The Fine Art of Forgiveness

My daily affirmation popped up and it was all about forgiveness.

I honestly had to think on this for a bit. In fact, I still am, even three weeks after this affirmation crossed my screen.

This is, in fact, a much bigger thing than it would appear on the surface.

I’m going to take a look at this from several different religious/philosophical viewpoints, but what I would like to focus on is forgiveness as practiced between human relationships versus forgiveness from a higher power.

That being said, it makes sense to start with Buddhism, given that it’s non-theistic, which filters out our objective pretty quickly.

One of the most commonly quoted Buddhist thoughts on forgiveness is…

“He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me” — in those who harbor such thoughts, hatred will never cease.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me” — in those who do not harbor such thoughts, hatred will cease.”

Shakyamuni Buddha, Dhammapada 1.3-4

Now, it needs to be understood, that the ultimate goal of Buddhism is to achieve an end to suffering. To find peace.

It also needs to be understood that peace is not some reward one gets once you land in the magic land of Nirvana. In fact, it’s the opposite. Nirvana is the enlightened state you enter when you truly discover peace. It is devoid of greed, hatred, envy, and ignorance.

Keeping this thought in mind, it behooves a person to learn to let go of negative emotions because that negativity lowers your vibe. For a Buddhist, forgiveness is more about healing yourself than it is about healing the other (however, kindness is also a big Buddhist hot topic and forgiveness automatically covers that checkpoint as well).

One thing that I would regularly question myself over would be “Is this actually forgiveness? Am I really letting this go or am I compartmentalizing or running away from trauma and not dealing with it?”

Be aware. Self-love and respect for yourself is important. Healthy boundaries are important. These things are your responsibility.

Let’s take a look at some Christian viewpoints for a moment.

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:19-21 ESV

Okay, avoid revenge, let God handle that nasty business. Fair enough.


Care for your enemy by giving them food and drink…well, okay. That might depend…

Okay, fine…whatever…check.

Yikes! Burning coals on the head?!

For some reason, this bit of Biblical advice seems worse than not forgiving someone. I mean, if your motivation for forgiveness is to actually cause some type of harm to someone, it doesn’t really seem very kind.

But maybe that’s just me?

Seriously, tho…

This passage here is a big ol’ can of snakes just slithering with lots of room for both interpretation and opinion.

I would say that some gentle souls out there are going to focus on the “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” part to heart. In an ideal world, this sounds like pretty good advice.

However, I’m a skeptical guy and, knowing the state of the US at this particular point in time (and probably much of the rest of the Christian world), I’m guessing that the burning coals part there sounds pretty satisfying to way too many folks.

Let’s see what else we can find here…let’s focus more on the Gospels, the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. These are the four books that center around the actual ministry of Christ.

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Matthew 5:23-24 ESV

Okay, I like this. It basically says “Hey, get right with your brother before you come try to get right with God.”

This makes sense. I mean, really, we’ll have plenty of time to square up with God in the comfort of our own heads and hearts. Dealing with the people who surround us right in the here and now requires some immediacy.

So okay. What if our brother is kind of a jerk? I mean, like, what if he continually seeks to do something to harm you after you’ve forgiven him a few times?

How many times do we forgive this guy?

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Matthew 18:21-22 ESV

If we’re following the words of Jesus, in the Gospels, it would be not seven but seventy times seven, for a whopping total of 490 times.

But only if that person who transgresses repents to you every time.

This seems kind of dysfunctional to me. I mean, it’s good to be a kind person who’s willing to let bygones be bygones, but 490 times?

Where do we draw the line between an innocent, thoughtless, or accidental transgression versus something intentional and chronically spiteful?

Is there no expectation of changed behavior?

That bar seems pretty low…

I’m gonna have to think on this one some more because I can be pretty petty sometimes.

All right, next up on the plate is Islam.

It’s difficult to find passages that relate only to human to human interactions in Islam, but I like this one.

Hence, if you have to respond to an attack (in argument), respond only to the extent of the attack levelled against you; but to bear yourselves with patience is indeed far better for (you, since God is with) those who are patient in adversity.

An-Nahl (The Bee) 16:126

The way I interpret this is that it’s regarding quarrels between people. I come to this conclusion by the parenthetical phrase “(in argument)”. A quarrel is a heated argument that’s usually over something trivial. It’s also between people who are usually on good terms with each other.

Refraining from one-upping the damage count is solid advice. If this is a person you wish to have a future relationship with, destroying them in an argument is only going to make mending that fence even more difficult.

Being patient, tolerant, and forgiving in such circumstances is a pretty good rule of thumb as it can prevent bigger problems down the road.

However this deals specifically with disagreements.

What about forgiveness for really big things? I mean things such as physical/mental abuse, infidelity, murder, or any of your other big traumatic events?

Christianity often bounces back and forth between acceptance and passive-aggressive tolerance.

Islam is primarily focused on attaining God’s forgiveness over forgiveness between humans.

How about we take a look at the one that’s at the root of all the Abrahamic faith structures? Let’s take a peek at how Judaism views things.

In Judaism, forgiveness, or t’shuva, is a pretty big deal. In fact, there are two very special holidays that center around the concept of forgiveness.

During the month of Elul, which is the last month of the Jewish calendar year, before the High Holy Days (Yamim Nora’im) of Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Jewish folk take part in a practice that is specifically in regards to reconciliation between humans. This is known as t’shuva beyn adam laḥavero.

