Webster’s defines forgiving as a willingness to forgive, and forgive as “to give up resentment of or claim to requital for [forgive an insult]; to grant or relieve payment of [forgive a debt]; to cease to feel resentment against [forgive an enemy].” Forgiveness is then the act of forgiving—which is what? the act of granting payment? of being willing to give up resentment? or of ceasing to feel resentment?
In the tradition in which I was raised, forgiveness was a confused notion. We were taught that God’s forgiveness was unmerited, unearned, a ‘free gift’ that one could nonetheless refuse, and thus remain unforgiven. I confess, I don’t understand how this is supposed to work.
Suppose there were somebody S who chose to give everybody S came into contact with a billion dollars. No strings. In fact, S deposits the money directly into each contact’s bank account. Now each member of this contact group in fact has a billion dollars. Refusing it is meaningless, since the billion’s in the bank. How this is different than the workings of God, who has contact with all creation, is beyond me. Sure, each contact could choose to act as if she’s impoverished, but that choice does not alter the fact that the money’s in the bank. So ‘refusing’ forgiveness cannot alter one’s forgivenness any more than ignoring the money alters one’s wealth.
How would one refuse forgiveness? According to my upbringing, by not acknowledging one needs to be forgiven. Again, I plead ignorance on this. I was taught by these same people that I need to forgive even those who will never admit they’ve wronged me. Now if I have in fact forgiven those people, are they not forgiven, regardless of their acknowledging they need it? If this is the case for my measly acts of forgiveness, how much more for God? People can’t stand in my way; I cannot see how they could possibly stand in God’s, especially if, as it is repeatedly stated, forgiveness is an unmerited gift.
Forgiveness is one-sided. One can do nothing to earn it, nothing to thwart it. We are powerless as recipients, powerful as benefactors.
What sorts of things require forgiveness? Until very recently, I believed that offenses, debt, sins, harm, and other ills were the full domain of forgiveness. But is this all one could be resentful about? What about perceived ills?
Suppose something x happens to somebody S, and S finds x onerous. Now in fact, there’s nothing wrong with x, in fact, x might indeed bless S richly. But yet S resents it and the one who caused it to happen. Now x is an irrevocable part of S’s life, something S bears like a burden, never quite understanding why such a thing would ever have been done to S by this individual who purported to love S. In short, such is a scenario wherein nothing bad has happened to S, even though S interprets it thus.
Suppose further that x is in fact a blessing to S, something designed to enrich S’s life. Now x isn’t just not an offense, a harm, or a sin, but quite the opposite.
If to forgive is to cease to be resentful, then surely it matters not what the event of one’s needing to forgive is, nor who it is that one needs to forgive, just that one needs to quit resenting.
I have long said to friends who asked that I define forgiveness as “choosing to live with the consequences of others’ actions.” By this I mean that I am already living with these consequences, but once I choose to, I no longer have the option of pleading victim or unwilling pawn. I certainly had no control in the event’s occurrence, but I do have control over what I do with what I now have. And if I absorb such things into the fabric of my life, I then have such things to draw on as I confront future situations and potential times of forgiveness.
It turns out, not so surprisingly, that sometimes we need to forgive God. I was raised to believe that the notion of me having to forgive God was just shy of blasphemy. God forgives (in the sense of relieving payment) me! Yet it seems to me that if one never admits to herself that sometimes she resents what God’s put into her life, she’s just deceiving herself.
Changing the perceived offense to something more tolerable is not forgiving it. Yet that’s exactly what many do in the name of forgiving those who harm them (“he doesn’t know what he’s doing” or “it’s not her doing this”), and I think it’s possibly the most common way people deal with perceived offenses from God. We say “God works in mysterious ways”, and refuse to cry out to God in anger and pain, believing that blasphemy (even though the Bible is filled with people we emulate doing just this!), so we harbor resentment in the remotest parts of our hearts, hoping nobody (especially not God) will see. Wondering what is wrong with us as Christians, that we don’t have more faith. Pretending we’re all good.
We sometimes need to forgive God, for we are the ones who need to be willing to give up resentment, who need to be willing to give up on what we think God owes us. And once we are willing to forgive, we see with new eyes that those things we perceived as harm (and are perceived as offensive to many around us) are in fact a powerful blessing upon us, giving us the opportunity to flourish in ways few others can.
But only once we forgive.