Forgiveness: What it Is and What it Isn't
What If I don't feel like forgiving?
Mrs. Ralston sat near the front on what was known in those days as the “epistle side,” the right side of the nave as one faced the altar. Mrs. Williams sat in the back row of that side, and was the first of any of us to arrive, since her husband, Stuart, as small and meek and resigned a man as his wife was large and formidable, was the usher and needed to be at his station early to pass out the service leaflets. There they would be when worshipers walked in, Mrs. Williams greeting each arrival like a queen and Stuart fussing over his pile of leaflets. She greeted them all, that is, except one: when Mrs. Ralston made her own queenly entrance, not a word was exchanged, not a word or a glance.
It has been so for decades. I used to pester my mother and grandmother about why the two ladies didn’t speak, but they answered vaguely, and I knew it was a secret. At the church suppers—turkey in the fall and fried chicken in the spring—Mrs. Williams ruled the kitchen with martial authority, her merest glance securing compliance even from immense men brandishing potato mashers. Her steaming plates poured forth from the kitchen; the exquisite smell summoned the countryside for acres around the church. Mrs Ralston ruled the dining room.
That is where we girls worked: serving the diners, taking pie orders from among the breathtaking array on the pie table—peach, apple, pumpkin, coconut custard, blueberry, lemon meringue, chocolate, butterscotch, pecan, banana cream. And we would trot to the biscuit table, where Mrs. Thompson mixed feathery biscuits and baked them in a small covered oven right on the spot, so they were steaming and fresh when we laid them in baskets on the tables. And we would fetch glasses of sweet iced tea, sweet being the only kind they made. The older ladies would stand beside empty seats and hold up two and three and four fingers to signify the presence of vacancies, and Mrs. Ralston reigned over it all.
It was an economy that could only have worked in a tiny country church like
that one, I suppose: two parish leaders who never communicated with each other.
It had been like this for so long that everyone had long since learned how to
manage the little cold war, and nobody gave it much thought.
Nobody but the rector. He was new to the parish, his first cure, and full of a true goodness that would last the entire forty years he served that little church and a smaller one ten miles north. It was a terrible thing to him that these two ladies should have carried on a grudge for all those years, and a terrible thing that the church had let them. He made inquiries as to the origins of the estrangement, and got nowhere: small towns do not yield up their secrets quickly. This, too, was annoying. But there was one more thing he could try.
He knew from his study of the Prayer Book that there was a provision in it
allowing the minister to refuse communion to those in his parish betwixt whom he perceiveth malice and hatred to reign; not suffering them to
be partakers of the Lord’s Table, until he know them to be reconciled.
(From "General Rubrics for Holy Communion," The Book of Common Prayer, ©1928, p. 85)
And so he spoke to each of the ladies privately. They would not be admitted to Communion the next Sunday unless they spoke to each other.
Everyone was in church the following week. Even my mother and grandmother (who usually arrived just in the knick of time) got there early, and they had told me that I must always be above gossip in the parish. Mrs. Williams, of course, was already seated. One of the minks caught my eye with a malicious amber gleam, and I quickly looked away. Stuart fretted over his leaflets with more than the usual melancholy.
Enter Mrs. Ralston. Her process down the aisle was as always, stopping here and there to accept somebody’s hand. And then she turned and spoke.
"Good morning, Mrs. Williams."
"Good morning, Mrs. Ralston."
And then she sat down in her pew. The rector, half hidden in the sacristy doorway, heard the exchange. And the silence after it. He thought a moment and then signaled the organist to begin the processional.
It was not all he had hoped. Still, they had spoken.
It was not until twenty years later that my mother finally told me why Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Ralston never spoke. They had grown up together in that little town, two girls about the same age. They had gone to the same school and the same church. In her teens, Mrs. Ralston had become pregnant out of wedlock. In a plan that may seem strange and even cruel to us now but was not uncommon then, she and her mother remained at home in seclusion until the baby was born, whereupon her mother presented the child to the world as her own and they resumed their lives as if nothing had happened. The little girl reached adulthood never knowing that the woman she thought to be her sister was really her mother. These facts were known by almost everyone. But by silent common consent, they were never discussed.
Somewhere along the line, though, Mrs. Williams had made a snide remark to someone about Mrs. Ralston’s secret, and Mrs. Ralston had heard about it. I think of the shame of the young girl in her embarrassing situation, of her strange loss of what the world considers honor, of her daily proximity to her child without a mother’s place in that child’s history. Even after she married Mr. Ralston, she never had another child. How cruel a thing it must have been to hear that a friend had gossiped maliciously about her. I believe that, except for the exchange in the church aisle that Sunday morning, they never spoke again in this life.
