Almost by definition, forgiveness is a mutual act. There is both the one who forgives, and the one who is forgiven. Forgiveness is one piece of the more full and all-encompassing act of reconciliation, by which not only is a wound healed, but a broken relationship is restored.
In my own experience, there are two lessons about forgiveness that have been hard for me to learn. The first is that giving forgiveness — at least forgiveness that’s worth giving — is not a singular act. No, it is something that must happen over and over until my own heart is healed and the need to forgive no longer exists. This is the lesson of the so-called Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in the Gospel of Matthew (18:21-22):
Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
The second lesson about forgiveness may be even more of a challenge. It’s the challenge to forgive even when the other person does want, request, or even acknowledge the need to be forgiven. In some sense, this is almost like a second injury. It’s one thing to be hurt deeply by another person; it’s another thing to have that injury ignored, minimized, or otherwise unseen and unacknowledged. And yet … even in such situations as this, forgive we must. As Henri Nouwen writes,
But if our condition for giving forgiveness is that it will be received, we seldom will forgive! Forgiving the other is first and foremost an inner movement. It is an act that removes anger, bitterness, and the desire for revenge from our hearts and to reclaim our human dignity...The only people we can really change are ourselves. Forgiving others is first and foremost healing our own hearts. (Bread for the Journey, January 27, emphasis added)
Forgiveness is first and foremost something we do for ourselves, and we do so because failing to forgive means we are carrying around a weight and burden we don’t need. Failure to forgive is an act of self-injury.
Is there someone I need to forgive today, whether or not he/she knows it? Let today be the dawn of a new day — the day I take one step along the path of forgiveness, a path that leads me to reclaim the fullness of my human dignity and healing my injured heart.
All images © 2012 Timothy MacGeorge