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The art of forgiving

By - Sep 30, 2009 - Category Articles - Print Print - Version française

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The Sunday mornings of my childhood had been blessed by the wondrous events of the life of Jesus Christ – unreal though they seemed. In later years, having burnt my bridges, while I found myself confronted with inner tensions and outer aggressions, excerpts from those sacred texts came back to me and I realized how spiritually significant they were, still potent and as relevant as ever. Concerning forgiveness, for example, let’s consider the startling prayer of Christ on the cross, addressing God: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”.

This statement is startling in more than one way. Injured, mocked, sneered at and finally crucified, Jesus is at the height of suffering and yet, devoid of anger and resentment, brimming with compassion. The emotional impact is enormous and compels veneration. It also upsets the established order – undermining the prevalent law of talion which legitimizes the impulse of revenge in response to the impulse of aggression – by opening the way to a revolutionary concept of justice rooted in rational enlightenment. Indeed, how can you reasonably hold a grudge against those who do not know what they do? The crowd, sheeplike as all crowds, taunting Jesus along the Way of the Cross – did they know what they were doing? Those who had conspired against him in order to get rid of a man they considered dangerous for the establishment, did they know what they were doing? Of course not. The teachings of Christ were too innovative, well beyond the confines of their knowledge and experience. So, how could they have known? How can a grudge be held against ignorance?

This is all very remarkable, you’re going to say, but what is it to us? We can’t make use of it ! Yes we can, I answer, we can definitely put it to good use.

“ … they know not what they do”: that was the reason put forward by Jesus for his plea. In our daily life, all the troubles we consider as offenses inflicted by the others are either deliberate, even premeditated, or unintentional.

Let us first deal with troubles caused unintentionally. Someone gets on my nerves, upsets me, or hurts my feelings, but not on purpose. I may think such a person thoughtless, tactless, or too impulsive etc., but I can’t hold them truly responsible for the suffering they caused me, because it was not intentional. They actually didn’t know what they were doing and it is reasonable, in such a case, to dissociate the agent of suffering from the suffering itself, which must be analyzed; for the very fact of being vulnerable to other people’s behavior points to some obscure zone or a weakness in our psyche that needs to be looked into. That’s when we shall find that the fault lies not with the presumed offender, but with the one who felt offended.

And what about the suffering inflicted consciously, either on the spur of the moment or with premeditation? What am I to do when I am faced with someone who deliberately wants to do me harm? In the first place, I must not allow my emotions to get the better of me, rather, I must try to understand. Throwing light on a situation makes it easier to put up with it. A careful review of what has just happened might enable me to detect that I myself have been partly responsible – directly or indirectly – for the spiteful behavior of my tormentor; in which case I have no better choice than to tell myself that I am reaping what I have sown, and try to set things right as best I can. It is even better if I realize that the person who acts impulsively, prompted by negative feelings towards the others, is the one who really suffers and causes more harm to himself, endangering his spiritual health as he is caught up in a dreadful, downward spiral of which he is unaware. This is the ignorance Christ referred to – I think – when he said: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”.

All things considered, at our level of average humanity, to react in a real-life situation to the aggressive behavior of someone, by reminding oneself: “he/she does not know what he/she is doing” has a sweeping effect. I have been through it and I have found that one ceases to hold a grudge against the others, and, better than that, something begins to blossom inside: the flower of compassion.

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  1. Zulu Nov 02, 2009 8:56 pm 1

    I can see how forgiveness is a divine virtue. To me “forgiveness” is not akin to an undergraduate spiritual course! It is more like an advanced/graduate course that I have found to be extremely hard to practice. To me what Jesus said: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”, is so absolutely selfless and egoless. At first glance, I felt that for someone like me, with some degree of selfishness and ego, taking such an approach could inadvertently feed my selfishness. It felt as if I am above the rest and looking down. But the way the author of this article explains the practical implementation of this guidance, makes it more clear to me.

