The Creative Power of Forgiving
by Elle Berry | 29 November 2018 |
I never thought of myself as an angry person. In my childhood, I veered so far toward the tender-hearted side of things, you might have thought I was auditioning for Mother Teresa. I was the kid who took in blind cats and rescued orphaned rabbits. It was compassion, granted, but with a strong side of justice: I once put my cat into a milk crate “jail” when he dared to try to eat the baby birds that had fallen from their nest and died on the sidewalk. (I was, after all, trying to properly eulogize the birds, not easily done when they’re being eaten.) I frequently friended the kids who looked left out, and would wait to stand next to the person who was last in line. This wasn’t because I was trying to be good, but because I genuinely wanted everyone to be welcome, and I didn’t want anyone to be hurt.
While there is a sweetness to that spirit, there can be a dark side to tenderness. For instance, innate tender-heartedness made it difficult to make healthy boundaries, and motivated me to extend hope for people, relationships, and situations long past the point when I should have walked away. Not to mention it prompted me to take on responsibility for anything that went wrong in a relationship (because I could always understand the other person’s point of view, and thus assumed the fault must be my own.) While there is nothing wrong with being a tender-hearted person, I lacked the self-agency to stand my sacred ground. I could stand up for injustice against others, but I struggled to stand up for myself.
While pendulums do swing, I was nonetheless surprised the first time I became acquainted with a rather foreign emotion I was feeling—anger.
I don’t know when I changed. Maybe it was a series of personal relationships where I failed to enact my self-agency and ended up feeling used. Maybe it was the progression of American politics that has slowly, but surely, continued to boil into a toxic, and intolerable, fury. Maybe, even, it was the 2015 General Conference vote about women’s ordination. Probably it was a “greatest hits” compilation including all of the above. Regardless of the source, I would classify the trend of my personal progression as an innate tendency to hope, believe, trust, and bestow tender-hearted benefits of the doubt—that over the years has slowly and increasingly given way to disappointment, betrayal, feeling used, and being shattered, as people, institutions, and communities I have trusted not only failed to show-up, but actively chose actions that violated my sense of justice.
In the last few years I have come to be on a first-name basis with anger.
While anger gets a bad rap, I have also come to realize there are gifts to anger. As C.S. Lewis noted, pain is a megaphone to rouse a deaf world, and I have come to believe many of our darker emotions, such as anger, act as a kind of alarm. Anger, for instance, is often about something deeper: it can alert us to injustice, to grief, and ultimately if we’re paying attention, it can even reveal what we love—because it is frequently a violation of love that births our anger. Perhaps there is a place for the informative power of Rage Girl after all?
As I wrote before, I never really spent a lot of time thinking about forgiveness because I thought forgiving was all about dealing with anger. I now believe this is inaccurate; forgiveness is not about anger, but rather, it is about how we grieve a grievance. Yet as fate would have it, much of my grief the last few years has vastly manifested as anger. So even though I was driven by an inaccurate ideology about why one might need forgiveness, anger has continued to be a beacon calling me toward better forgiveness practice.
Over the last few years, I have become very clear about what forgiving isn’t. Forgiveness is not the same as excusing; forgiveness is not about anger; forgiveness is not accepting intolerable wrongs; and forgiveness is not a warm and fuzzy sentiment.
If that’s what forgiving isn’t, then what is forgiveness?
- Forgiveness is a grief-healing balm. Perhaps one of the most frequent mistakes I used to make about forgiving was in offering forgiveness as something I felt obliged to give others. This may have been a side-effect of my overly tender-heartedness that put others before myself. But seeing it as an obligation meant I forgave because I was supposed to. However, as Lewis Smedes notes in The Art of Forgiving, “We do not forgive because we are supposed to; we forgive when we are ready to be healed.” Forgiveness is a healing work. So why is it so hard for most of us to do? Because healing is hard, and I think particularly with forgiving, it comes back to the fact that forgiving is a process of grief. As Brene Brown says in Rising Strong, “We run from grief because loss scares us, yet our hearts reach toward grief because the broken parts want to mend.” When we forgive, we have to let something die—this might be an idea about another person, or an idea about ourselves, or it may be something about our community. Regardless, forgiving means allowing something to die, and then having to grieve that loss. Grieving is hard work, but it is also necessary work in order for us to heal. Far from being an obligation we owe to those who hurt us, forgiveness is the path to healing ourselves from a past we cannot change.
