Why is it so hard to forgive?

Why is it so hard to forgive?

For many years, my younger brother, now one of my favorite people, was my nemesis. No matter how our battles started—and they were physical and fierce—when it came time for the parental judgment call, I was invariably found to be at fault. This, I thought, was grossly unfair. No matter that I was four years older. From my perspective, he was the privileged male child, exempt from scullery duty and paid—paid!—to mow the lawn, a job I passionately, irrationally, coveted. Plus, he was a tease, a conniving little beast who knew every weak and rotted plank in my character and purposely slammed his high-top Keds (I was jealous of them, too) down hard whenever he saw the opportunity. I blamed him for my having to serve time in the corner while the happy shrieks of the neighborhood kids drifted through the window like the life that was passing me by. I was convinced (completely wrongly, of course) that my mother loved him more than she loved me, and this precipitated clumsy, frantic efforts on my part to gain her attention. But no matter how I slaved for As at school or tried to impress her with my writing skills, I could not seem to pry his grubby little fingers off her heart.

However, one rainy afternoon all this changed. We kids were restless and bored and the situation was degenerating rapidly. I could see that look in his eye; he was plotting, I was sure of it, and soon full-blown teasing would erupt. And then I would hit him, and I would be in the corner again, and he would spend the rest of his day darting smirkily past me in my invisible cell. But somehow, our sister saved us; she plopped a record on the turntable and started to hum and spin. Though neither my brother nor I can put a finger on what happened next—no words were exchanged, or at least none that we can remember—we suddenly found ourselves locked in one another’s arms, slow dancing to “String of Pearls.” I was twelve, he was eight, and not since he was a baby in his basinet (my baby, I’d thought of him then) had I adored him so honestly and purely: so protectively.

In a twinkling, we’d been released from mutual hostility, from blaming and recrimination, from smoldering jealousy and wishing ill upon the other. What was left after the sudden vaporization of habitual negativity was nothing short of miraculous: a delicate, courteous loving-kindness toward one another that—despite a few setbacks when we were in our teens—has characterized our relationship ever since.

What we two had experienced, all unsuspecting, was grace. Though we were far too young to analyze what had gone wrong between us or who was to blame for it, and though we were still too immature to offer an apology to one another, deep inside we yearned for peace. That honest longing was all it took; God filled in the gaps for us, the gaps we were too young to negotiate on our own. Only now do I understand what a remarkable gift that sudden, unexpected reconciliation represented. Most of the time, forgiveness is not this unthinking or instantaneous. Instead, it is more often a complex, painful process, fraught as any novel with disappointments and reversals. "Forgiveness is the final form of love," says theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, but lest we mistakenly assume that because love, but lest we mistakenly assume that because we love, we are natural-born forgivers, Gandhi adds this caution: "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong." Both of these twentieth-century social activists worked tirelessly for justice and human dignity. Neither of them doubted the reality of evil, much less took it lightly. Yet both believed that at the core of meaningful existence lies the terribly difficult task of forgiveness. 

Why is forgiving such a challenge? From whichever perspective we approach it—whether we are trying to forgive someone who has hurt us, or are in dire need of forgiveness ourselves—when we enter into the process, we find ourselves laid bare. The intense searchlight of mercy invades our every hiding place. We cannot go through being stripped of false dignity and self-justifying excuses without being changed. Transformation is unavoidable, for our blind eyes have been opened and now we see.

In my own case, it was a vengeful dream in my late thirties that transformed me. A self-absorbed and unstable person was making my life miserable by spreading malicious gossip. I was becoming a little crazy over the whole situation. All I could think of was how to stop the onslaught of hateful words. My anger was understandable—even justifiable. Until I dreamed of murder, however, I had no idea of how dangerous it is to nurture rage. I was shocked at myself. I had always thought I was a good and decent person, an enlightened being who worked for justice and peace. This level of killing anger did not fit into my view of myself.

I was also shaken by another realization. It appeared that there was an ironic aspect to forgiveness—that we often bear more animosity toward someone we have harmed than toward someone who has harmed us. As Quaker Jessamyn West points out, it’s easier to forgive others for the mistakes they make than for their witnessing our own, and this was certainly true in the case of my dream. The person who was tormenting me, the person I visualized shooting, was someone who had once admired me and wanted to be my friend. Though I was shocked by this realization and what it revealed about me, I had little idea of what to do about it now. At some level, I understood that taking its implications seriously would precipitate a major change in the way I saw the world, and this prospect was frightening. Despite my hidden shame, I preferred to keep things as they were; life was familiar this way, and I was comfortable with it.

