A Life-Changing View of Forgiveness

The Seven Virtues in a Roundel, with Faith at the Center, Jan Collaert I, mid-16th century. Pen and brown ink and blue wash; lines indented for transfer, 5 11/16”, drawings. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Seven Virtues in a Roundel, with Faith at the Center, Jan Collaert I, mid-16th century. Pen and brown ink and blue wash; lines indented for transfer, 5 11/16”, drawings. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


            I’ve always had a problem with forgiveness. I suppose the more honest way to phrase this would be to say I’ve always had a problem with self-righteousness. I don’t like giving people the benefit of the doubt if they’ve hurt me. I don’t like believing I'm wrong to judge them for it. I like feeling in the right, justified in my condemnation of their character or actions. I like to consider myself morally sound enough to do this. But as I’ve gotten older and perhaps a bit wiser, I have found myself at odds with everything I once thought about how to treat others and my expectations of how I should be treated by them.

            It started with a sickening feeling of being too right too often, that and the echoes of old heartbreaks that should’ve been long gone if I’d truly forgiven those responsible for them.

            I live alone in a very lonely city, and although my dog is quite the company, I recently found myself starving for stimulation, for intellectual challenges that I knew went beyond a simple call to a friend for lunch. So, I began to leaf through a book, and then another, and then another, and when I finally pulled my head up from their pages, I discovered they all had somewhat of a similar theme: forgiveness.

            I knew this meant something, if I was subconsciously choosing to read this topic over and over again in my free time. I knew it meant something wasn’t right with me or with my beliefs about what it means to forgive and be forgiven. I wondered if it was me that I felt should be forgiven for something or if I had the great task of reassessing old memories in order to forgive someone else. What the study of these books inevitably led to was a radical new view of forgiveness. It only took me 23 years, but in considering this view, my perspective on forgiveness changed dramatically:

            When seeking forgiveness, consider the idea that every person is operating at their highest capability each day, doing their best, with their unique capabilities, limitations, and varied life experiences, at every moment you knew them. Their best may be pitiful to you. Their best may even be harmful. Such is the grip of sin. But in choosing to forgive, you’re able to regard them as God regards you—with abounding empathy.

            I know that's a hard line to accept as truth. Not everyone will appear to you to be doing their best, especially when they're hurting you, but someone's best may very well be hurtful in nature because that's all they're capable of at that moment. Their best may be, in your eyes, destructive to humankind. And they may not always appear to be doing the best they can, trying their hardest at life and love, but it's important to understand that very few of us live halfway; very few of us only try at our minimum effort moment to moment. But I'll explain further below.

            I came to this specific definition based on several works, namely Rising Strong by Brené Brown, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and biblical scripture. Reading Brown’s work forced me to ask these terrifying questions, among others, of myself: What if everyone I’ve ever known was doing their best, their absolute best, at every moment that I knew them? Furthermore, what if I was doing my best during every moment I regret from my past?

            I wrestled with these questions for weeks when I came to the chapter dealing with forgiveness in Mere Christianity. I’ve inserted a passage below for your consideration:

            “Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves—to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good.”

            Lewis goes on to write that God put forth the first example of this in ourselves: we love ourselves, despite all the things we’ve done that we’re not proud of. (If you’re pausing here to state that, in fact, you don’t love yourself, I’d counter that maybe the case is you don’t like yourself, but you certainly love yourself. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, even when you’re your harshest critique, you love yourself enough to do things that bring you joy, to provide yourself with sustenance to keep on living, to stay active so you stay healthy, and you’re kind to yourself when you most need to be.) This is a miracle in and of itself. You love yourself despite all the many things you’ve done that would’ve otherwise kept you from being worthy of such love. In other words, you’ve been forgiving of your own human faults all your long life. This is the kind of love God means for us to show others—simply because it is the same kind that He shows us.

            But back to the questions. I asked myself, repeatedly: What if everyone I’ve ever known was doing their best, their absolute best, at every moment I knew them? Then my hatred of them, my refusal to forgive, would seem quite cruel suddenly. It would appear shamefully heartless of me. What a terrifying, necessary thought. Because when you redirect that question to yourself and your own actions, the answer becomes a bit clearer:

            I live every moment trying to do my best, and I believe others do, too. So isn’t it possible that every single thing I’ve ever done that I’ve regretted, in the moment I did it or said it, I was doing my best, with my limited capabilities at the time, with my limited knowledge at the time, with the condition of my spirit and the fragility of my heart in those moments?

            If we all wake up every day only trying to do our best, even when our best isn’t what it was the day before or doesn’t hold up to someone else’s standards of what it should be, if we act in every moment trying to reach that standard, then couldn’t it be possible that for everything I regret, I was trying my hardest? I was loving my fiercest. I was doing my best. And as my future self knows now, I failed in some way. I made a mistake. It doesn't make that mistake okay, just as forgiving a person doesn't mean having to accept or, worse, condone their behavior, but if I think of it this way, that I did my best in that moment, it changes how I view the mistake. It allows me to forgive myself. And if I can say this about my own actions, I can’t refuse that grace to others. I can hate the thing they did or the words they said, and rightfully so, but that shouldn't stop me from loving and forgiving them as I daily love and forgive myself. 

            Now, for clarity's sake, loving and forgiving someone of the hurt they've caused you does not mean you need or should welcome them back in your life with open arms. It doesn't excuse them of the pain you likely still carry, but the sooner you forgive them, the sooner you'll realize that hatred you feel for them now is a mere corruption of the love you felt for them in the past. The deeper your pain, the deeper your love, and the more necessary it is to forgive them. Because the moment you do, that love will shift into an entirely different kind of love, one even more beautiful than the first. Trust me on that.

            So, whoever is reading this, I challenge you to ask yourself: What if every person who’s ever hurt me was doing the best they could?

            The thought of it provokes a lot of other realizations about that person that maybe you never wanted to come to in your unforgiving place. If that was that person’s best, well, maybe you’ll suddenly feel sad for them and that sadness will drip into empathy. Maybe you’ll reflect on how different your situations, your backgrounds, your beliefs were. Maybe you'll understand them in a new way, the way you wish you did before the pain. Maybe, hopefully, you’ll start to see them the way God sees you: a faulted creature worthy of love, despite their faults, and yet because of them, for our faults are what make us human and separate us from God in the first place.

            I spent several days coming to several different realizations about the people I’ve known and the versions of my past self I’d labeled unworthy of love or forgiveness. And for every thought I paid to these people, these precious children of the God I love so much for loving me, for saving me, I began, quite miraculously, to wish them good, as I know God wishes good for me. I began to hope that they have beautiful, happy lives, and do good things and feel good things. I began to pray for them as I pray for myself, with as much love and devotion as if they had never done anything to hurt me but had always brought light to my life. And when I wished good for them, I felt an indescribable peace within my restless heart that I didn’t realize was so restless until it quieted.

            That’s when I discovered I had never felt forgiveness, true forgiveness, simply because I had never given it.

            I’m not sharing this story to pat myself on the back for this experience but because I know forgiveness is a universal struggle and point of pain for many people, whether they’re aware of it or not. I hope, if you’re reading this, you’ll take the time to muse this over in your own life and leave a comment below or send a message on my contact page with what that experience was like for you.

            In the end, I hope you find the same peace I did. It makes everything worth it.