In a previous post, on "doing the right thing," I proposed that the reason we should follow the teachings of Jesus, and God's laws generally, is not for any reward in an after-life, or any material reward here on earth, but in order to achieve an immediate spiritual reward or spiritual peace. Today, I want to talk more specifically about the purpose of one of Jesus's more challenging commandments, that we forgive one another.
The doctrine of forgiveness shows up in a lot of different places, and in a lot of different ways. It is explicit in the Lord's Prayer, but it is also inherent in the commandments that we love our neighbors as ourselves, that we love our enemies, and that we not judge others, because you can't love someone without also forgiving them, and you can't forgive someone while also judging them. Forgiveness is also central to the Quaker "Peace Testimony," which is not just about rejecting violence but also about rejecting hate, anger, resentment, greed, and other emotions that lead to violence.
But why are we to forgive one another? What is the purpose, and what is achieved?
When I hear others speak about forgiveness, it almost always sounds like something we are supposed to do for the benefit of the person forgiven. In other words, it is just a variation on the "be nice to others" theme. But why are we to be nice to others?
Forgiveness is also sometimes advocated (and criticized) because the "world will be a better place" if everyone did it. This is something I often hear from skeptics about the Quaker "Peace Testimony," which is that I am under the delusion that, if I stop fighting then my enemy will stop fighting, and if I disarm then my enemy will also disarm. But that is not what I believe at all.
Along the same lines, forgiveness is also sometimes presented as a matter of self-interest, based on the belief that, if we forgive, we will also be forgiven. This seems like a natural conclusion for statements such as "Judge not, that ye not be judged," and the "Golden Rule," which allows at least the implication that if we treat others as we would like to be treated, they might do the same.
All of these things might be ancillary results of forgiveness, but are not the central purpose of forgiveness, which I believe is our own spiritual peace, which I call "salvation."
Anger, resentment, and judgments are spiritual burdens, and angry, resentful, and judgmental people are unhappy people. It is only by letting go of our anger, resentment, or judgments towards others that we can be at peace with ourselves, and perhaps also at peace with them. And that means forgiving them.
In my own life, I have learned that peace and contentment come only when I have given up my point of view. I was reminded of this just this morning, because I had been turning over a dispute over and over again in my mind for several days, and was very troubled about how to prevail in the dispute, and this morning I realized that what was most troubling about the arguments that kept going through my head was that I felt mean and petty as I voiced them in my head. To be at peace, I need to let go of my emotions towards my opponents and forgive them.
So forgiveness is not something we do for others, but something we do for ourselves. Its purpose is our spiritual peace, and our salvation.