No gift of Heaven has been more misunderstood than has forgiveness.
A Course in Miracles
Thus far we have seen how A Course in Miracles fills familiar spiritual teachings with radical new meanings that change our minds about the kind of God we believe in. These new meanings, that primarily change us, not God, also turn out to change the way in which we pray. In particular, they turn out to have a transformational effect on the way in which we pray for forgiveness.
Everyone knows that the most fundamental of all Christian teachings is the idea of forgiveness. We have already said that Jesus himself was the great symbol of forgiveness. Yet the Course says that no other gift of God has been more misunderstood than forgiveness. Its traditional use has made a mockery of what Jesus taught and God intended. What was to function as a healing agent has become an instrument of guilt. Its purpose therefore now suits the ego far more than God. It tears down rather than builds up and turns God's mercy into a twisted knife that would destroy the holy Son He loves. (Song of Prayer-2.I.2: 6).
In this chapter we will examine what the Course calls True Forgiveness versus the Forgiveness to Destroy promoted by this world and the Three Steps to Forgiveness. Along the way we’ll gain new insight into what it means to “overlook sin,” and how it is impossible to forgive others without forgiving ourselves.
Forgiveness to Destroy
Jesus says that the kind of forgiveness that is traditionally taught by the world is the kind that tears down rather than builds up. This is why he calls it forgiveness to destroy. It’s more about disparagement and denigration than it is about mercy. It’s more about vengeance and reinforcing guilt than it is about absolution. Following are four examples of how the world’s forgiveness destroys.
1. We’ve all experienced situations in which we believed we were “wronged.” Perhaps we felt someone “cheated” us or betrayed our trust in some way. These are the exact situations that are dear to the heart of the ego and its forgiveness to destroy. It seeks them out in order to “prove” that you, the injured, innocent party, are subject to the evil that exists in the other person. Here the ego uses forgiveness to destroy to teach you to “forgive” the other party for two reasons: one, because he or she is “guilty” of injuring you; and two, because he is inherently inferior to you, as his guilt proves. Your ego tells you that you are “better than he” and therefore you mustn’t “stoop” to his level by counter attacking.
Jesus says that while this kind of “forgiveness” appears to be doling out mercy what it’s really dolling out is arrogance. With this kind approach we purport to forgive but secretly despise our offender and want “what goes around to come around” to him. Jesus asks us to consider how it could possible for us to forgive and hate someone at the same time. Forgiveness and hate are irreconcilable. We can either forgive someone or denounce him. We can’t do both things at the same time. Jesus says, as long as we hate and seek revenge for what was “done to us” we are being arrogant not forgiving. Moreover, the hate we harbor in our hearts blocks the flow of love in our own lives and imprisons us as much as it does our “offender.”
2. Another kind of forgiveness to destroy is the kind where we forgive another person not because we feel like we are “better than he or she” but because we feel we are “just like him.” In this situation we empathize with the other person’s weakness so much that we feel we have to forgive him. Our own guilt tells us we are as unworthy and deserving of punishment as he is, but we absolve him because we want to be absolved ourselves.
Jesus says that this kind of forgiveness may appear to be humble but it’s actually just as arrogant as the first type. Why? because self condemnation is no different than condemnation of another. They both deny the truth of who and what we really are. This kind of condemnation is the ego’s vicious attack upon the integrity of the Self. It is constantly looking for ways to negate the truth about us and make us feel unworthy and deserving of punishment. What’s worse, we are constantly listening to and believing what it says. The low opinion of ourselves that we buy into on a regular basis is what Jesus tells us is one of our biggest problems. He is asking us to let go of all this self degradation because it is precisely this self degradation that is hiding the truth from our awareness.
Weakness is an attribute made up by our ego not by God. Furthermore, God does not punish or despise us for our weaknesses. We do. We are always underestimating and undervaluing ourselves and investing our faith in what we made instead of what God made. The truth is you are the glorious reflection of God. You are His Son. There is nothing you can do today, tomorrow or yesterday that could ever destroy or even remotely threaten what God has made perfect. Only the ego has the nerve to claim this. Only the ego can be this arrogant. This doesn’t mean we should deny our “wrongdoings.” It means we should not fall into the trap of identifying with them.
