Tuesday, February 18, 2020

You Can't Forgive Your Parents

I wrote in to the podcast at First Methodist Houston called "Ask Me Anything." My son started it about two years ago, and I have liked most of the episodes.  People propose questions and the staff answer them, even if they are difficult or controversial. Mine is #72 Why Do I Find It Harder Forgiving Other Christians Than People Outside the Church? It was prompted by a long battle, nearly ten years now of my unforgiveness toward many of the people at my previous church, which failed despite great effort by some of us. The advice started adequately, but not brilliantly.  I was not bothered, recognising that even though it was my question, I was not the entire audience.

Near the end there were two brilliant comments however, which bore immediate fruit as I applied the advice. One pastor advised that groups of people cannot be forgiven - they have to be approached one at a time. I saw immediately that I had been wandering in this exact difficulty, like a person trying to clean up after a hoarder, sighing and complaining without starting in on a particular pile. I had been fretting about the bad reasons that "people" gave for leaving the church on its way down, mentally answering them, then chastising myself for being petty about things that happened so long ago.

When one is in debt, the recommended strategy is to pick the smallest one and pay it off first. I applied that principle here, choosing the people who seemed least blameable, least at fault and focusing on understanding their actions and forgiving them.

I cleared out about a third of the group in an hour. Since that day I have not been the least angry at any of those when they come to mind.

The second third was a little harder, and I have had to revisit forgiveness on a few of them, though not often. I have been working on the last group with considerable success. I have had to reapply the principle of dividing them from each other, as some of them were friends who left at the similar times for related reasons.  I have had to divide husband from wife in those instances as well.  I hadn't found that necessary with the easy group. I don't find it easy now, as I had been thinking of the couples as a unit in most cases, treating their reasons and actions as mutually agreed upon.  Yet this was not so, as I readily apprehended once I started prying them apart. I am only guessing in most cases which of them was the driving force, but new understandings came to me quickly. Things that were dark became obvious.  I no longer even remember what those insights were, because I am no longer interested in the issues.  They have receded.

It became easier to look on their decisions with sorrow rather than with anger.

The scriptures teach that when a man and a woman marry, they become one.  For their children, this is both intensely true and ridiculously untrue. We refer back to our childhoods in both ways, saying sometimes "My family was the sort that..." and in the next breath contrast that "My mother always...but my father never..." Of course they are individuals who interact with the children differently, yet they of course cooperated on many levels to bring you your childhood, for good or for ill.

I don't think you can forgive your parents as a unit at all. You can only forgive them one at a time, and probably not at the same time. I don't think you can dance back and forth between understanding exactly what your mother did against you and your father did, even though those things are deeply related and will distract you toward the other constantly. One at a time. Start with the easier one. If you had missing parents or extra parents it gets more complicated, butt the principle is the same.  Start with one.

The Nature of Forgiveness

We often try to substitute overlooking things and pretending they don't matter for forgiveness.  I have said in the past that we are not really forgiving when we do this, and such overlooking prevents forgiveness. The danger is that these accumulate. We do not fully get beyond them, though we tell ourselves we have. I am no longer sure of my rule.  Perhaps overlooking or excusing someone else's harm against us does work just as well. I do know from my own attempts that excusing or overlooking behavior often requires a dishonesty I can't stomach.  We might wish to be people of grand character who are cognizant of the lot of mankind and gently tolerant of its foibles, but that usually isn't me.  I notice that this is not always how Jesus responds either.  Sometimes he brings comfort, sometimes judgement.  In the end we believe they will amount to the same thing, but in this world they are still distinct.

Most especially with the bigger items for forgiveness, we find we cannot simply shrug and say "Well, she was in a bad position and she did the best she could."  We might arrive at that conclusion after much wrestling, but we have to first acknowledge that wrong was done to us, and it does matter. Forgiveness does not mean pretending that it was all just fine.

It does mean acting in forgiveness, and the first part of this is no longer extracting revenge by saying bad things about them when you've got the chance.  The stories can be gripping and entertaining, or sometimes can be played as humorous and entertaining, and I do love to entertain. But that will simply have to go. The time may come when you can refer to the mistakes, inadequacies, and even evils again. Yet not now.

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