Saturday, December 6, 2008

Forgiveness is humility wrought large

What do I know of forgiveness? It's been a while since I've thought about it at any length. I do remember Herb and me agreeing that forgiveness would play a big part in our marriage almost 30 years ago when we wrote our own vows. Neither one of us was engaged in any religion at the time, although we certainly were deeply engaged in volunteer work to help the underprivileged. We just had an insight from previous failed relationships that making forgiveness a centerpiece of our marriage would make things different.

I remember the St. Andrew's Day, a weekday night, in Amarillo in 1997 when the opening hymn was being sung at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, and I had an overwhelming sensation of wanting to forgive my ex-husband for all the wrongs he'd done to me when we were married. It felt as if a huge burden had been lifted off of me, both physically and emotionally, because I lightened up noticeably and have remained a brighter person ever since. I don't even know if my ex-husband knows that I forgave him, and it hasn't been important to me to talk about it when he and his new wife have come to our house for Christmas dinners these past eight years.

My earliest recollection of forgiveness and what it looks like occurred when, as a young girl, I asked my mother what she thought of the Red Chinese Communists, who had confiscated all of her family's property, imprisoned her mother and infant brother, and beaten her sister to death, ultimately driving the family out of their country to be refugees depending upon the kindness of others. I remember Mom saying, "Well, everyone is eating now."

"Everyone is eating now" is like a mantra to me. Those four words hold such a breadth and depth of meaning to me. They encompass much more than merely forgiveness, which is a momentary act of will and of grace-God's grace. It is an act of will that I am ready and finally willing to forgive someone his actions that damaged me, but it is a gift of God's grace that I have been led to that readiness and willingness. Like I said about my ex-husband, I don't know if he knows that I've forgiven him. The more important thing is that I know that I have forgiven him, and the more important gift is that through God's grace, I have been made sufficiently humble to be able to forgive.

I don't think it's possible to forgive another's deeds that have damaged you until you are drawn by God's love to that humbling place where you truly understand that you, too, are sinful and no better than the one who wronged you. Forgiveness is an expression of love and not of power. Any desire that I have to list and recount all the wrongs done to me arises out of a place of stuckness - of feelings of being stuck in memories when I felt hurt, fear, bewilderment and anger - not exactly feelings of being powerful, self-initiated and forward-looking. Forgiveness is an expression of the love that Christ expressed through his willingness to be crucified upon the cross for no sins of his own. Forgiveness is humility wrought large. Forgiveness means not needing to be right about being wronged. Forgiveness means dispensing with any desire to quantify and calibrate one's suffering against another's suffering, because pain caused to any part of the Body is felt by the entire Body, which is Christ Incarnate.

It does seem counter-intuitive (as if human intuition could or should be relied upon as any indicator of truth) that forgiveness is an expression of extreme charity - love taken to the nth degree. I think it's more human to feel like I have been given some rights as a consequence of having been wronged by you that somehow give me power over you to require certain behavior from you which I will judge as being sufficient or insufficient acts of contrition and apology to me - more human and more personally satisfying, like I've been repaid a debt owed to me caused by your bad behavior towards me. And then I think of Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard and how his accounting system differs from mine. I think about the story of Joseph, his treatment at the hands of his jealous brothers, and how what humankind meant for ill, God meant for good.

I'm just beginning to get that humility may indeed be the greatest gift of all, and that the only one who can give it to me is God.

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