — specifically those with direct reference to Christian belief often jargonized into a shorthand to be understood only by believing communities. Even now, used as sparingly and as carefully as possible, I know such language can impede, rather than convey.
However, during this long night of my soul I never relinquished my conviction that forgiveness was the critical dynamic to the progress of human relationships, the bedrock transcendental principle of human life. In fact, I developed my notion of radical forgiveness during this period, influenced by secular and non-Christian teachings like Hoʻoponopono, when I declared that “forgiveness is the only game in town.”
My caveat now is that humanity’s mandate to actively practice radical forgiveness can only be fully and properly explained within the Christian context, which demands direct reference. I had to learn this the hard way.