So let’s consult the Mishneh Torah

Neither repentance nor the Day of Atonement atone for any save for sins committed between man and God, for instance, one who ate forbidden food, or had forbidden coition and the like; but sins between man and man, for instance, one injures his neighbor, or curses his neighbor or plunders him, or offends him in like matters, is ever not absolved unless he makes restitution of what he owes and begs the forgiveness of his neighbor. And, although he make restitution of the monetary debt, he is obliged to pacify him and to beg his forgiveness. Even he offended not his neighbor in aught save in words, he is obliged to appease him and implore him till he be forgiven by him. If his neighbor refuses a committee of three friends to forgive him, he should bring to implore and beg of him; if he still refuses he should bring a second, even a third committee, and if he remains obstinate, he may leave him to himself and pass on, for the sin then rests upon him who refuses forgiveness.

Mishneh Torah, Repentance, Chapter 2

What’s important to note here, is that the person who committed the transgression must be accountable for it. He must own up to it, admit it, ask for forgiveness, make reparation, and change his behavior in the future.

If the transgressor meets all of the protocols and the person who was transgressed upon refuses forgiveness, then the sin rests upon the person who refuses forgiveness.

This right here makes a lot of sense to me. I like it! I like it because it requires that accountability is taken, the request for forgiveness must be sincere, and changed behavior is an expected outcome.

Accountability is an awesome thing! So is personal improvement!

Just out of curiosity, what do our Hindu friends have to say about this all?

Keep in mind that Buddhism sprouted from Hinduism, so you’ll probably note some similarities.

Let me tell you when you should be patient with people who have done something bad to you.

If someone who has previously done good to you now does a not too great harm to you, then forgive him in consideration of his earlier favor but if he does a great harm to you, then do not forgive him.

Wrong doers who commit wrong because they did not realize that their act was bad should be forgiven, because it is not always easy to find guidance on what is wrong and what is correct.

But offenders who do a wrong with full knowledge and understanding but pretend to have done it unknowingly should be punished, even if their offence was small because they are hypocrites.

The first offence of the wrong-doer should be forgiven, but the second one, even if it is small, should be punished.

If someone does a wrong in ignorance, he should be forgiven but only after it is determined that the wrong-doer did it out of ignorance.

In general, it is better to be gentle than harsh because the gentle can overcome the hard hearted, nothing is impossible to achieve for a gentle person and because gentleness is more powerful than harshness. One should decide on whether to punish or forgive after looking into one’s own strengths and weaknesses and after considering the time and place.

Any action taken at the wrong time or place will fail, therefore wait for the correct place and time before acting. Sometimes, we may have to forgive the culprit for the fear of making the general public very angry.

Mahābhārata. Vana Parva, Chapter 29

Well now…big score for Hinduism.

Practical. Intentional. Prescriptive.

It first calls on a person to use reason if the offense was small and the transgressor is someone with which a previous good relationship was established.

It says “Think about this. Is this worth escalating?”

This line of reasoning then takes into account people who may be ignorant of a rule or a custom or other particular way of doing things. It encourages both the transgressor and the transgressed to think about Intent vs. Impact.

It calls for accountability, admonishment, and atonement/punishment where applicable.

It encourages maintaining and respecting healthy boundaries.

It also strongly suggests being gentle over being harsh, being methodical versus being rash, and also taking into consideration the time and place.

Big, big, big points for our Hindu fam!

So where does that leave me in my own personal thoughts on forgiveness?

Well…I definitely understand and agree with the fact that holding on to negative emotions, packing grudges, and fostering anger, fear, and resentment over past mistreatment isn’t really productive for a person. It eats at us from the inside out and this is a terrible feeling.

I try to break it down and look at things categorically, based on the type of people I’m dealing with.

People who truly care about you will take steps to avoid causing hurt when they’re informed that something they did was hurtful. These are the ones that are usually easy to forgive because people make mistakes…we’re all human.

These are the people you want to hold close in your life and the relationships you need to nurture.

Next we have those people who acknowledge that their actions were hurtful, and they sincerely apologize because they had no intention to cause harm, but they have no desire to change their behavior.

The fact of the matter is that people don’t always agree on things. If an honest apology and restitution (if applicable) is offered, then the burden of determining whether to forgive or not is on you and you will need to work through whatever trauma occurred for your own peace of mind and well-being. These types of people should be acquaintances at best, tho.

Then there are those people who are simply mean. They view their hurtful behavior as some kind of power. They have no interest in your feelings. They are self-serving, and have no real desire to undergo any kind of personal evolution. There’s a strong likelihood that these people are actually suffering from their own traumas and are unable to resolve them.

Or maybe they’re just sociopaths.

In any regard, there likely will not be an apology or any kind of voluntary restitution. Expecting any of this is foolish. These people should be avoided.

Holding on to negative emotions about them, however…letting them live rent-free in your mind…does absolutely nothing to fix the situation. Unfortunately, all the damage control is going to fall back on you.

Ultimately, however, the responsibility for healing from trauma always resides within ourselves. Always. The only thing that really changes is the scope. Sometimes it’s a little hurt that’s easy to heal. Other times, it’s a gaping, sucking chest wound.

I think that part of the problem is the fact that forgiveness is such a loaded word in our US culture. If you look at synonyms for it, you get words such as mercy, pity, leniency, and acquittal.

These are all words that imply you, as a victim, give something positive and kind back to someone who hurt you in some way. The quote “Forgive and forget” comes to mind, usually…at least for me.

But y’know what? There really are times when the transgression is so bad that not even the most beautiful and sincere apology will clear that hurt or mend a relationship.

Sometimes trauma really is that bad. Sometimes the trust is that broken.

I’m here to tell you that you don’t owe your abuser anything. You do owe yourself peace, however. So we’re going to use a different word than forgiveness.

Eviction sounds good to me.

Published by Jonah Sheridan Fenn

Nerd herder, word wrangler, working on the next chapter...

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