by Jack McLean
The Origin of Forgiveness is Found in Religious Precept
Forgiveness is a specifically religious concept and practice. While organized secular programs exist that feature forgiveness and reconciliation, programs such as Restorative Justice or Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, completed in December 2015, the origins of forgiveness are found in religion. The laudable aim of reconciliation, however, is difficult to imagine without forgiveness; and reconciliation and forgiveness are impossible to conceive without truth. Where the denial of genocide persists, forgiveness and reconciliation will never happen.
While forgiveness may seem like a straightforward concept to understand, like many questions connected with the various theologies of the world’s independent religions, distinctions and nuances abound. Whatever the distinctions and nuances may be, forgiveness is a reality that is decidedly difficult to practice.
For most believers, with the exception of non-theistic Buddhists, forgiveness involves both God and humans. For agnostics and atheists, forgiveness is a strictly human phenomenon. Christ prayed: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” (Luke 11:4). This prayer clearly reveals that because God is the forgiver of sins, we are also expected to forgive those who have offended or hurt us.
I mention in passing that sin would seem to be one of those basic religious categories that moderns would like to forget, even some of the religious. But for the ancient Jews, sin had a very practical meaning. A sinner was one who broke a divine command. Sinning in New Testament Greek had another less definitive, softer meaning. It meant “missing the mark.”
What the Dali Lama and Carl Jung Have observed
One strange phenomenon of current western psychology is the persistence of guilt and the inability to forgive oneself. The Dali Lama has observed that many westerners are filled with loathing and self-hatred. We would all do well to reflect on the deeper reasons for this widespread psychological malaise. The present generation feels no shame in defying moral restraints in the frenetic search to fill the void of meaninglessness and despair with a glut of consumerism or the passing satisfaction of the sexual appetite. In the present age, widespread is the confusion of licence with freedom.
The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung reported that in many of the patients whom he treated, particularly in post-middle-age, forgiveness of oneself or another was the major issue. Viktor Frankl, the renowned Austrian psychiatrist who founded and practiced Logotherapy–the search for meaning–with great success, has observed that today psychotherapists fill the confessional need that was once met by clerics.
Frank Warren’s Website “PostSecret”
The phenomenal success of Frank Warren’s website PostSecret, to which mailed in anonymous postcards are published every Sunday, reveals the therapeutic value that derives from sharing a secret. Although some secrets are trivialities, and although PostSecret attracts curiosity seekers and/or the voyeurs, other secrets are heavier with consequence. Although all those who submit postcards are not necessarily seeking forgiveness, it is only too obvious that the impetus for the simple act of sharing a secret helps to relieve a conscience that is clearly burdened. Sharing helps to reconcile the sender to her conscience. Otherwise, why would she bother? The sceptic could argue, of course, that the sender is not penitent at all and simply seeks to thrill others, to boast proudly of the deed done; but it is far more likely that conscience-relief is the main motive.
Does Reciprocity Have to Occur?
Does reciprocity have to be present for true forgiveness to occur? Does the perpetrator have to acknowledge the wrong to the victim? Ideally yes, if truth be told and full reconciliation occur. But forgiveness can also take place if the victim alone finds it in his heart to forgive. The acknowledgement of wrongdoing on the perpetrator’s part is not necessary. If confession on the perpetrator’s part is not forthcoming, one still has the possibility of being reconciled to oneself–of learning to free oneself of the burden.
However difficult it may be to free one’s heart from the anger, grief or desolation that comes from being seriously wounded or wronged, forgiveness of the perpetrator will help to set the victim free. Some psychotherapists have discovered among their patients that the ability to forgive another sets the individual free to forgive himself. Conversely, the act of forgiving oneself sets the individual free to forgive another. This should not really come as any great surprise because all human beings are organically connected in the world-wide, living web of life, here meaning human-to-human interactions.
Deathbed Confessions, Sincere Apologies and Thank Yous
The frequency of deathbed confessions, of guarded secrets long held over many years, at last revealed in final moments to those who have been wronged, of unfinished business at last resolved, indicates that some secrets are a burden too great to bear. Deep down, we long to be reconciled again with those whom we have wronged.
Here again, the importance of the Baha’i teaching of unity in all its forms is revealed. If we look closely at the word atonement, we will discover that it contains a formula for unity. For atonement means at–one–ment: the opportunity to be at one again with ourselves, and with God and man.
While the deathbed conversion may be the final holdout for some, a last opportunity to make things right, hopefully the rest of us will not have to wait until our dying day. A sincere, heartfelt apology, like a sincere heartfelt thank you, and an attempt to make amends, where amends are warranted, will suffice.