- Forgiveness is transformative, making us practitioners of grace. Forgiving doesn’t simply heal us from our hurt; it transforms us into more empathetic, and grace-oriented, people. Smedes notes that “Forgiving happens in three states.” The first of these is that we rediscover the humanity of the person who wronged us. There is almost always a why behind the what that motivates people to treat us the way they do. Occasionally, this motivation is actually maliciously driven because they think we deserve it. But I believe what is more common, is that people hurt us because they are themselves hurting, and therefore wound us out of their own pain. Equally likely is that people hurt us with their good intentions, or they hurt us with their mistakes. When I remember that such motives are more likely the cause of another person’s hurting me, rather than intentional malice, it reminds me of their humanity. It may still be difficult to forgive when the injustice seems so glaringly obvious to me, yet I also remember that at times I have also done wrong. I have done the right things for the wrong reasons, and the wrong thing for the right reasons—and all with good intentions. I may blame someone for doing wrong, but I must reasonably recognize that I have also been blameworthy. Forgiving is a transformative act that allows me to give to other people the very thing I hope to receive when I err.
- Forgiveness is active. I think one of the hardest things about forgiving, is being clear about how we can do it. If you are actively hating someone, it’s a little more obvious: you need to not actively hate, or plan to do harm to another person. Likewise, if the person is seeking your forgiveness, again, you can have a conversation, and actively forgive them. But what if they aren’t asking for your forgiveness? Or what about those of us who are more passive in our unforgiveness? Maybe you aren’t planning to deal out vengeance to the person who hurt you, but you can’t help but feel smug when they get their “just desserts”? The good news is, we can fight off those smug vibes by actively forgiving. Jesus, after all, did this on the cross when he prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He did not wait for an apology, or a recognition of wrongdoing. He actively chose to forgive. It has been powerful for me to realize I can practice forgiving, on purpose, regardless of other people. How? By simply praying blessings on the person who hurt me. Full disclosure: this isn’t easy. Many times these prayers come out as,“Um, God? I don’t really want to do this. But because you say we should pray for our enemies and we should bless people who hurt us. Well… I’m doing this on purpose.” Personally, I believe God honors authentic prayers. We can actively practice forgiveness, even when it hurts, and even when we don’t want to.
- Forgiveness is an Imago Dei creative power. I have come to believe forgiving is actually the most passionate, creative act we can engage in. As Lewis Smedes puts it, “The most creative power given to the human spirit is the power to heal the wounds of a past it cannot change.” As humans, created in God’s image, we share in the ability to co-create in our lives. So what does forgiveness create? Forgiveness is resurrection energy. As Christians, we believe that in order for Christ to forgive humanity, he had to die for our transgressions. Because in order to forgive, something has to die. The death of Christ on the cross is what forgiving means. Yet, that’s not where God leaves the story. The resurrection is God’s answer to what forgiving brings. It’s the what’s next part of the story. Forgiving opens the possibility of bringing life out of death. I love how The Message calls us to this reality in Romans 8:15-39: “This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’” This process of death and resurrection is our most potent creative power, and when we follow Christ in this work, it is the greatest act of love. This creative power is anything but boring, or tedious. Forgiving is adventurously expectant, creative work.
- Forgiveness is a catalyst for redemption. While I have become clear about the fact that forgiveness is about our healing — it is something we do for ourselves — that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful catalyst of change for others. The truth of this is woven into the gospel. While God’s forgiveness does not cause us to change, it does provide a catalyst for our redemption. And likewise, when we extend grace to the ones who hurt us, we open the door for others to change. While we cannot guarantee that others will course correct from the actions that hurt us, forgiveness allows the possibility that if they do, then we can redeem a relationship that would otherwise be lost.
It’s not that I have mastered forgiveness. In full disclosure, I am in fact still actively forgiving and grieving many things. But I think perhaps why this creative act has become so important to me in this season is because forgiving is about resurrecting hope. Betrayal and heartbreak can bury hope, but forgiveness makes the power of resurrecting new hope accessible to anyone who will enter into following the Jesus way. Rage Girl is a good beacon of alarm, but constantly raging against what we hate is exhausting. As one of my favorite quotes from Star Wars says, “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate… saving what we love.” Forgiveness is about saving what we love. And that’s a creative power worth practicing.
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.