That’s a long time to carry a grudge.
But here it is: I have to forgive others if I wish, myself, to feel forgiven and free. Those two ladies in the little old church lived long and productive lives, and were good to many people. Those turkey dinners! Those chicken dinners! But there was a piece missing out of each of them that cannot have done either of them any good. They could not find a way to forgive. More than anything else, this fact stops people cold in the project of finding reconciliation, with God and with other human beings.
It sounds to them as if they are being asked to do something they know they cannot do: somehow come up with a great rush of warm, friendly feelings toward someone who has hurt them terribly. It sounds as if any forgiveness God might have for them will be hostage to the improbable completion of this task; as if the one who has hurt them must somehow be allowed to get away with it—his crime erased and forgotten; as if they must somehow learn to adopt an oh-what-the-heck-that’s-okay attitude toward people who have injured them grievously. But that’s not what forgiveness is.
Sins aren’t okay. By definition, they’re not okay; if they were okay; they wouldn’t be sins, would they? There would be no need for forgiveness. What we would be talking about if sins were okay would be acquittal, not forgiveness. Acquittal means the guy didn’t do it. He walks. He’s innocent. But when we forgive, that’s not the judgment we’re making. We’re not exonerating. We’re just electing to move on.Forgiveness turns out to be much more about you than about the one who has hurt you.
In a curious way—curious and offensive to many people, I might add—the distinction between the victim of a wrong and its perpetrator is not as central to the problem of forgiveness as it always seems. This thought runs so counter to the way almost all of us feel that it sounds like nonsense, especially to the victim of a grave injury.
Wait a minute!…you’re saying that there’s no difference between me and the one who betrayed my trust so completely that I don’t think I can ever trust again?
Whether I committed the sin or someone else committed it against me is not as important to my eventual freedom as is ejecting it from its inappropriate place in the spotlight on my spiritual landscape. Whoever did it—if it is obsessing me—I am the one who must act to change things. As fascinated as we cannot help but be with the question, “Who started it?” the more urgent and more useful question is, “Who can end it?” The first is a question about the past, and we cannot change the past. But the second is about the present and the future, and these are things we can affect by our own agency.
Please don’t be so disgusted by the last paragraph that you stop reading. I have not said there is no such thing as right or wrong. Of course there is. Certainly there are such things as aggression, as dishonesty, as faithlessness. There are also degrees of injury: failing to RSVP and burglary are not of equal gravity. From the viewpoint of my soul’s health, though, my inability to move on from a wrong that has been done me may be much more troublesome, over a much longer stretch of time, than the original wrong ever was.Whether I did it or had it done to me, I am the only one who can offer it to God to be removed from its hurtful place in my heart. In that sense, and in that sense alone, sins against me can function in my heart as if they were my own.
You have known someone, I’m sure, who nourished a grudge for decades. Perhaps you have even been someone who nourished a grudge for decades—in utter estrangement from someone with whom you once were close. Often, it is a former spouse who occupies that Siberia. I’ve known many divorced people who, ten or fifteen years after the breakup, describe it at almost every social gathering with as fresh a hurt and anger as if it had happened the previous week. Over and over they review their own innocence and the perfidy of the former husband or wife for anyone who will still listen. Their tragedy has become liturgical: it has chronology and cause—credal and immutable—that must not be altered. It has only one allowable meaning.
And who knows? Maybe she is right, the wounded innocent. The fault may be completely and utterly his, and she may have been totally without blame in the breakup of their marriage. This would be rare, but it is conceivable. She may be innocent. But she is far from free. She is probably much more imprisoned by the sin of her ex than he has ever been. He may have sinned grievously against her twenty years ago, but it is she who carries the heavy baggage of his sin with her still, she who still nurses the ongoing bitterness of an ancient betrayal. It’s hard work, carrying someone else’s load like that.
How can she ever get free?
I’m pretty sure she won’t get free by putting forth an enormous effort of will to forgive. If this could have been done through an exercise of her will, it probably would have been. Her will is crippled, at present, by many things—her anger, her hurt, her embarrassment.
We might as well be honest here and admit that forgiveness does not come naturally to us. We are not forgiving by nature. We are vengeful. We tend to hang onto things, not let go of them. By ourselves, we are not good at this.
