My very limited survey of self-help literature has shown me that there has been some improvement. It seems that there used to be an emphasis on first taking care of #1, whether psychologically, financially, physically or sexually. However, there seems to be a growing appreciation of the fact that there are certain human principles or laws – dharma - to which we have to adhere in order to promote our happiness or mental health. For instance, instead of fulfilling ourselves sexually, we are now advised to give, forgive and to be grateful.
University of California Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky presents eight “suggestions.” One of these is “Learn to forgive”:
- Let go of anger and resentment by writing a letter of forgiveness to a person who has hurt or wronged you. Inability to forgive is associated with persistent rumination or dwelling on revenge, while forgiving allows you to move on. (Time, Jan. 17, 2005)
Few today would doubt the wisdom of these words. Many of us have actually experienced their “wisdom.” One woman located her biological father who had abandoned the family when she was only three years old. She was now a mother herself. In her letter, she asked his forgiveness because she had hated him for many years. He was touched and responded, “It is I who must ask for your forgiveness.” Now, they are best-of-friends.
I too have been blessed by following the law of forgiveness. My wife had left me for another man 35 years ago. However, forgiveness has healed our relationship and has brought forth something very special. My present wife and I are now close friends with my ex and her second husband. This has proved to be a blessing in many ways.
Forgiveness is healing. It restores, teaches and deepens us. However, this self-help “suggestion” separates the act and benefits of forgiveness from the truth of forgiveness. It tells us to forgive for the benefits of forgiveness and not because it’s the right thing to do.
This distinction might sound meaningless, but it isn’t. It’s essential. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have forgiven my ex for only the benefits. My sense of personal dignity would have forbidden me from laying down my grievance. I had been wronged, and I wouldn’t allow myself to be bought-off by the emotional/psychological benefits. This compromise would have been a betrayal of what I had known to be true – that I had been wronged.
However, I knew that Christ had forgiven me – something that I didn’t deserve. I therefore had an obligation to forgive others, not because it would benefit me but because forgiveness represented a truth higher than my damaged ego.
However, over the years, the Lord began to teach me something else. I had always prided myself that I wouldn’t do to others what they had done to me. I had always regarded myself as morally superior, but that didn’t last for long. Under the Lord’s all-wise tutelage, I learned the truth of this verse:
- So, if you think you are [morally or spiritually] standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! (1 Cor. 10:12)
I’ve had to learn the hard way. I had convinced myself that I would always stand firm and never do the things that others do. However, I’ve learned that, if the Lord mercifully pulls out the rug from under us, we will fall. And I fell.
Forgiveness is a matter of truth – not only the truth of our Lord’s forgiveness but also the truth about ourselves. We are in no position to look down on others because, given the right circumstances, we will do the same kinds of things (Romans 2:1; John 15:4-5)
If instead, we practice forgiveness only because of the benefits we receive, it’s not really forgiveness. It’s conditional – based upon whether or not we are profiting from it. It’s also not truth, and it must be of truth. Can you imagine someone “forgiving” by saying, “I don’t really want to forgive you, but because of the emotional benefits that I expect to derive from this act, I will temporarily set aside my grievances. But if you don’t respond in the way I want, all bets are off!”
This type of “forgiveness” is laughable, but this is the self-help forgiveness, lacking its necessary theological content.
You will doubtless respond, “I’ve practiced forgiveness without the theological content that you insist is necessary. And I found it to be healing!”
I’m going to try to not be offensive, but this will be difficult. This is because I’m almost sure that my response will be experienced as dogmatic and invasive. I am going to tell you what you have experienced. In other words, I will make the offensive suggestion that I know better about your experiences than you do. Gulp!
I would venture to say that forgiveness “worked” for you because it not only bore positive results, but that you sensed something transcendent about it – that you were somehow it touch with the “truth” behind it, although you might not have been willing to acknowledge the fullness of it.
The process of forgiveness is a pointer. It points to the Transcendent. We sense that there is more involved in forgiveness than good feelings. We actually sense something holy. The feelings come and go, but the instruction in “holiness” remains. Similarly, we might also sense the transcendent in music or in a sunset. The feeling might depart but the lesson leaves its afterglow.
Our Lord’s pointers are all around us. They point beyond our feelings to a reality that we dimly see, but it’s a reality that must be acknowledged if our searching is going to lead anywhere.