    There are some valuable insights from Ostad Elahi’s teachings that helped me in practicing forgiveness. For instance, this idea to strive for developing the same divine characteristics in ourselves that we expect from God: if I expect God to be merciful to me, I should demonstrate compassion and kindness to others; if I expect God to be forgiving to me, I should be able to forgive others. Simple but most intriguing. The other effective approach which was also discussed in this article is that everything that happens to us has its origin within ourselves. I try to delve within in order to find the answer to why such and such so called unfairness is happening to me. To do so, I usually try to give up my own judgments and analyze the situation from the opposite view. Or try to disengage myself from my emotions and see the situation objectively.

    I think the teachings of Jesus were mostly concerned with the spiritual dimension and had less to do with earthly affairs. Some of the concepts introduced by Jesus – mostly because of their pureness – were challenging to put into practice in our material lives. That’s why his successor explained the same teachings from a more material perspective and added instructions on how to apply them in material life. For instance, in the case of forgiveness, Jesus taught us to forgive everyone no matter what they have done, which is absolutely correct from the spiritual perspective. Then Mohammad introduced concepts such as the rights and duties of people, giving us some insight into how to deal with wrongdoings externally while practicing Jesus’ guidance internally. This shows how divine messengers complement each other. Contrary to current perceptions, they don’t contradict each other.

    Having said all that, we are living in a crazy world and we shouldn’t portray ourselves as a naïve person that everyone can take advantage of. Sometimes one needs to show some firmness in dealing with others in order to set the limits. But what is extremely important is to be graceful within (as Jesus advises), while at the same time standing up to transgression. Maintaining balance is the key point in practicing spirituality.

    Thanks for the article. It was very thought provoking.

  2. James Dec 15, 2009 6:19 pm 2

    Giving this topic some thought, I now realize it is my ego that gets in the way of forgiving each and every time.

  3. neuro Dec 29, 2009 5:53 am 3

    This is a great article. But I wonder if forgiving someone can sometimes be detrimental to the offender and the offendee. That is, what if that person does not learn their lesson that what they did was wrong, since I have forgiven them? I have trouble finding the balance between being forgiving and being naive…

  4. ls Feb 23, 2010 4:52 pm 4

    I thought I was truly forgiving. Then, I read this article and realized how blind I have been.

  5. karma Mar 13, 2010 11:41 am 5

    Great article.
    As I want to put forgiveness into practice, and when being completely honest with myself, I find that I don’t truly forgive, I mean from the bottom of my heart, because when it happens that the same person does the same harm against me again, specially when i see they are not regretful, all the previous grudge comes out of the subconscious and adds up to the present one! So, it is there, it has been there, but I have tried consciously to put a lid on the issue and it has moved to subconsioius. Well, now, considering that I can not really forgive in terms that I change my inner feeling too, trying to practice Jesus forgiveness helps a lot, but for my ego part, I add sth to it: Forgive me God, as I know not too. (I do not know why this hurt has come to me too, either it’s what I deserve or it’s my karma or it’s referring to one my weak points that I have to learn and has a lesson in it, which in this case I have to be thankful too)

  6. BZ Jul 29, 2013 7:24 am 6

    Great article and well-written overall.

    One point didn’t settle well with me, but it may be because of my lack of understanding. That is,

    “It is even better if I realize that the person who acts impulsively […] is the one who really suffers and causes more harm to himself…”

    Is this realization really “better”? That, while coping (or in order to cope) with an aggressor’s negative comments, we think about the negative consequences of his/her actions? To put it more bluntly, should we concern ourselves with the spiritual consequences of someone else’s actions?

    It also sounds to me that this could even border on vengeful thoughts: the knowledge that my “attacker” is going to suffer eventually for what he/she’s done to me.

    But overall, the article really drove home the point of forgiving others because most times we are hurt unintentionally, and due to a weakness in ourselves.

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