The most wholesome response to the weaknesses we find in ourselves is to pray to God that He find new purpose in them. Then our weaknesses can become our blessings and the very means by which we can uncover our lost, eternal true selves. As the great Mahatma Gandhi’s said, My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as are my successes and talents and I lay them both at his feet.
3. There is another type of forgiveness to destroy that is particularly insidious. This type of “forgiveness” is the kind offered by the martyr who “suffers in silence” at the hands of another.” Here’s what Jesus says about martyrdom:
…whenever you consent to suffer pain, to be deprived, unfairly treated or in need of anything, you but accuse your brother of attack upon God's Son. You hold a picture of your crucifixion before his eyes, that he may see his sins are writ in Heaven in your blood and death, and go before him, closing off the gate and damning him to hell. (Text -27 .I . 3-6.)
One can clearly see that the “martyr’s” sacrifice is in reality an act of cruel condemnation not saintly charity. It secretly seeks to destroy the other person not build him up. Rather than pardoning the other person the martyr is tacitly justifying his or her reasons for resenting her. The overall purpose of martyrdom is to make one’s self look good at another person’s expense.
4. Another form of forgiveness to destroy is the kind that attempts to make bargains with the one who’s supposedly “injured” you. This masquerade for forgiveness says “I’ll forgive you if you do such and such or give me such and such. This twisted version of “forgiveness” turns it into a vehicle of slavery rather than one of freedom. Jesus says that anything that purports to take away freedom is not forgiveness.
No gift of Heaven has been more misunderstood than has forgiveness. (Song of Prayer -2.I.1) The reason for this is that the ego is so clever at twisting forgiveness into a tool of condemnation rather than one of mercy. Yet Jesus tells us forgiveness is the very means by which we can return to God. In fact he teaches us that forgiveness is the singular ingredient that actually potentiates our prayers. Forgiveness offers wings to prayer, to make its rising easy and its progress swift. (Song of Prayer -2.in.1)
True forgiveness is the greatest help that God ordained for us. In this regard, forgiveness is not something that is possible for us to do on our own. True forgiveness is something that is done for us by the mercy of God and through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. A more complete discussion of how the Holy Spirit works through us will occur in Chapter 5. For now we’ll pay attention to the remedy God gives us for forgiveness to destroy and some of the other attributes of true forgiveness.
1. True forgiveness is something that is done for us by the mercy of God and through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. we cannot do it on our own. We need God’s help. When we pray to ask for His help the remedy He gives us through the Holy Spirit is what Jesus calls Christ’s vision. When Christ’s vision is restored to our minds we are able to see beyond what anyone does to us all the way through to the truth of who and what they really are. Our Christ vision sees no guilt at all and so asks for no recompense. Christ is for all because He is in all. (Song of Prayer -2.II.7:7). What is actually happening is that Christ’s vision is restoring our awareness of the truth of who and what we really are. Once we recall the truth about ourselves we recognize that our case in mistaken identity has been forgiven. Now it is impossible for us to continue to purport arrogance, justify resentment, seek retaliation, be a martyr, or make demands of any kind. When we awaken to the truth we demand nothing from others because we need nothing. We want only to give. And what we give is the remedy that has been given to us – true forgiveness through Christ’s vision.
When we receive God’s remedy the idea that we are justified in attack or holding grievances of any kind vanishes from our minds. Our perception of the situation shifts. We no longer worry about what to do or say in order to forgive. Christ’s vision gives us the means to forgive through the Holy Spirit. Our part is to get out of the way. He knows what everyone involved needs in order for forgiveness to be accomplished. Through the voice of the Holy Spirit He tells us what to say and what to do. We don’t have to worry about a thing. Thus true forgiveness is Christ’s function, not ours.
Does this mean that we suddenly we approve of murderers and rapists etc. Does it mean that we blithely allow ourselves to be taken advantage of by those who are unjust? No. It doesn’t. It merely means that instead of seeing what they did as deserving of punishment we are given the ability to see it as a mistake that needs correction. We don’t see them as guilty. Our eyes are opened to seeing them as having forgotten who they really are. We don’t judge them as despicable. We are given the gift of seeing them as calling for love. When someone calls for love the Holy Spirit answers that call through us. He is the one who decides on the form the forgiveness will take. He is the one that makes our hearts, minds and actions right.
