Everybody needs forgiveness.
But it’s hard to face that. It feels threatening, like an accusation. So we tend to get defensive and start justifying ourselves, rather than seeing the one we’ve hurt.
If we’re honest, though, we all know that we’ve done things that have hurt others. Probably lots of things.
One thing that still haunts me from my past happened when I was just eight years old. There was an autistic boy at the after school program I was in, and one day I got so frustrated with him that I beat him up.
Now, I could look back at that as an adult and say that I was just a little kid then. I didn’t realize what I was doing. I was immature. I was terribly insecure, and didn’t know how to deal with my emotions properly.
All of that would be true. But that’s not how I feel. When I look back on that day, all I feel is deeply ashamed. Even back then, I knew that what I did was wrong. It grieves me to think of the pain I caused him.
I’m deeply sorry, but I don’t think I want forgiveness if that means saying it was okay. What I did, even though I was only eight years old, was just inexcusable, and I don’t want to get let off the hook.
With those thoughts of insecurity, shame, and unforgiveness in my head, I thought about what it would be like on the day of judgment. I imagined myself walking up to heaven’s gates, expecting to see Saint Peter. But as I drew closer, I was startled to see that the person standing there wasn’t Peter—it was that little boy. A cold pang of fear shot through my bones as I realized that the one who would be my judge was that little boy from all those years ago.
Trembling, I walked forward to face him. But as I drew closer, I saw something that stopped me cold in my tracks: He was cowering, shriveled up in pain. And at that moment, it hit me: I was not supposed to get past him, I was there to help him get in! This whole thing wasn’t for me, it was for him. It wasn’t my judgment day, so much as it was his redemption day. This was his day, and my part was to care more about helping him than about defending myself.
Now, in my dream no one was stopping the boy from going in. Those doors were wide open. But when we get hurt and wounded in life—whether those wounds come from other people’s cruelty, or from personal tragedy like an accident or an illness—this can cut us off from opening ourselves up to love. That pain can stop us from entering into life.
If that’s all true, then maybe judgement day is not about you or me defending ourselves, but about facing those we’ve hurt, and caring for their needs. Maybe the place we will find God is not in the judge’s seat, but kneeling alongside the broken, calling for us to join him there.
If you ever watch shows like Oprah you’ll hear forgiveness described as letting go of the hurt that others have done to you. They say it’s about not allowing that hurt to take over your life. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. At the same time, however, forgiveness is also about making things right, about mending the wrongs we’ve done.
My penance meant helping that boy to mend. It meant taking the focus away from me. Away from me trying to justify myself. Away from me wallowing in my own guilt.
It was never about me. And it’s not about you either. It’s about us.
It’s about learning to see the other person right across from us. It’s about focusing on relationship, rather than focusing on ourselves. That’s what forgiveness is about.
Derek Flood (TheRebelGod.com) holds a master’s in systematic theology and is a featured blogger on the Huffington Post.