On The Seduction of Withholding Forgiveness
Last night the Chaplain’s office at Siena College hosted its final of several “Froth and Friars” event, which is something like “Theology on Tap” meets open Q/A with the friars. Students of legal drinking age come to a social with a group of friars and have a conversation about theology, spirituality or any questions that the students might have for the friars. We had a good conversation about a variety of topics, including a discussion about Lent and what practices different people were embracing during the season. One person at the table discussed his difficulty forgiving others and that he had made it a Lenten practice to pause when something was bothering him and pray especially for the person that he was upset with, instead blowing up and getting angry with people as he admitted being prone to do.
This practice led to a rather honest and heartening conversation about the difficulty of forgiveness and the tendency so many people had to hold on to grudges and pain. I shared at one point that I believe that, beyond simply finding it difficult to forgive someone, there is a real temptation that all humans encounter, by virtue of human being, to withhold forgiveness and not let something go because there is something inherently pleasurable about being angry or upset.
While it sounds twisted — and, really, it is — it is also very human. The temptation, on some level, is a selfish one. Withholding forgiveness is a decision one person makes to continue stewing and dwelling on some hurt or perceived transgression that redirects one’s focus from his or her relationship with another to focusing entirely on one’s self. It can be addictive to be so obsessed about what was done to me and to think about the ways in which I was wounded and how I deserve better and so on, that the option to offer forgiveness can even come to be seen as an injustice. “I deserve more, I deserve an apology, I deserve retribution!”
Yet, the challenge is for us, especially those who bear the name Christ in the community of believers, to forgive, to let go, to resist the seduction to withhold forgiveness. Jesus makes it so clear in the Gospels that there is no place in the Kingdom of God for dwelling on these sorts of matters; forgiveness is imperative and to live and love like God means that mercy always wins out — 70 times 7 times, cheek after turned cheek, to the point of the Cross.
It is difficult to admit how seductive, and ultimately self-gratifying, it is to withhold forgiveness from another. We so oftentimes want to become the economists par excellence of our lives — tallying and calculating the rates of exchange between those we meet, those we love and those we feel have hurt us. I believe that on some level, there is sinful quality to harboring resentment, dwelling on a past transgression or maintaining the self-appropriated title of ‘victim’ at all costs.
This is not to suggest that people are indeed victims and that injustices don’t take place, for they do and this is not a post facto justification for wrongdoing. It is, however, an invitation during the season of Lent (especially) to take a look at our own lives and practices to see how it is we allow ourselves to fall in (or jump in head first) to the pit of self-serving resentment that inhibits us from forgiving others.
Forgiveness is not just difficult, it is impossible as Jacques Derrida has said. True forgiveness, the event of that experience, only takes place when the unforgivable (which, by definition, cannot be forgiven) is in fact forgiven. But I believe that the true meaning of forgiveness comes, not in letting go, but in reconciliation. That is the Christian goal, something I’ll talk about a little more at another time.