Forgiveness and the Law of Love

07/12/2011 06:24 pm ET | Updated Sep 12, 2011

It is an unfortunate truth that happiness and good fortune rarely deepen us spiritually. It is when we run into unbearable grief and loss we are unprepared for that we are stripped of our vanity and our pride and begin to see, rock-bottom, what is really important to us. These occasions are what I call "leveling experiences" because they let us know that we, along with all human beings, are mortal and vulnerable. At these times so much of our anger and hard-heartedness seems petty, for we come to understand that all human beings suffer immeasurably as they journey through life, and we join them as fellow sufferers on the path. We gain a measure of humility, we become more compassionate and more forgiving.

Profound spiritual lessons can come from those who provoke us the most. People we can hardly bear to be around, the ones who "hook" us emotionally, are the ones who carry our unconscious stuff around, bringing it uncomfortably close to the surface. We want to run, not walk, in the other direction. But we find we are looking in a mirror of sorts. We are led to ask ourselves, "What part of my shadow is this person asking me to uncover and examine?" These individuals are the ones who can stretch us the most, spiritually speaking.

We also grow in our ability to forgive as we reflect upon the circumstances of our own lives. We realize that even our best-intentioned, most spirit-led decisions have the capacity to hurt others, including those we love. We have made mistakes, misjudgments, careless errors, perhaps, that have led to pain for others or even tragic consequences. In fact, there is no way for even the best intentioned, most moral individual to go through a life without hurting others. So each of us has to live with the consequences of our own inevitable harming of others, even when we would do only good -- never mind when we have been motivated by less than noble motives. This understanding helps us forgive those who have, for whatever reason, known or unknown, caused us to suffer. We, too, have caused others to suffer. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God," as my saintly grandmother used to remind me regularly.

My father has been dead for almost 20 years now, but I remember having a conversation with him when I was a young adult. It was an awkward conversation. We somehow got around to talking about my growing-up days, and my father asked at one point, "I was a pretty good dad, wasn't I? I gave you whatever you needed didn't I?" My memory was different from that. I remembered that money was scarce, that my father threw it away on alcohol and gambling.

"Well, actually, no, you didn't ... you weren't ... actually, our childhood was pretty difficult, Daddy." My father's face hardened in pain, and he said, "When you get older, you'll see. You'll see, when you have children of your own." And he was right. Yes, he hurt me grievously through his drinking, the same drinking that came between him and my mother, but I came to see that his alcoholism was not about me. It was about his emotional suffering from way back in his childhood and about his losing our mother, the only woman he ever loved, and about the addictive disease that alcohol is.

Another person's behavior is really not about us. Most of the time, the harm another does comes out of ignorance, pain, neediness and confusion -- the very same qualities that push us to act in ways we really don't want to act.

I did, in fact, find out what he meant by "I would see, when I had children of my own." He hurt his children, though he loved us. And though I loved them, I hurt my own children when I divorced their father. I can rationalize and say that they would have been worse off had I stayed with him, but I don't know that that's true. I know that I would have been worse off, and I was not willing to live half a life, with possibilities cut off. Will my children forgive me? I hope they will. We all cause pain, and we all need forgiveness.

We need to be careful of piety -- that is, the dutiful obedience that is so often tinged with self-righteousness and pride. One of the most fascinating stories in the Hebrew Bible is the story of the Prodigal Son. You may remember the story: a wealthy landowner has two sons, the older one, who follows his father's every wish, and the younger one, who is something of a hell-raiser. So the younger son tells his father, "Give me my inheritance." (Read: "I don't want to wait until you kick off. I want to party on, now!)

So the father does as his son asks. The son goes into a far land and spends all his inheritance in profligate living, and when he runs out of money, he runs out of friends. He finds himself caring for the animals on a pig farm, and he realizes, "Why, even these pigs have better food than I have! I should go back home and tell my father that I really screwed up, and that I'm sorry." And that he does.

When his father sees him coming in the distance, he says to his servants, "Kill the fatted calf! Invite my son's friends over for a party!" The son approaches his father, falls to the ground and begs for forgiveness, and the father puts a ring on his finger and rejoices, for that which was lost has been found.

Now, the really interesting part to the story to me is the reaction of the older brother. He says to his father, "Father, you never killed a calf for me, never even killed a goat, for me and my friends. So how come he disobeyed you, left home, wasted all your money and now he gets all the goodies? I've obeyed you all these years, and I get nothing."

Which brother would you like to have for a friend? Which one would you like to go out for an evening with? Sometimes we have to make mistakes -- and big ones -- before we learn a better way. But we are apt to grow richer and deeper, as we experience the bumps and bruises. Sometimes we bump and bruise others, as well. But how much more desirable this path, than the way of this prig of an older brother, who holds himself back from life and experience, and who judges himself worthy and his younger brother unworthy. Why could he not be happy at his brother's return? His piety had stolen his joy, his ability to rejoice in his brother's redemption. He is the big loser in the story.

The problem with piety -- and self-righteousness, in general -- is that it separates us from others. In the safe and secure citadel of our own goodness, we place ourselves out of human reach. The law is what directs us, then, and mercy takes a back seat. We become blind to our own failings, so intent are we on judging others, and in fact on projecting our own flaws onto them. A person can follow all the rules and yet be lacking in the milk of human kindness. In fact, when people are too rule-driven, that is what generally results.

The one law that is large enough to contain all the lesser laws, the one law that must be considered the grounding of the life well lived, is the law of love. If that law is grossly violated, it really doesn't matter how much money we make or how many accolades we receive. If we are able to live by this larger law, we will find within ourselves a kind and understanding heart, both for ourselves and for others. Forgiveness will come more easily because we know how morally frail we ourselves are, because we ourselves have blundered and because we know that the story is not over, that redemption is possible.

It is comforting to me to remember that my very weaknesses form the tension that pulls me again and again to the Holy One, asking that my brokenness be made whole. Paradoxically, it is often when I feel most satisfied with myself that I find myself losing faith -- or becoming, as it were, faithless. Self-congratulatory, I say to myself, "I'm doing great ... wasn't I?" Humility makes space for the Holy in our lives, whereas self-righteousness and judgment alienate others and elbow God out, as well.

It seems to me that forgiveness is all of a piece: When we are unable to forgive, we then perpetuate the fruits of non-forgiveness -- anger, hatred, revenge, pettiness of character. And the fruits of forgiveness -- humility, compassion, love, peace -- are lost to us. The place to begin is not self-condemnation, but the sincere desire to begin anew. If we earnestly seek to forgive, if we seek a change of heart, we will at some point have what we seek, for the nature of God is love, is forgiveness. We ourselves are forgiven even before we think to ask. We don't have to earn it. We just have to be willing to receive. As we ourselves are forgiven, we can through that same fount of grace forgive the injuries done to us.