2. True forgiveness doesn’t change the other person. True forgiveness changes us. How does it do that? by reminding us that it is impossible for our peace to be taken from us. A heart that is changed by true forgiveness recognizes that inner peace is not dependent upon circumstances or other people. God’s peace is unchangeable. We can deny it but we can’t alter it in any way. The only way we can lose our peace is through our decision to let it go. Circumstances or other people may appear to rob us of our peace. But in the end they are merely justifications for our decision to let go of God’s peace in the first place. A mind that is changed by true forgiveness now sees these circumstances as vehicles for once again choosing the peace of God.
True forgiveness doesn’t mean that we lack compassion for tragic circumstances or that we approve of or support bad behavior. What it does mean is that our healed perception recognizes that whatever happened it didn’t happen to us. Our true self is invulnerable. Therefore it whatever happened didn’t really harm us. Nothing can ever really harm us. Nor can anyone ever do anything to us that changes us. Why? because the truth cannot be changed. When true forgiveness fills our hearts we perceive those who perpetrate “evil” as those who have forgotten the truth about themselves. In their forgetting they may make grievous mistakes but when they do they are only hurting themselves not us. When our hearts become hosts of true forgiveness we remember that what happens to us in this world doesn’t matter. It’s our resentment over what happens that matters. True forgiveness locks the door on resentment.
3. True forgiveness is always self forgiveness. When we forgive, we’re never really forgiving anyone but ourselves. Why? because the sins we condemn in others are the sins we have first condemned in ourselves.
When we are unforgiving we are full of fear and uncertain of our own identity. Confused about who we really are we are unsure of what to do. Jesus says we’re terrified of the dark and more afraid of the light. We don’t know whether to go forward or backward. We want to live yet we wish we were dead. The only thing we’re sure of is our own condemnation. We think our only escape from the punishment we deserve is to project our guilt onto events outside ourselves. Our projected fear makes us perceive things that seem to be attacking us. Worse still, our unforgiving minds are unwilling to question the judgments that we make about these things.
A mind that is filled with true forgiveness is willing to question its judgments. True forgiveness is open-minded. Open mindedness makes way for Christ’s vision to shine through us. It makes way for the Holy Spirit to use the people and circumstances of our lives to teach us to reclaim our peace. It uses them to teach us to forgive others in order to forgive ourselves.
4. True forgiveness gives up the idea that another person has “wronged” us in any way. It recognizes …,
… what you thought your brother did to you has not occurred. It does not pardon sins and make them real. It sees there was no sin. And in that view are all your sins forgiven. (Workbook - pII.1.1)
What is this really saying? Is it saying that your husband or wife didn’t cheat on you, that your mother or father didn’t abuse you; that your son or daughter wasn’t raped? Is it saying that murder doesn’t happen and wars are all in our imagination? Is it making a mockery out of justice?
No it isn’t saying or doing any of this. If you go back and read the quote carefully you’ll see that it says that what you thought your brother did to you did not occur. It’s not saying that an event did or didn’t happen. It’s saying what you thought happened didn’t happen. It’s giving you a way of seeing what happened through Christ’s vision instead of yours.
This is why true forgiveness doesn’t pardon sins. Pardoning sins makes the sins real. It gives power to what is false in the first place. True forgiveness doesn’t make our enemies wrong and then struggle to “overlook” what they have done by refraining to punish them. It doesn’t see wrong in them in the first place. It sees there was no sin. It sees only a call for love and so responds with love.
You may be thinking “this all sounds good but it’s just too lofty of an idea for me to swallow.” I’m on your side. I have felt the same way too. But try to let this idea in if only for a moment. We think bad things happen to us because we are so identified with our bodies. We think what happens to our bodies happens to us. But we are not our bodies. We are the ones using our bodies. In the same way, we are not our livelihoods, our possessions, our money. We are not our hurt feelings. We are not our lost reputation. We are not our blind eyes or our paralyzed legs. We are not our injuries. We are not our cancer. We are not the abuses we suffered as children. We are not even our gender. We are not our bodies. We are spirit. As spirits we are invulnerable to the happenings of this world. We are God’s Son. His one eternal love. Complete and healed and whole. And who we are can never, ever change or be taken from us in any way shape or form.