But we are not by ourselves.
The life of faith is not about becoming a better and better person through a superhuman effort of will. It is about connecting with the power of a loving God. Is forgiveness beyond you? Of course it is: it’s beyond all of us. But it is not beyond the one who looked down upon his tormentors from the cross and understood them. And because that one lives in us, we can lay hold of this loving power and move beyond terrible things, if we must. With the power that comes from our loving creator through a loving redeemer, we can do things we otherwise could not do.
We begin to forgive by deciding, not by feeling. It is a theological decision, not one guided by the human limitations we must ordinarily take into consideration when we decide about many other things, like which school to attend or which car to buy. We make the decision to forgive knowing that we lack the power to carry it out, and so we make it asking for that power to be given to us as God wills. Our feelings don’t lead us to forgiveness; they usually lead us in the opposite direction.
We begin by deciding to allow God to enter into our process of dealing with our feelings and their continuing grip on us. God understands our feelings and their great power over us very well. God knows us. In making this beginning, we have nothing to fear: God is gentle with us and knows full well that our feelings of terrible anger mark the moment in our history when something terrible happened to us. God is not in the business of explaining it all away or insisting that we do that. God does not brainwash us or demand that we brainwash ourselves.
Part of deciding to forgive may involve bringing your inability to do so to confession. How might you do this? "The Office of Compline" on page 127 of The Book of Common Prayer contains one prayer of confession; it’s the only one of the Daily Offices in which the confession is not optional, on the sensible theory that the end of the day is a good time to take inventory, and that, in doing so, most of us will be able to unearth at least one thing in the course of the day just past that we wish we hadn’t done. So maybe you could start there, for a night or two, and see what happens.
Or maybe this is a matter better suited to a sacramental confession. Maybe you need the accountability of having another person in the room to help you make yourself accountable to God. This can be a frightening prospect: I’m supposed to expose this to another human being? What if he gives me a lecture about turning the other cheek and sends me on my way with a pat on the head? What if he thinks I’m selfish and mean-spirited? What if he tells me I have no right to feel as I do?
Well, for heaven’s sake, choose your confessor with care. Don’t go to someone you already know to be a grown-up hall monitor, or to someone who routinely ignores other people’s feelings and concerns. Go to someone with whom you have a good rapport and whose probity is beyond question.
Your confession of being unable to forgive is only that: it is not a reopening of the case against the one who has injured you to determine, yet again, his guilt or innocence. It is only an honest admission that your experience of that hurt has taken over more of your life than is healthy. It is not nearly as much about the original injury as it is about how your life has been since then. It is not so much about a stubborn refusal to forgive as about a lamentable inability to do so, an inability even to begin. It’s not so much about your willful “I won’t!” as it is about your sorrowful “I can’t; can you help me?” There are rocks we can’t lift. There are lots of them. We shouldn’t try to lift them ourselves. We should ask for the help we need. Confessing our weakness opens us to this help.
When we ask God for help in our weakness, we get help. Ordinarily it is not immediate, a melting away of decades of hostility in an instant. Often—usually—it doesn’t look much like our expectation or our plan. But in the act of asking, we have received.
Now it can begin to make sense to talk about a “theological decision” to forgive. Now we remember that our feelings often lag behind our decisions. Now we understand that the decision to forgive is not certified by the sudden blossoming of good feelings. The theological decision to forgive does not need certification as real; if you have said it to God, it has already begun to happen. In deciding to forgive, in some sense, you have done so. And this is true even if you’re just as mad as you ever were. You may still be mad, but you are not alone. You have asked God into the mix of your feelings and your decision, and now you have a power much greater than your own at work in you, sorting things out. Right here, right now, the process of easing your burden has begun.
So “forgive and forget” is nothing but an alliterative illusion. Forgiveness does not erase history or exonerate. History has happened, and nobody can revise its content or many of its consequences. And feelings are not the barometer of forgiveness in its early stages, although with the passage of time they heal powerfully in a person who has turned to God for help in living a forgiving and forgiven life.
Poor Mrs. Williams. Poor Mrs. Ralston. Gone to their graves years ago, now, those frozen dead places still locked in their hearts. No doubt they are friends again. But it could have happened while they still lived here. The dead places could have filled with light and life and love in this life.
From Yes! We'll Gather at the River by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Copyright©
2001 Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Used by permission of Church Publishing
Incorporated, New York, New York.
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