(“We sullen were in the sweet air, which by the sun is gladdened, bearing within ourselves the sluggish reek.”- Dante’s Inferno)
When I attended Christian church as a youth, much of the message went in one ear and out the other. Part of the reason was certainly my youth and immaturity, but there was more to it. I speak for myself and for many other churchgoers when I say that the message was not wholly relevant to me.
Like all other Christians, I was taught the standard narrative: I am guilty and imperfect. I am stained with sin, original or otherwise. God and his son Jesus, on the other hand, are perfect and pure. The only way to unite with them is to be forgiven of my sinner’s debt.
I watched my teenage peers sob and cry out to God to be forgiven, and engage in long, mawkish discussions about how guilty they are and how none of us deserve the gift of grace, and how thankful they are that God overlooks our wretchedness.
I was frustrated by all of this; I was sure that they had no idea what they were carrying on about.
To me, it appeared as though they were seeking the approval of their parents and other senior churchgoers. It was as though they were participating in a ritualistic display of shame – manufacturing feelings of deficiency – to appear truly Christian. It was as if they were earning their salvation by conjuring up intense feelings of guilt, especially where none were warranted. They were forcing themselves to partake in the problem to which Christian salvation was a solution.
I always felt differently.
I did not feel guilty at all. My own unworthiness and my need for God’s grace were foreign concepts to me. I always thought that if God loved me, he loved me as is. He created me after all. And if God wanted me near to Him, it would be so – my own unworthiness couldn’t bar me from him, as though it were a thing He could not overcome. I was unconvinced by the Christian premise.
But there was an area in which I struggled: I lived in anger. I had been abused, betrayed, abandoned, disappointed, and shamed. These were real, tangible problems – not counterfeit feelings fabricated for approval. These experiences left me bitter and defiant. I made enemies and held grudges. I defined myself by my hatred.
My need to forgive overwhelmed any considerations about needing to be forgiven.
I was an adult before I learned what forgiveness is supposed to accomplish. Through another medium, I was introduced to forgiveness as a personal practice rather than a gift from God. I was not told I was unworthy, nor was I told that I should or ought to forgive. Instead I was asked if my anger had improved the quality of my life. Had it made me happy?
I could beat my enemies, but I could not beat my own unhappiness. But how do I become happy? How do I rid myself of the chains of my hatred? The path to liberation became immediately evident: I must forgive.
Every grudge I held, every negative feeling I harbored, was a poison in my soul. Not in the afterlife – but here in this present moment. I was not punished for my anger, I was punished by my anger.
I became aware for the first time that my inner pain had become an entitlement. Because I was hurt, I was entitled to mistreat others. In so doing, I perpetuated the cycle of abuse. The longer I harbored inner pain, the longer that pain tainted every area of my life, especially my relationships. And there was only one, single, solitary way to out: forgiveness.
Finally the Christian message struck home. I forgave every day as if it were my last.
Now comes the beautiful part, the continuation of the gospel: God does not hold you to the way you were. He forgives as though it never happened. Who I once was – a person riddled with pain who hurt others – I am no longer. I am free because the Universe does not hold it against me. Salvation is immanent if I only accept it and turn from my sinful ways. The moment I do this I am reborn.
People often ask,”How do you forgive?” To them I respond, how do you let go of a lead weight? You just let it go. Open your hands and let it go. Far from being a pie-in-the-sky spiritual concept, forgiveness is a highly practical tool of personal power.
To paraphrase and elaborate on an idea of G.K. Chesterton, the unhappy person is bound by his attachment to his pain. He is limited in his actions because he must always consider what his master, pain, requires. He is ruled by inner compulsion.
But the happy man, the person liberated by forgiveness, is free. He may pick up a stick and swing it in the air; he may decide to skip as he walks. He may whistle a tune that he creates as he goes. His mind is unfettered from the suffocating pollution of inner pain – he chooses and creates freely.
Forgiveness is the path to liberation. I encourage you to incorporate it into your daily practice. Sit still for ten minutes and forgive one person for one thing. If that’s easy, forgive another. When you run out of people, forgive yourself. Do this every day. You’ll be a amazed how you change in a week.