How Much Can We Forgive?

All spiritual traditions are full of stories of forgiveness. Most of these stories are about extraordinary acts of forgiveness, the kind of forgiveness that seems possible only for special souls. When you hear these stories you might think that this kind of forgiveness is reserved only for saints. I thought that way for years. But two things changed this attitude.

A friend told me a story about a boy who was flirting with a girl in a bar. The girl became so enraged that she took out a knife and stabbed the boy to death. Imagine how you would feel if you were the boy’s mother? But his mother did something quite amazing: she decided to help the girl. She regularly visited her in jail and made it her mission to comfort this girl and help her overcome her problems. Here was a woman who was not a revered saint but a person like you or I. But still, she was able to forgive and help the girl who murdered her son. What excuse do I have?

I used to think that forgiving minor offenses is one thing, but forgiving those who hurt me deeply is a totally different thing. Hearing this story began to change my way of thinking.


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Forgiveness is a choice.       Photo by Salvador Altimir


Forgiveness Is a Choice

The other thing that changed my attitude towards forgiveness was this statement I came across: “Forgiveness is a choice.” My first reaction was, “No, that’s not true. In my life I have been hurt so deeply that it’s not possible for me to fully forgive.” But as I contemplated my hurt and reflected on whether or not I really had a choice to forgive, I realized that I didn’t want to acknowledge that I did. I was choosing not to forgive.

I was attached to my resentment. It was my weapon against those who hurt me.

Is it difficult to totally forgive? It can seem impossible. Totally forgiving someone that deeply hurt you can be one of the most difficult things you’ll ever attempt to do. But no matter how you rationalize it, it is a choice.


A Spiritual Practitioner Is Always Ready To Forgive

My spiritual master said that one who is practicing spiritual life should always be ready to forgive. “Always ready” implies that forgiveness is may not always seem logical to us. If we look for logical reasons to forgive we may never find them.

Do we forgive in order to reestablish a better relationship with the person who hurt us? Not always. Often those who have hurt or offended us are not aware they have done anything wrong. In those cases, if we let them know we have forgiven them it will just make matters worse.

Although forgiveness is tremendously beneficial for us, freeing our hearts from pent up anger and resentment, ultimately we forgive because it is the right thing to do. We are meant to cultivate this quality. And to cultivate forgiveness we must choose to forgive continually, not just once. We practice forgiveness because we value our spiritual connection more than we desire to see our enemy punished.

The greater the offense you must forgive, the more grace you will receive. It takes great spiritual strength to forgive an individual or organization that has deeply hurt you. And you’ll be justly awarded for doing so.

You are actually fortunate if someone offends or hurts you because it gives you the opportunity to make great spiritual advancement.


The Test of Total Forgiveness

How do you know you have totally forgiven? To answer this question let’s look at what unforgiveness looks like. It comes as resentment, when you hold a grudge and become inwardly bitter. You become preoccupied with hate and self-pity. You can’t come to terms with the fact that the person who committed such a horrible act against you will not get caught, exposed, or receive negative reactions for their behavior. You want the world to see what they’ve done to you. Then you go over and over in your mind what the offender did, recounting and re-living exactly what happened. All of this leads to wanting to get even.

Sometimes we don’t forgive because we want to punish the other person for what they have done. But the reality is that we are only punishing ourselves. It is said that envy is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die. Until you totally forgive, you will be in chains. Totally release them and you will be released. Nelson Mandella said, “If you hate, you will give your ‘enemy’ your heart and mind.”

To forgive is to set the prisoner free and then realize the prisoner was you.

When you totally forgive someone, you refuse to keep a record of their wrongs. And you refuse to keep a record of how right you were, the record used to vindicate yourself.

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Forgive and You Will Be Forgiven

How would you be doing right now if you were only forgiven to the exact degree that you have forgiven others? The problem is that too often we want mercy for ourselves, but we want justice for others.

Now you may ask, “Who must I forgive, and must I forgive everyone?” First, it is important to understand that forgiving and wanting a criminal who could harm others to be arrested are compatible. For the welfare of that person and others, it may be best that they are punished in some way. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to make a wrong a right. It means you release yourself from the resentment you feel towards the offender. Is that a lot to ask? Yes. But otherwise the resentment you maintain will continue to harm you, not only spiritually, but emotionally and physically.

I know that if I make a mistake, offend someone, or hurt someone, I certainly want to be forgiven. I want others to know that I sometimes make mistakes due to my conditioning, but my intention is not to do wrong. I want others to know I try my best, even though I am not perfect. I wouldn’t object if those who I offended prayed for my well-being (and they may have done this for all I know). Therefore, certainly I should grant that same consideration and mercy to others.


Bless Your Enemy

Total forgiveness involves praying for blessings to rain on the lives of your offenders. In other words, you pray that they will be dealt with as you would want to be dealt with. And it is not total forgiveness unless you really mean it and never turn back to condemn, criticize, or wish that person gets their due rewards. If they receive the blessings you prayed for, you will be happy if you have truly forgiven them. If you haven’t totally forgiven them, you will be unhappy to see them prosper.

Will you totally forgive those who have hurt and offended you? If you don’t, you are also guilty – guilty of the crime of unforgiveness.


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