The second great difficulty that our human nature and our worldly way of regarding things pose for the exercise of forgiveness is due to our vanity.
We’re all aware – aren’t we? – of the enormous effort and vigilance and determination it takes to do good anonymously. Doing good itself is relatively easy: every hour of every day offers abundant opportunity. There are many people – and God bless them – who fill their days with doing good things for others.
But what’s psychologically very difficult for most people is to do good in the complete absence of any recognition.
This is, of course, not limited to altruistic behavior. It is almost a part of the definition of what it is to be human that we live our lives in the constant sense that others are paying attention to us, and are admiring or forming a positive opinion of us, whether it be in athletics or art or politics or education or courting or just simple conversation. Even at the pathological extreme, the supposed audience doesn’t disappear, it is simply internalized and then projected.
Doing good for others does not escape this net. We’re all familiar with the phenomenon commonly called ‘humble bragging’ or ‘false modesty.’ Most of us are probably aware of it in ourselves. It amounts to presenting oneself to one’s audience with the point of winning their approval or admiration, while disguising that intention. It’s a variety of vanity, and in social terms, relatively harmless, often even humorous.
But in spiritual terms, it is deadly, because it is also a variety of hypocrisy, of feigned innocence. There is literally nothing against which Jesus warns us more strongly, even though, again, from the world’s view, it seems relatively benign.
When you fast, do it cheerfully. When you pray, do it secretly. These are ways of saying that, above all things, your own good deeds must not be corrupted by any element of self-publicity, of seeking the admiration of others. To the extent they are, the weight of their goodness, in heaven’s calculation, is diminished. Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…
Forgiveness tests the limit of our obedience to that instruction. When someone has wrongly harmed you, even after you have mustered the determination to forgive that person, there remains a well-nigh irresistible human desire that someone recognize your determination, that someone applaud your magnanimity, first and foremost the person you have determined to forgive.
In our illustration, my neighbor, having forgiven me, immediately offers an invitation to come inside and have a muffin. What is she doing here? She is restoring our prior relationship as neighbors by deflecting all attention from the act of kindness she has just shown towards me. She is deflecting my attention away from my feelings of guilt and relief and gratitude. What she is doing in offering me a muffin is even greater than the act of generosity itself: having shouldered my burden, she is now healing me.
And just so as we move back into the spiritual realm. When forgiving someone for harm done to oneself, the very most important element is that it be accomplished, so to say, anonymously. In practical terms, that means behaving towards the person in question, in so far as possible, as if the harm had never occurred.
That, in fact, is what forgiveness is, spiritually speaking. It is shouldering the burden of the damage done, and inflicting no further damage. The damage and pain that result from spiritual wickedness and carelessness cannot be undone. They are eternal. Forgiveness does not remove them, nothing can do that. What forgiveness does is bring them to a conclusion, embalm them with love’s ointment, and leave them behind.
The world offers many ways of dealing with evil individuals, but forgiveness is God’s only method of dealing with the evil within them.