I like to think I’m pretty good at forgiveness—giving it, that is. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt most of the time and I try not to hold grudges. Even if people don’t desire my forgiveness, I still try to give it—at least in my own mind.
After this past weekend’s sermon on forgiveness, one of my parishioners asked what you should do when the person you needed to forgive died before you could do so. It was an excellent and profoundly honest question.
I have had such an event in my own life. A friend and mentor turned out to be something other than I had thought and I felt he had betrayed me and the organization for whom we worked. Some years later when speaking with another former employee of that organization, I learned that my old mentor had died several months before. My reaction was “How dare he? I’m still mad! I can’t be mad at a dead person!” Silly, eh?
The truth is that I hadn’t wanted to forgive my mentor. In my mind, he was in the wrong (he was) and by not forgiving him, I was holding the moral high ground. In truth, I was wallowing in self-righteousness and there was very little that was “moral” or “high” about it. I was simply angry. Holding onto that anger felt good and righteous and I did not want to relinquish that feeling.
When I learned he had died without my ever confronting him or forgiving him, I felt robbed. Robbed of my self-righteousness and robbed of the chance to be magnanimous by forgiving him. Did you hear that? I felt robbed because I would not have the chance to demonstrate what a wonderful person I am by forgiving him. Talk about wrong-headed thinking!
When I realized the source of my disquiet, I did some serious self-reflection and talked honestly with my spiritual director. I concluded that I needed to ask God for forgiveness for my attitude and for failing to forgive my mentor as Christ has forgiven me.
Forgiving others (or not) puts us in a place of power—at least in our own minds. We all are prone to the abuse of power that we have. When we deliberately choose NOT to forgive, we not only retain that power over another, we get to feel morally superior and righteous. We get to feel better than the other person. That is always an intoxicating feeling.
In Jesus, we have our example. He forgave people who didn’t ask for forgiveness, who didn’t deserve forgiveness, and who kept on sinning. He never abused the power entrusted to him and he was not afraid of putting himself in the position of powerlessness. For it is only when we are willing to be powerless over others that we gain true freedom and true power in our own life.
My former mentor no longer needs my forgiveness. He is at peace in the presence of the God who loved him even when I did not. And while I know myself also forgiven by God, I still regret my failure to love my mentor as myself.