Forgiving is in your best interest. To not forgive someone is to incarcerate them in your memory: your offender being the prisoner; you being the prison guard. The tragedy is that both of you are in the prison. Forgiving is setting someone free for your sake. By forgiving someone, you unbind yourself from the residual power this person – from whom you have experienced an injury, offense, or disappointment – continues to have on you. To not forgive will leave your wound vulnerable to infection, which eventually can metastasize into resentment. Nelson Mandela, on being freed from twenty-six years of imprisonment in South Africa, felt bitter toward his captors; however he was determined to claim his inner freedom, to forgive and not to resent. “Resentment,” he said, “is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.”
Do you wait until someone who has hurt or offended you asks for your forgiveness? No. To wait gives this other person tacit power over you, certainly a control over the healing of your wound. And they may never own or even realize they have committed a wrong toward you.
Do you tell someone that you have forgiven them? Probably not. To do so might sound terribly pompous or presumptuous on your part; you could offend them. They might say something like, “Who do you think you are to speak so condescendingly to me?” Most often your forgiving someone is a matter within your own heart, though you may need some assistance from a trusted soulmate or professional helper.
Do you forgive someone for a repeated offense? Yes, but with a qualification. This is the energy in Peter’s questioning Jesus, “How often should I forgive?” Jesus answers in code language: “endlessly.” You will understand this if there is a person or some kind of person from whom you cannot escape and whom you find repeatedly offending. Your relationship may have a Velcro-like quality, “hooking” you. You may find in this relationship both a need and invitation “to pray without ceasing” for yourself and for this other person. They may even be a disguised teacher, exposing you to your own character flaws. SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson, taught that “in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.” The qualification is when the offense has an abusive or addictive quality. Then there is a need for you to establish at least a protective boundary, and maybe an escape plan. You will need help with this – pastoral, sacramental, psychotherapeutic, and/or the assistance of a support group or 12-Step meeting. Help is very helpful. Get help.
What about mutual forgiveness: both persons being offended; both persons forgiving each other? Those are amazing moments when they happen. When you do find yourself sharing conversation with someone about your afflicted relationship, if you are prepared to forgive, also be prepared to be forgiven. You may have missed or misinterpreted something in your altercation, how they experienced you. That missing information may make all the difference, not just in the freedom that comes with forgiveness but in the shared delight of reconciliation.
Must you always be reconciled with someone whom you have forgiven? No. Reconciliation, when it can happen, is a beautiful thing. But the timing and setting must be right, especially when there was or is a power differential between the two individuals, i.e., a difference in age, in seniority, in status, in authority. The less-powerful person continues to be quite vulnerable.
I recently shared a conversation with a young woman who had been appallingly abused by her father in her childhood. (I write about this with her permission.) The woman was a walking miracle. She had not only survived but found the courage, the desire, the help to thrive. She claimed what she called “an amazing grace” to have forgiven her father. The point of our conversation was about her reconciliation with her father who had never admitted his repeated transgressions. The young woman thought she should and must be reconciled to him, and she was very, very anxious about this. She invited my response. I said, “No, not now.” I strongly sensed it was not safe for this woman to attempt the reconciliation. It would have every prospect to tear open the sutures in this woman’s soul; it could re-ignite her father’s prowess. It was essential for her wellbeing to retain a clear boundary with her father.
We ultimately talked about what more she could do in her relationship with her father. Pray. She was aware of his own upbringing, how he had been abused by his own father, and – from a safe distance – she actually felt a good deal of compassion for him. How to pray? I asked her. She had a flood of images: to pray for her father’s liberation and healing, for hope, for love.
Sometimes this is the best we can do: to pray for Jesus’ light and life and love to shine upon a person from whom we need to keep distance. In the fullness of time – and maybe not until eternity – reconciliation may be able to happen. In the meantime, use Jesus as a go-between. Ask for Jesus’ mediation, whether this person be alive or dead. At death, “life is changed, not ended” (the language of the Book of Common Prayer). You may find enormous comfort and streaming energy to whisper into Jesus’ ear your own hopes for this hurtful, hurting soul. Pray candidly. Even if your feelings toward this person remain conflicted, pray your conflict. Jesus will sort it out. For how long should you pray? You will know.