Why Are Forgiving and Asking Forgiveness So Difficult?

September 16, 2015David Stanley

Everywhere I look, I am surrounded by apologia.

A professional football player cold-cocks his wife in an elevator and drags her unconscious body down a hotel hallway. He issues an apology, yet it is clear that he is sorry only that he was captured on video. A pitchman for a fast-food chain, arrested for heinous crimes against minors, expresses remorse only to his attorney. A presidential candidate mocks Vice President Joe Biden the day before Biden has to bury his son, who died after his battle against glioblastoma; later, the candidate offers a Facebook apology calling his remarks a “joke” and a “mistake.”

Apologia: an apology with no remorse.

Why is forgiveness such a difficult topic? Forgiveness is difficult to grant and equally challenging to request. The journey to real forgiveness is long and arduous.

Leviticus teaches that we are forbidden to seek revenge or carry grudges, that we must forgive those who, with a sincere request, ask our forgiveness. According to the ancient Jewish sages, it is a mitzvah (commandment or good deed) to grant forgiveness – but that doesn’t make it painless.

It’s no easier to be on the other side, asking for forgiveness.

You’ve well and truly wronged a friend. You know it. She knows it. Yet you still can’t bring yourself to offer a bona fide apology and ask forgiveness. And even if you do, and she says “no” the first time, you still must ask twice more until, in accordance with Torah, you’re good with God.

Why is so difficult to seek and grant forgiveness?

Hurt and fear, joined together by ego.

You’ve been wronged, badly. It hurts, deeply. When your transgressor comes to ask you for forgiveness, you are loathe to let go of your pain. One, you’ve inculcated the pain into your being, and to change one’s being is in itself painful. Two, you now realize that the perpetrator is also in pain, and you wish pain upon them in an attempt at to balance out the suffering.

But we forget, in our Newtonian world, that for them to continue to suffer, we must also continue to ache.

You long to see them punished. Your ego demands “justice.” You’ve been hurt and you want them to hurt. To refuse forgiveness gives you a new power; the upper hand. To let them go means that they will hurt less; they will have won.

You’ve wronged someone, badly. You hurt them, deeply. You acknowledge that you must ask forgiveness; for your own peace, for peace with God, and to heal the wounds you caused. Yet, you cannot summon the consciousness to do so. Why? You are fearful that your approach may be rejected. Despite the honor in your request for forgiveness, it is wholly possible that you might be turned away from their home, the phone slammed down, the email returned with a scathing reply.

Rejection hurts. With that rejection, your ego is wounded. While you were originally the sinner, in your ego-driven mind, your plea for mercy now grants you an imagined moral high ground. It is a high ground that exists, to be sure, only in the ego-clouded mist of your mind.

To not seek forgiveness, to not grant forgiveness… if every behavior has a consequence, what are the consequences?

More pain, more hurt, more suffering.

Less compassion, less joy, less kindness. 

The Dalai Lama says, “My religion is simple. My religion is kindness.”

In Judaism, we say: Chesed. Kindness.

Originally, chesed meant the love that brought God to create the world and the connection between God and the people of Israel. Today, as it is said in the Talmud, “The world stands upon three things: study of Torah, service to God, and acts of chesed, of kindness.

To seek and grant forgiveness are mitzvot (good deeds or commandments). We do not perform mitzvot to raise our standing in the community. Rather, we perform mitzvot to perform tikkun olam, to heal our broken world.

So whether you’ve been wronged or you’ve done wrong: Leave behind the ego, heal the world, be kind to yourself, be kind to others, and forgive.

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