Ask most Christian ministers what forgiveness is, and you won’t get much of an answer.
This infuriates me. Christian ministers have been given an incredible opportunity to help people of faith understand what forgiveness is and how to bring forgiveness into their daily lives. In fact, it’s one of the few things the church can offer that isn’t being offered elsewhere through service clubs, secular charities, and weekend workshops taught by various coaches and New Age gurus.
I have a book called Helping People Forgive by David W. Augsburger (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996). According to the back cover, Dr. Augsburger is a Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Fuller Theological Seminary. I’m sure Dr. Augsburger is a sincere, well-meaning man. But he doesn’t know the first thing about the mystical reality of forgiveness.
Early in his book, Dr. Augsburger says, “A major paradigmatic shift occurred two thousand years ago in the philosophical breakthrough that allowed persons to disavow their past and alter their future through ‘forgiveness'” (page 9).
I disagree. Forgiveness is not about disavowing the past, nor about reversing a moral judgement (Augsburger, page 11). Nor is it (as one of my classmates said, though he ought to know better, considering his interest in restorative justice) a state of “just not thinking about the harm at all.”
Forgiveness is an act of great moral courage that requires the person who’s doing the forgiving to dredge up from within their own soul all the divine love they’re capable of.
Forgiveness is not for the faint of heart.
While it’s quite within the capacity of all human beings to forgive themselves and to forgive each other (as Jesus taught), it’s not something a person can learn overnight. For many people, it will take years to learn how to forgive. Part of the reason for this is that when you open up your heart wide enough that you can hear your own soul, you have to deal with a lot of intense emotions, including painful emotions. Many people don’t want to deal with such emotions.
If you’ve never learned to master intense, positive, mature emotions such as gratitude, trust, devotion, and courage, you’re going to find it difficult to master the emotion of forgiveness.
Not impossible, but difficult.
This shouldn’t stop you from trying. Each day, your beloved Mother and Father God forgive you for everything you do that’s motivated by status anxiety, or greed, or rudeness, or cruelty (to name some of the less-than-loving motivations you might choose in a typical day). They forgive you whether or not you ask for forgiveness. They forgive you for everything — and I mean everything.
HOWEVER, the fact that they forgive you does NOT mean they consider such behaviours acceptable. They forgive you when you’re abusive towards others, but they also have an opinion about your decision to be abusive towards others.
God the Mother and God the Father have free will, just as you have free will. They’re within their rights to have an opinion about your harmful actions. They’re also within their rights to promptly respond to you, to share their thoughts and feelings with you about the choices you’re making. This means, of course, that God is not transcendent and God is not unemotional with regard to your choices (although orthodox Western Christianity would have you believe that God would never cry about the choices you’re making.)
God forgives you whether you ask or not, and by the same token, God is always watching and listening whether you ask or not. God is always watching and listening to you, because this is how God knows when it’s time to intervene to help you (whether you ask for help or not).
God will intervene whether or not you recite the right prayer to God, whether or not you think you’re worthy of God’s love, or whether or not you think you’re worthy of God’s forgiveness.
You don’t get a say in these things, because it’s not up to you to decide what God should be thinking, feeling, or doing. That’s up to God.
You can’t make God stop loving you. You just can’t, no matter how hard you try.
You are one of God’s children. They love you. They forgive you. There is no force anywhere in Creation that can block their divine love. The flip side of the coin is this: there’s no ritual, no prayer, no temple, no church, no sacrament that can give you more divine love than you already have. God loves everyone — from the North Pole to the South Pole and all points in between — in the fullest, most wondrous way imaginable. God’s love cannot be purchased. Ever.
Anyone who tells you that you can only receive God’s love by accepting baptism in Christ is lying to you. Give God some credit for being able to love you completely without attaching a bunch of religious strings.
Trust in God’s love and forgiveness as Jesus trusted in God’s love and forgiveness. There’s only one free lunch in all Creation, and this happens to be it.
As a mystic, I’ve worked extensively on the question of forgiveness — what it is, how to do it, how to let it transform your life. I’ll continue to write on this topic in future.
Thanks for listening. And thanks be to God!