This is the third post in a series on forgiveness.
A friend of mine is a recovering alcoholic. He has been sober for nearly three decades. Much of what he has told me about his journey toward sobriety helps me to understand the spiritual life and forgiveness in particular.
My friend said to me, “I had no problem stopping drinking. I just couldn’t stay stopped.” In the early days of recovery, my friend would stop drinking for a period of time and then relapse.
The periods he would spend on the wagon varied. Sometimes it was only days. A few times it was months. Then he would drink. He couldn’t stay stopped.
Now he’s sober. Today. He’s been sober today for nearly thirty years. But he always remembers that today’s spiritual work belongs to today.
There’s an important parallel here about forgiveness. Sometimes we forgive, but we can’t stay forgiving.
Many of us have the experience of letting go of a hurt or a betrayal. We’re relieved of the burden of resentment and feel released from the chains of old memories.
It’s a great experience. And yet, many of us have also been reminded some time down the road of those old wounds and to our surprise, and maybe even our horror, old feelings of hurt and anger well up from some place in our hearts.
We’ve just discovered something important about forgiving others. Only rarely is forgiveness like an on-off switch: we flip the switch and it’s all over.
Forgiving is an activity that takes time. It’s not merely a mental decision. When we forgive we are learning to live with people who have hurt us. Some of these people are contrite. Others are wholly unrepentant.
Even after the person who has hurt us has died, we live with his or her memory. Forgiveness involves learning to live with our memories in a loving way.
That bears a little explanation.
We forgive precisely because forgetting is usually not an option. God designed us to remember. It’s how we have a personal identity and how we have a shared story with the people we love.
Our sense of self and our deepest relationships require memory. This is one reason that Alzheimer’s is so devastating. The disease ravages the person and the shared dimension of relationships by robbing the sufferer of memory.
Forgiveness is, in part, a way of remembering. We begin by remembering who we are. I am a person who needs and receives mercy.
I may have done nothing to warrant the evil done to me by another. But I am deeply aware of my own myriad failings and of the new life Jesus gave me on the Cross.
Remembering who I am helps me to see the person who has injured me as someone just like me. He or she needs mercy and Christ has died for him or her as well. (Read the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matt. 18:23-35)
This will not immediately erase my hurt and does not guarantee feelings of tenderness toward another person. In fact, the work of forgiveness happens precisely when I’m hurting and when I want to spit in someone else’s eye.
Many claim that forgiveness heals us. Maybe it does. I think it safer to say that failing to forgive will poison us and that forgiveness has to take place before healing can occur.
Forgiveness takes time. We sometimes have to forgive the very same thing again. And again.
Staying with it day by day is not a mark of failure. It’s the sign that we’re becoming something new: a forgiving person.
But what about those people who aren’t sorry for what they’ve done? And they just keep doing it! Do we have to forgive them, too? That’s a subject for a future post.