FORGIVENESS

 

We have so often criticised ourselves for having ‘bad’ memories (I mean the faculty of memory) that it may be time to take another look. Having a bad memory is not always a bad thing. There are many situations where it might be a very good thing.

     Krishnamurti said that a bad memory is essential for a deep spiritual life. A naturally forgetful person is less likely to bear a grudge for long, as King Darius knew when he commissioned a special slave to shout in his ear three times a day: “Sire, remember the Athenians!”

     Forgive and forget: these two words are often seen in each other’s company. We must not only bury the hatchet; we should also forget where we buried it. If we say we have forgiven but are determined not to forget, we are only saying that we have not really forgiven.

     However, there’s a problem: we cannot just decide to forget. Some things just stay in our memory, whether we want them there or not. We remember even things that we want to forget.

     There’s a difference between simple recollection and a wilful harbouring of resentment. The wife of Tam o’ Shanter (in Robbie Burns’ poem of that name) sat at home “nursing her wrath to keep the warm.” With that kind of dedication, it was unlikely that she would ever forget. But we can choose not to nurse and feed our resentments; then they lose weight and may eventually die.

     Resentments are a heavy weight, and when I shed them I not only set the other person free, but I set myself free as well. Life is too short for resentments. But sometimes it is very hard to forgive. We have been told to forgive our enemies; it is even harder to forgive our friends and our families when they hurt us.

What should I do when I have been hurt and find it difficult to forgive? I should will to forgive. Forgiveness is an act of the will. If I will to forgive, I have already forgiven. My feelings of hurt will continue for a long time, or a short time; but the main root has been cut, the source of bitterness is stopped.

Is there anything I can do to help my will? Yes. I can turn several things over in my mind, feeding my mind with right thoughts rather than with the poison of resentment.

1.      My own books are not balanced either: I have need of forgiveness myself. "He that cannot forgive others, breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass…for everyone has need to be forgiven," wrote George Herbert 350 years ago.

2.      Whether I like it or not, other people are part of me. If I close myself off from another person I close myself off from part of myself. When I see that person, something in me freezes. If I close myself off from many people I will end up like a block of ice.

3.       Let me look at someone who is full of resentment - who piles it up as other people pile up new clothes, or books, or money - and ask myself if this is the kind of person I am choosing to become. I make myself by my choices. Each time I choose to carry resentment in my heat I am making a decision of death. Each choice is only one choice of course, but fistfuls make a load: the pattern of death emerges gradually. I am like the person who thinks he or she is giving up cigarettes but keep smoking just one more.

The Old Testament has a great deal of murderous thought in it, but alongside this there is a gradually evolving teaching on forgiveness. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour lest you bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). This is definite enough, but the forgiveness is limited to “your brother” and to “the sons of your own people.” One of the few Old Testament passages on forgiveness is which there is no limitation and no condition is Proverbs 24:29. “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.’” But in the Gospels, Jesus always teaches unlimited and unconditional forgiveness. The essence of this teaching is in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have learnt how it was said: ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance… You have learnt how it was said; ‘You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:38, 43).

         This tells us not only what to do, but how to do it. “Pray for those who persecute you.” This is the practical way to cut that root of bitterness. Every time the memory of the person who hurt you returns to your mind, say a very brief prayer, such as, “Lord, have mercy on us all.” This includes yourself in the same picture with your enemy, and it puts you both in the right relationship to God. It really works.

 

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.