Three Steps to Forgiveness
As was already said forgiveness is a gift from God that offers wings to prayer, to make its rising easy and its progress swift. If this is the case, the question is how do we accept the wings of prayer? How do we make a welcoming place in our hearts for forgiveness? The Course says there are three steps to praying for forgiveness:
1. The first step is a prayer to forgive the other person. Actually it is a prayer that asks that it be shown to us how what we have condemned in another is what we have first condemned in ourselves. What we are actually praying for is that we be shown how to withdraw our projection from the event in order that we may take responsibility for our part. In this step our prayer might sound something like:
Please help me to be at peace.
Help me to see that the problem that I face is in me
not in the situation or the person.
It is my perception that has caused my loss of peace.
Please heal my perception.
This prayer asks that the problem be brought back to the only place where it can be resolved – in our mind. Why is this so? Because our problem is never what we think it is. Our problem is always our belief in our problem. The ego wants us to think that the answer to our problem is outside ourselves. But the answer is always within. God placed the remedy within our mind. Therefore the only place where our mistaken perceptions can be healed is within our mind.
2. The second step entails asking for help in healing our perception of ourselves. It asks for help in abandoning our false perception of ourselves in favor of our true Self. Here our prayer sounds something like:
What I have chosen and decided has cost me the vision
of who and what I really am.
Now I ask for help from the Holy Spirit to
Undo the consequences of my wrong decision.
3. The third step calls for the Holy Spirit to do everything else. The only thing we have to do is give him what Jesus calls our “little willingness” that he may bridge our little willingness with the willingness of God. In the third step to forgiveness our prayer sounds as simple as:
I give everything to the Holy Spirit. Please let him decide for God for me.
One can see that the first two steps entail our decision to change. The last step entails our decision to let the Holy Spirit change us. Each of these steps are based on a prayer that Jesus teaches us in the Course and urges us to use any time we feel we have lost our peace.
I must have decided wrongly, because I am not at peace. I made the decision myself, but I can also decide otherwise. I want to decide otherwise, because I want to be at peace. I do not feel guilty, because the Holy Spirit will undo all the consequences of my wrong decision if I will let Him. I choose to let Him by allowing Him to decide for God for me. (Text – t.VII.6:7-1 1)
1. Explain how you agree or disagree with the Course’s view of true forgiveness. Give examples that support your thoughts.
2. Re-write one of your own prayers for forgiveness in light of the true forgiveness taught by the Course. Show the before and after examples here:
Sit in a comfortable chair, feet flat on the floor, eyes closed. Put your attention on your breathing. Follow it’s gentle rising and falling until you notice that it and your heart rate have slowed down. Affirm your intention to let God’s gift of true forgiveness come through your heart and give wings to your prayers.
Now in your mind’s eye
Select someone you fear or even hate; someone you think you love who angered you; someone you call a friend, but whom you see as difficult at times or hard to please, demanding, irritating or untrue to the ideal you set up for him.. Regard his body with its flaws and better points as well, and think of his mistakes and even of his "sins." Review his/her faults, the difficulties you have had, the pain or neglect and hurts he or she has created.
Affirm your decision to take back your projection from this person. Affirm your decision take back your peace. Pray to the One who knows this Son of God in his reality and truth that you may look on him in a different way, and see him through Christ’s eyes shining in the light of true forgiveness. Ask Him in the name of Jesus:
Please heal my perception of the situation and the person involved. Let me see him or her through the eyes of Christ. Let me see his or her innocence instead of their guilt; Let me see them as part of myself.
Affirm your desire to refuse to let this person’s light be hidden behind your justification for resentment or by the grievance you hold.
Let my mind behold the light in this person that is beyond all my anger.
Now picture a pure white light radiating above this person’s head, showering down over him or her and filling his entire being. See him showered with love, attention, good health and all the time to enjoy these gifts. See him enjoying himself or receiving whatever you think he would perceive as a good thing for him. Pray to the Holy Spirit:
Let me give everything in this situation to you.
Please decide for God for me.
Now rest in certainty and patience that your prayer will be answered. What you have asked for cannot be denied because what you have asked for is the truth. It is the only kind of prayer which reaches God who loves all His sons. God thanks you for your prayer. Become aware of how much more relaxed and at peace you feel now. Open your eyes feeling relieved and ready to let the wings of true forgiveness have a transformational, easy and swift effect on your life.
1 adapted from Lesson 78 in the Workbook of A Course in Miracles.