Eventually, however, God reintroduced the issue. I was driving on a lonely stretch of the California coastal highway north of Santa Barbara, when suddenly, something barely visible in the deepening twilight began to materialize on the roadside ahead. I slowed to see better: it was a man dragging a large wooden cross, mounted on what looked like roller skate wheels. I gaped at him for a moment, then flashed on by. Though I looked for him in my rearview mirror, he’d already been erased by the falling darkness. As it turned out—it was in the paper the next day—I’d seen a real man on a real pilgrimage heading up the coast of California, but that didn’t diminish the eerie quality of the experience. The vision of myself as a heartless murderer seemed somehow linked to that dreamlike Christ figure struggling on through the twilight.

When, some time later, I felt myself being inexorably turned by God in a whole new direction, the same two images rose before me like a pair of somber icons, gleaming with mysterious significance in the light of my new faith. On one hand was self-styled payback, so ugly but so satisfying, and on the other was perfect love, the kind that could finally heal my angry, wounded, guilty heart.

Though I was sincerely appalled at the violent emotions revealed by my dream, it was only after my reconversion to Christianity that I began to question my automatically hostile responses to other people’s hostility. I couldn’t get away with “doing what comes naturally” any longer. Becoming a follower of Christ requires that we give up what feels normal and enter uncharted and mysterious new territory. Christ requires a radical change of direction, and he models a way of being in the world that often brings us into shocking conflict with our notions about what it means to be a decent human being.

One of Jesus’ most mind-boggling declarations, repeated throughout the Gospels, is that we who hope to follow him must first be willing to forgive the people who have hurt us. Not only does this injunction show up at the heart of the prayer he offers to his disciples (“Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”), but he restates it as a requirement for salvation: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Mt. 6:11–15).

He also tells us that if we wish to live in relationship with God, we must first seek forgiveness from those we’ve hurt: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23–24). Our damaged relationships with introduction W xv other people, especially when we are responsible for that damage, have a direct effect on our friendship with God. We cannot pray with any kind of integrity while blithely ignoring the fact that we’ve wounded another person. Jesus tells us that we must first take care of business—make amends and do our best to reconcile—before we approach our Father in heaven.

By the time God tracked me down in the wilderness, I’d been wandering alone for years and was more than ready to come home. Yet something kept holding me back. It was only when I began to reexamine my hidden hostility toward anyone who crossed me that I saw what it might be: my refusal to forgive was an unmistakable sign I was not yet ready to obey God. And if I could not, for love of him, give up my own will when it came to grudges, then who was I kidding? I might “believe” in an intellectual sense, but that was a dangerous illusion. To truly believe in God without loving him, as Jesuit Marko Rupnik points out, is impossible.

Why is it so difficult to forgive? What is it about being forgiven that secretly galls us? Why couldn’t I admit how much guilt lay concealed beneath my coldness toward a would-be friend? Forgiveness: Following Jesus into Radical Loving has evolved out of my attempt to answer these questions. Since I was only able to start seeking and offering forgiveness when I started to take Christianity seriously, I have confined myself to that viewpoint throughout these pages. But there is a more important reason I’ve chosen to talk about forgiveness from the Christian perspective: I’ve slowly become convinced that the centrality of forgiveness in Christianity is unique among the great religions and philosophies of the world, peace-loving Buddhists included.

Why? No other religion came into being through an act of forgiveness. Without God’s merciful and forgiving love toward his creatures, there would have been no Incarnation, and thus, no Christianity at all. Christ became man in order to rescue us from the ravages of sin and restore us to spiritual health. The success of his ongoing redemptive project, which is to be carried out by his children on Earth, depends before anything else upon our realizing that we are in serious need of forgiveness. 

As Christ puts it, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mt. 9:12–13). His mission is to make whole what has been fragmented, damaged, or destroyed through the depredations of evil. Yet only we who are willing to acknowledge our own spiritual illness are open to this kind of healing.

In other words, we must first undergo redemption ourselves—a redemption that begins with the experience of being forgiven—before we are ready to join in Christ’s work of reclaiming what has been lost to sin, death, and the power of the devil. Only then can we become participants in the great project of transforming evil into good.

-Excerpted from Forgiveness: Following Jesus into Radical Loving by Paula Huston


Previous article For Animal Lovers at Heart