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Forgiveness is a critical topic for our time—and a very difficult one. I don't know whether we find it harder to forgive than people of other eras or whether we just have more to forgive, but the inability or refusal to forgive has become one of the great destructive elements in the modern world, both for individuals and for communities. We hold grudges. We seek revenge. We cultivate victimhood as an identity. We let the past rule the present and future. We find ourselves trapped in anger, resentment, spite, dread, and hostility—emotions that poison both our own lives and our relationships with others. Time and again, our hope for peace is short-circuited by memory of past wrongs held dear.
How can we make progress in dealing with these problems? I don't propose a simple solution here, some step-by-step process guaranteeing that if you complete all the steps in the correct order, you'll be a forgiving person. I don't think there is any such magical solution. But there are ways of approaching these problems that can bear fruit over time in a new sense of who we are, a new orientation that focuses on the present and future rather than the past, and a new sense of generosity that makes forgiveness possible.
Accomplishing this would represent nothing less than a personal transformation for most of us. Whether as individuals or as groups, we tend to make war more easily than we make peace, to harbor or even treasure up the wrongs done to us more easily than we turn them loose. Transformations, of course, are always at least a little scary. To be transformed implies letting go of our control for a while in the hopeful expectation that something worthwhile can result. It means taking the risk that our old certainties might be replaced by a new way of seeing the world.
I don't wish to minimize or underrate the risk involved when we begin to seek the spirit of forgiveness. But I think it is possible to take that risk in reliance on God, who intends for us only and always good. It is a time in our lives to let God set the agenda, even though that's an unsettling step to take. It's a time for reevaluation and change—or, to give these concepts their more traditional names, repentance and conversion.
Here is an important and helpful insight about repentance, in the words of William Temple, a great spiritual teacher who was archbishop of Canterbury during World War II. I include his words here because they tell us something important about the leap we will be taking if we really want to become forgiving people:
John [the Baptist] came, and after him Jesus came, saying, "Change your way of looking at life; the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." But we have lowered the term "repentance" into meaning something not very different from remorse ... Repentance does not merely mean giving up a bad habit. What it is concerned with is the mind; get a new mind. What mind? ... To repent is to adopt God's viewpoint in place of your own. There need not be any sorrow about it. In itself, far from being sorrowful, it is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself, and you are in fellowship with God. (William Temple, Christian Faith and Life, 67)
The pursuit of a forgiving spirit will turn out to be a matter not just of adding one more virtue to our stock but of being turned completely around and getting a new and forgiving mind.
Like me, you have perhaps thought of forgiveness primarily as a duty. But—let me be blunt—that's the wrong place to begin. Christianity, whatever you may have heard, is not primarily about duty—not about trying harder, doing better, tidying yourself up for the great banquet in the sky by and by. The word gospel means "good news," not "pep talk." However hard we have worked over the centuries to reduce Christian faith to a matter of rules (be neat, clean, and obedient; never miss church; say your prayers; read your Bible), it is really about something much more fundamental and life-giving than duty.
Christian faith is about the change of mind and heart that Temple wrote about. It is a change that will eventually affect your whole life, because when you see things in a radically different light, you can't just keep on behaving in the same old way, as if you still thought the old verities were all there was to be said. What we're talking about here is conversion, which means "a turning around." I mean "conversion" not in the relatively easy, simple sense of changing from one denomination or religion to another, but in the more difficult sense of turning around and discovering that there's a whole world out there that you hadn't really been aware of Conversion is nothing less than having our minds transformed according to the mind of God. By God's grace, we see things differently. And conversion—this new grasp of the world we live in—makes forgiveness possible for us. The point isn't to acquire a technique of forgiving or to drive ourselves harder through sheer willpower, but to acquire a whole new way of relating to God, the world, and one another.
Can we do this—make God's mind our mind—for ourselves? No, of course not. It's an intrinsic impossibility, like squaring a circle. To say "My goal in life this year is to acquire the mind of God" would be completely absurd. We can't make that happen to us. God is the only one who can give that gift. We can, however, be open to it, and we do that through repentance—the kind of repentance Archbishop Temple wrote about. As we think together about forgiveness in this book, we need to talk about it in the same way Temple wrote about repentance: not as a set of rules or commandments but as an opportunity to change our minds, our perspectives, and our vision of ourselves, our world, and God.CHAPTER 2
Forgiveness—Not Quite What You Thought
What Forgiveness Isn't
If we are going to let ourselves in for the possibility of a change of mind, we should probably begin by looking at what sort of mind we bring with us to this topic. How do we conceive of forgiveness? What does it mean to us? For most of us, I think, our concept of forgiveness is a kind of muddle of several different, inconsistent, and inadequate notions. It will be helpful to identify some of them here.
One commonly shared misconception is that forgiveness is a matter of making nice. The motto of this sort of forgiveness is "They didn't really mean it." We think of forgiveness as a way to maintain the machinery of social interaction in operating order. To keep from disrupting it, we pretend that we have not been aggrieved by the behavior of others. We pretend that everybody's motives are entirely honorable, that everybody we deal with is basically good and rational. If people have in fact done us some harm, we assume that they didn't really mean it or that they were simply striking back at their dreadful childhoods and we had the misfortune to get in the way. We persuade ourselves that if others are treated with a little kindness, they'll all be perfectly nice.
As a means of social interaction, this way of thinking isn't entirely bad. If we confront one another constantly on every action that is less than perfect, we'll waste a lot of time pursuing the mirage of an unattainable ideal. Besides, none of us likes having our failings pointed out. We're more likely to get cooperation from one another if we cut each other a little slack. What is more, we can and do misread one another's motives. Sometimes actions that appear to be deliberately cruel turn out to have been merely thoughtless or inattentive. Sometimes what appears to be thoughtle
Excerpted from FORGIVEN and Forgiving by L. WILLIAM COUNTRYMAN. Copyright © 1998 by L. William Countryman. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Forgiveness—Not Quite What You Thought
Forgiving One Another—Opportunity or Demand?
Forgiveness Builds the Future
Some Practical Problems
The Forgiving Spirit
Forgiveness and the Life of Faith
Posted January 6, 2000
The author offers four ways to cultivate forgiveness, each of which is designed to avoid the denial, re-victimization, simplistic platitudes, and guilt so typical of much of the older literature on Christian forgiveness. . . Country presents a book which is both theologically and psychologically sound, the true meaning of pastoral theology. It is fortunate that the two fields are wed so well here.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 16, 2012
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