The question of just what is forgiveness and how to practice it comes up for anyone who decides to try to earnestly put Christian teachings into action. Or for anyone who just gets sick of being angry all the time. And once you try to forgive, you realize how hard it is. What is it and how does one do it, anyway?
Here's a clue that's often left out of conventional Christian teachings about forgiveness: when Jesus suggested that you infinitely forgive everyone who has ever harmed you, praise those who have insulted you and love your enemies, he was offering a deep teaching about deleting the ego.
This is left out of most talk of forgiveness because most folks would much rather retain their egos. America is all about ego. Just look around, man.
But as long as you value your own comfort and pleasure above the happiness of most other beings (and the action of that valuing is precisely what keeps the ego in motion), it's actually impossible for you to forgive anyone or any situation. For anything.
Your boss who takes you for granted and makes you do tasks you don't like. The government that grabs up all your money with taxes. The ex who betrayed your trust. The parents who didn't treat you well. When your own welfare is the most important thing to you, you can't forgive these people their offenses.
How could you? They're all delivering obvious, repeated blows to exactly what you cherish the most: your self. Your security.
What is forgiveness? It's not just pardoning...
Of course, you do pardon these offenses for the sake of civility. You grit your teeth and bear them. Keep going. But you feel all the time how they conflict with your desires and you resent them for that. You go through your day feeling irritated and anxious and sad. That's living in conflict.
As long as your desire is chiefly for your own welfare and the welfare of those you like, you'll always be in conflict.
You'll always feel attacked.
Why? Because most other people on earth don't value your welfare above all else. They have other priorities. Namely, their own welfare. This is true of your boss and the government and your ex and in often even your parents. And so they will be inconsiderate of you. They'll insult you. They'll take advantage of you.
But you can't really blame them for any of that. Why? Because they're just doing exactly what you do to them - valuing their own ease and welfare more than they value yours.
What is forgiveness? It's fore-giving
The only way to get out of this mess of conflict and constantly feeling offended and disappointed and depressed is to change your own value system. As you may have noticed, you can't change other people. You have to change you.
The only way to remain un-offended and happy when someone steps on you (which they will, guaranteed) is to be already willing, in advance, for them to take every good thing you own away from you.
I know that sounds extreme. Folks, it is extreme. That's why it's been not talked about for so long. That's why hardly any knows how to do it.
Forgiveness is extremely counter-cultural and it's not for the faint-hearted. Most all of the laws of the great U.S.A., for example, are built around protecting private property. We're really into keeping what we have, not so much interested in giving all of it away.
Giving in Advance
So the essence of forgiveness is pre-giving. It's giving in advance. It's an attitude, a willingness that we have to deliberately cultivate. "For" means "before." Forgiveness just means that your giving, your attitude of total generosity, precedes their taking. Fore-give. Get it?
This is something Jesus was like, super good at.
He didn't get offended or angry when folks beat him and nailed him to a cross because he had already decided to give himself away, utterly. He was already completely willing to give for the benefit of others. The authorities thought it would be beneficial for Jesus to die. So Jesus was like, okay.
Dude was so peaceful about the whole bloody thing that he was more concerned for the people torturing and murdering him and how it might affect their spiritual standing than he was concerned about the fact that he was being tortured and murdered.
Most of us aren't going to be confronted with folks who want to torture and murder us. But we will be confronted with unappreciative bosses, oppressive governments, heartbreaking exes, all-too-human parents and all the other perils of this difficult world. Most of us feel sufficiently crucified just by that.
What if you became willing, in advance, for your boss to have all your labor and comfort and ease and time, for your tyrannical government to have all your money, your lying ex to have all your dignity, your negligent parents to have all your goodwill?
Most of us immediately think, "Then I'd be a doormat."
But that's not true. You'd be a Christ.
Doormats are people who over-extend themselves out of fear. They're afraid of being disliked, afraid of being rejected, so they try to please others in order to win approval and security. Do you think Jesus gave a fuck if anyone liked him? He most explicitly did not.
Can you see how manipulating by people-pleasing is not real generosity or fore-giveness? It's just a sneaky form of grasping and getting that takes on an air of martyrdom.
If your fore-giving comes out of a place of pure willingness instead of a place of manipulative sneakiness, it doesn't lead to you being pathetic. It leads to you being enlightened and to you helping to enlighten all other beings.
Of course, it mind lead to you looking pathetic. Those Roman soldiers sure must have thought Jesus looked pathetic as he hung up on that awful tree. And yet. He was performing a service that was of inestimable value and glory. Just about the opposite of pathetic.
Contrary to Pauline opinion, Christ didn't save us from our sins by way of turning his blood into some sort of Magic Wipe-Away-Sin Eraser Solvent that comes in convenient wine-flavored concentrate at your local rectory.
Instead, he saved us from our sins by showing us that it was fully possible for a human being to fore-give, to utterly fore-give, to remain full of peace and compassion and devotion to the welfare of others even while he himself was being cruelly tortured.
That possibility is so astounding, that example is so earth-shaking, that it has the power to completely save us from our own miserable egotism (aka, sin).
But that saving power only really comes about when we say to ourselves, "I can learn to do that, too. In fact, I will learn to do that."
Which is exactly what most of us emphatically do not say to ourselves, especially those of us who have been raised as Christians. Because we're taught to worship Christ as if he was some impossibly-anomalous Anointed Prince of Zombies.
His attainment was rare, but he was not anomalous. His fore-giving is a vivid possibility for all of us. Jesus was a human being whose Roman overlords didn't appreciate him, whose friends betrayed him, and whose parents were so negligent that they let him be born in a pile of straw. He became a "son of God" because he fully realized his own potential to love as God loves - with no demands or resentment.
He showed us that we can become divine by cultivating the willingness to fore-give. To die to the illusion of our separate self. "To love one another as I have loved you."
The fruit of this fore-giveness is that we get to become awake within the dream of the world. And I have a lot to say about that, coming soon.