Forgiveness just might be the most difficult spiritual work that we do in life. There are other spiritually difficult tasks, such as putting our trust in a spiritual reality greater than ourselves. Letting go of attachments to ideas, habits or people that give us sense of security (often a false sense of security) is another difficult one. Forgiveness requires both trust and letting go.
Forgiveness is the release of resentment and claim to retribution. It takes a certain emotional energy to keep tabs on what we resent and why. Sometimes we release resentment because we just don’t have the energy to keep nursing the resentment. An offender’s expression of sincere remorse can defuse the resentment, making it easier to justify redirecting energy to other things instead. Forgiveness gets more difficult in the absence of remorse, like if the offender has died or is emotionally incapable of remorse. Forgiveness is most difficult when it feels like the subject and predicate have flip-flopped. We may want to be released (passive voice) from the hold the offense has over our psyche rather than releasing (active voice) resentment for it. How can we reclaim the active voice?
All religious traditions have teachings of one kind or another on forgiveness. Some practices such as Jewish atonement celebrated at Yom Kippur and the Christian sacrament of reconciliation focus on seeking God’s forgiveness, for which getting forgiveness from others and forgiving others are, respectively, prerequisites. In my study of how different spiritual traditions approach confession, I was struck by one difference between these religious traditions and the Twelve Steps. The Fourth Step searching and fearless moral inventory and the Fifth Step admission of wrongs to God, ourselves and another human being are primarily focused not on getting God’s forgiveness but on getting God’s help to change. That seems immanently more pragmatic to me.
Ultimately, I believe it is also what allows us to reclaim the active voice. As long as we focus on our resentment, we keep putting the offender in the middle of the situation. Our injuries impair the way we treat others, and our impaired responses keep dragging our wounded past into our present circumstances. When we take the offender out of the center and put God there instead, taking responsibility for how we respond to others becomes more important than what an offender deserves. When we can honestly say we care more about our relationship with God or the footprint we are leaving in the world than what our offender deserves, we are on the home stretch. Getting to this stage, though, requires trust in a spiritual reality where each person bears responsibility for his own actions. The act of forgiveness is a response to that spiritual reality, not a response to what our offender does or does not deserve.
Forgiveness also requires us to let go of several things: what we think our offender deserves, what the offender owes to us, and perhaps the relationship with the offender entirely. Sometimes we hold onto resentment because it is the only thing connecting us to someone we think we need in our lives. Letting go of ideas, habits or even people may be our most important step towards healing.
Join the conversation. What helped you let go of a stubborn case of resentment?
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