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The heart of forgiveness

From the August 2011 issue of The Christian Science Journal

The advice columns that appear in many newspapers provide an interesting window into relationship challenges. Some writers may be seeking an independent assessment of who was right and who was wrong in a particular situation. Others may be looking for ways to mend a relationship, and many letters focus on who was the first to offend, or whose offense was more egregious, who owes whom an apology, or whether any amount of repentance is sufficient to right a particular wrong. 

One doesn’t need to peruse these columns for long before concluding that people spend an inordinate amount of time finding fault with one another and being hurt by the actions (or inactions) of those around them. We may not think that issues of wrongdoing and fault-finding are the most profound that face us, but they certainly are common. And how we deal with them can have a marked influence on both our health and our happiness. Holding a grudge or feeling angry does nothing to resolve a relationship issue. So what are we to do when someone wrongs us? How do we overcome our hurt feelings and find a way to forgive?

Jesus indicated clearly how to handle the offenses of others: forgive, forgive, and forgive again, even when treated unfairly, with no preconditions or requirement for repentance on the part of the offender. Jesus instructed his followers to love their enemies, to bless them, to pray for them, to forgive them. But how does one obey these commands when feeling angry, hurt, or confused? It takes more than just obedience to satisfy the requirement, since forgiveness can’t simply be delivered on request; genuine forgiveness comes from the heart.

An article in Mary Baker Eddy’s Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896 explains how forgiveness between people might take place: “To punish ourselves for others’ faults, is superlative folly. The mental arrow shot from another’s bow is practically harmless, unless our own thought barbs it. It is our pride that makes another’s criticism rankle, our self-will that makes another’s deed offensive, our egotism that feels hurt by another’s self-assertion. Well may we feel wounded by our own faults; but we can hardly afford to be miserable for the faults of others” (pp. 223–224).

This is a radical solution to the challenge of finding forgiveness in our hearts: to refuse to take offense in the first place. While most people generally blame an offense on the offender, this article explains that the responsibility for feeling hurt is one’s own. And the beauty of that is that it leaves the solution entirely in one’s own hands as well.

Healing occurs when we reject the testimony of man’s mortality, limitation, or imperfection, and replace it with the spiritual evidence of his divine nature and wholeness.

Christian Scientists understand that the challenges they face are presented to thought as suggestions, to be accepted or rejected. An offense can exist only when we accept that there is an offender, an imperfect mortal who desires to do us harm or wishes us ill. But if God created man in His own image, which is wholly good, how can such an offender exist? The answer simply is that he cannot. When we do encounter an offender, this only indicates our failure to see as God sees, not a failure (as we would have it) in the other person. Healing occurs when we reject the testimony of man’s mortality, limitation, or imperfection, and replace it with the spiritual evidence of his divine nature and wholeness.

The only place an erroneous concept can be addressed and healed is in one’s own thinking, and it is here that we reject a limited view of man and replace it with what God knows about His creation. Mrs. Eddy wrote: “Who is thine enemy that thou shouldst love him? Is it a creature or a thing outside thine own creation? 

“Can you see an enemy, except you first formulate this enemy and then look upon the object of your own conception?” (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 8). Healing doesn’t come from the exercise of human will to be patient and long-suffering or from the repentance of the “offender”; it comes from our willingness to let go of the belief that God’s kingdom is populated with offenders and to replace this false belief with a conviction of man’s perfection. And the more we see man as he truly is, the easier we will find it to love, and the more unnecessary to forgive. 

This may seem overly theoretical at first, but it is eminently practical. 

When I struggle in my own experience to be free of hurt and anger, I’m often able to forgive a fault largely through simple obedience to the Christian demand. On better days, I find the grace in my heart to honestly forgive as I would want to be forgiven, and to release the offender and offense in my thought. But both of these may involve a more or less generous human response to an apparently real injury. Over the years, I’ve found that the most secure peace and true healing comes when I’m able to see the other party the way God must see him or her: pure, innocent, and without sin or malice. This viewpoint enables me to be more easily obedient to Jesus’ command to forgive quickly, universally, and without condition, because neither offender nor offense exists in this divine view. As long as we persist in judging our fellow man, rather than embracing his spiritual nature, just that long we will find forgiveness to be a challenge.

Forgiveness is not a generous dispensation we grant to a reformed offender, but a refusal to see ourselves as victims and others as villains. True forgiveness results from seeing there is never, in fact, the need for forgiveness. The apparent sin and the sinner are one, and both must be overcome in thought in order to be healed. The foundation of forgiveness is in the love that God has for His creation, and it comes more easily when we allow that love to enter our hearts rather than seeking to accomplish it with an exercise of personal good will. People don’t need to earn our love, because it is not ours to ration out; we instead express God’s boundless love for His entire creation. The heart of forgiveness grows out from the heart of love, and as we learn better how to express the love with which God blesses mankind, we will find ourselves delightfully free of the need to forgive.

David Creighton lives in Fremont, California. 

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