“Come closer to me,” Joseph told his brothers. When they had done so, he said: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you once sold into Egypt. But now do not be distressed, and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.”
Is real and total forgiveness possible? Is the Joseph of the Genesis story a little too good to be true? His brothers, who abandoned him and sold him into slavery seem to be “repentant” only when their own live are on the line. Joseph, as the Father in Jesus’ story of The Prodigal Son, are scriptural revelations of the nature of God. We are taught, then, that mercy and forgiveness are somehow at the heart of reality, of love, and of the nature of God’s world. Yet, this is very difficult for us to believe and absorb. It is, in many ways, counter to our experience of our own psychology and self-consciousness.
Despite the fact that sometimes in our present age, we speak of forgiveness and mercy quite facilely, and, in truth, we even seem culturally to have lost all sense of our own sin and guilt, I, and I think many of us, if we really confront ourselves and our lives, have a very difficult time believing that we can be forgiven. Much of the falseness we assume in ourselves and the arrogance, pride, and damage we inflict on the world lies in our very difficulty in truly believing, accepting and appropriating that the sin we have committed and the hurt we have inflicted can be and is forgiven.
Recently I was watching the Oliver Stone film Snowden. It is a typical Stone film, not particularly distinguished by nuance and complexity. Yet, I find myself pondering one moment in the dialogue, a scene involving Snowden and his girlfriend. As he becomes more and more disturbed by his realization of the level of government collection of the personal data of citizens, he communicates his concern to his girlfriend with whom he is living. She says to him: “I have nothing to hide.” He responds in turn: “Everyone has something to hide.”
What do we have to hide and why do we hide it? We all have things to hide; things of which we are ashamed. We want to be seen in what we take to be positive ways, which means we don’t want those things which we see as wrong in and with us to be known. On the other hand, when we read the autobiographies of some of those we call saints and mystics, we hear them speak openly and describe in detail their own sinfulness. What is the difference between them and us? It is that they have come to know that there is nothing they have done that is not forgiven. Clearly from their description, forgiveness does not mean that they have not been and done wrong. They know who they are and of what they are capable. But they also know a love that so overcomes their own sin and guilt that, as Joseph tells his brothers, they can cease to ‘be distressed” and to “reproach” themselves.
In our day we speak a lot about human “wholeness.” We long “to be healthy” in spirit, mind, and body. We seek to do this through various techniques, including what we see as positive thinking. Yet, in so much of our search for psychic health and in our tendency to self-aggrandizement, we but exacerbate our tendencies to compartmentalization and dissociation. Rather than truly experiencing at-one-ment, we seek what we see as integration by means of repression. In our own consciousness and in the world, we try to build up and express what we see as our gifts and our strengths and evade and repress that of which we are ashamed. The result is that the “self” we are creating with our sunny optimism is built on sand and not on rock.
So, we have to reckon with a question we most often want to avoid. Can we be forgiven? Is forgiveness possible for us? What makes it so difficult for us to even conceive that we can be forgiven is our innate tendency to refuse forgiveness to others. Our struggles with forgiving go very deep into the core of who we are. I may have forgotten many of the very good things that others have done for me, but my mind forever replays in great and often exaggerated detail those times when others have deeply hurt me. At times I realize this truth, but most of the time I just avoid entering into the conflictual experience between the call of Jesus and the gospel to forgive and my own resistance to doing so.
As Jesus teaches the disciples to pray, modeling prayer for them in the words of the “Our Father,” he teaches them how true prayer is impossible without forgiveness. He also tells us that we cannot experience forgiveness without forgiving. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We shall only come to know ourselves as forgiven by God to the degree that we forgive others. In the same way that we can only know the experience of being cared for by caring, we can only know the reality of forgiveness by forgiving. Dag Hammarskjold once said, “”To forgive oneself? No, that doesn’t work: we have to be forgiven. But we can only believe this is possible if we ourselves can forgive.”
What makes my being forgiven seem impossible to me is my experience of the impossibility of forgiving another. Our theology is, of course, correct to teach us that love and forgiveness are always ultimately of God and must first be received before they can be given. In practice, however, we cannot be disposed to receive care, love, forgiveness without opening our hearts to offer them to others. Every time I think of those whom I find hardest to forgive, I realize the degree that my own heart is still closed.
One measure of poor psychotherapy is that which suggests that the road to psychic and spiritual health lies in blaming others for the state of our lives. It is undeniably true that we often must first bring to the light of consciousness the hurts that have been inflicted on us and which we have repressed. Yet, that is but the beginning. For all of us, even those who have loved us have also hurt us. Yet, if we spend our lives in anger and resentment at them, we shall always retain, deep within ourselves, the same anger and rage at our own sins and failings. As the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, it is only by developing compassion and then forgiveness for those who have hurt us that we can come to know forgiveness and peace in ourselves. In my own life, I discovered how my relationship to my parents became closer as I came to realize that they were, as myself, the results of their own life experiences and formation. They were for me what they could be in light of, and by their love often despite, their own sufferings.
By beginning to realize this truth of others, we more and more deeply appropriate it to ourselves. To be loved is not merely to be loved for our strengths and our success. It is also to be loved, not despite but in, our weakness and sinfulness. Forgiveness is possible. In fact it is really the nature of love, but to realize and experience this we must daily devote ourselves to its practice.
In a Dark Time
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill, Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)