During a recent meeting of a synagogue study group, the discussion turned to apologies and forgiveness.
This aftermath-of-Yom-Kippur question was: How can God forgive us our sins against others if they have refused to accept our apologies? Even after three tries, that burden still hasn’t been lifted from us. I listened quietly, thinking back to a recent Rotary Club meeting at which one of our members, a Baptist minister, enlightened us with the attitudes he presents to his congregation about both matters at hand.
Forgiveness is not, he told us, the same as a pardon. And it is not a decision about who was right and who was wrong in the situation being addressed. The person being asked to forgive doesn’t need to excuse his petitioner for any wrong committed, and need not promise forgetting. (I remember visiting the site of Japan’s infamous Changi Prison in Singapore, now a museum testifying to horrors of World War II other than our own Holocaust, where this line penned by a surviving woman is prominently displayed: “I will forgive,” she wrote, “but I cannot forget.”)
When the wronged person says “I forgive you,” she or he makes these promises: not to dwell on the incident or talk to others about it; not to bring it up again to be used against the petitioner, and — probably hardest of all — not to let it get in the way of a future interpersonal relationship.
In order to earn forgiveness, the petitioner must offer an apology containing these elements:
- acknowledging that the person she is asking has been hurt in some way
- telling what she is asking forgiveness for, which means specifying both her attitudes and actions concerning the matter
- accepting its consequences
- and, finally, promising a future change of behavior in similar situations.
Only then should the petitioner actually ask for forgiveness. But she must be aware that there is always the possibility that one of the consequences to be accepted is a refusal by the person being asked to forgive.
My minister friend spelled the process out on a simple chart that looks like this:
On (insert date, time, place as appropriate), I (here, specifically name the offense).
I know, and I acknowledge, that I (hurt you, caused you pain, or whatever expression is most honest).
I realize that I will have to accept the consequences of my actions.
In the future, I will (specify how she or he will alter his/her behavior) in order to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.
And only then, ask: Will you please forgive me?
Completeness, he says, is crucial: “Be sure to confess your entire contribution to the incident. Remember: Even if you are responsible for only 10 percent of the conflict situation you’re trying to resolve, you are 100 percent responsible for your 10 percent!” And he adds that a “transactional” forgiveness must actively involve both the offender and the offended; there is always the unfulfilling possibility that the offended will actually forgive in his/her heart, but the offender will not even know about it.
My minister friend concluded his “homily” to Rotary with this reminder: “Every conflict, no matter how hard or painful it is, offers an opportunity to be a peacemaker, and to strengthen relationships by asking for and granting forgiveness.”
It seems to me that if no forgiveness is sought, no apology offered, the person charged at our High Holy Days to set things right with his/her fellows is not doing as the season demands; such avoidance is an ineffective strategy of escape.
But the person asking forgiveness always faces the possibility that the answer received may be “No.”
So we’re advised to try three times, after which, I sincerely believe, God acknowledges the effort by shifting the burden of the hurtful commission from the one asking to the one refusing. My Baptist friend has helped me find this Jewish answer to the sincere question raised in our study group!