Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Forgiving a Ghost

My friend Mark wrote about forgiveness this morning.  My initial response was , "My quandary is who is going to forgive God, who may need it most, and deserve it the least, whether he/she is real or not."  While forgiveness as related to the Bible doesn't feel especially relevant to me, I am interested in the idea of how best to let go of unhealthy anger.  Because forgiveness isn't about the perpetrator, it's about the victim.

The way I process it, forgiveness is an emotional realization rather than a conscious choice.  In Mark's story, writing a letter of forgiveness didn't accomplish anything, certainly not forgiveness.  Forgiveness seems to be a point that's arrived at over time, sometimes unknowingly.  Eventually the wrongdoings of another no longer evoke emotions of anger or distrust, and that person can be approached with the same charity that's given to everyone else. 

One way in which atheism has been helpful to me is that the horrors around us are much simpler to process.  There are causes and effects, rights and wrongs, but no cosmic scheme that has to fit within the problem.  In retrospect, the Christian concept of forgiveness seems quite unhealthy.  As Mark wisely points out, instant forgiveness of any offense can't be reasonably expected.  Where I think Christianity puts the brakes on too early is in regards to forgiving God herself.

Many folks have written at length about how they've forgiven God.  But the underlying assumption is that God hasn't actually done anything wrong.  It's the perception of being wronged that required forgiveness, not an actually wrong act.  When a young child dies for no reason at all, anger at God is okay, so long as one accepts that God hasn't (or can't) done anything wrong.  I think this is victim-blaming behavior, and can't be healthy for us.  Even if God exists, and there is a divine plan, there has still been pain inflicted.  And how much more offensive to be harmed by a being that can supposedly do anything, loves infinitely, and has made astounding promises. 

For the believer, there are multiple places in the Bible where believers are promised things in exchange for their faith.  Metaphors like being able to move mountains, or that if one asks sincerely, they will receive what they ask for.  We all know this isn't true.  There are theologies built around how to justify God's promises being broken, but they're still justifications.  Promise made, promise broken.  Broken promises require a response; Can God be forgiven, and if so, what does that mean?

My process with forgiving God has been mostly subconscious.  Realizing I didn't believe, it was incredibly easy to let go of the problem of evil.  Evil wasn't a problem because I didn't have to explain why God lets things happen to good people.  What I did have to let go of (and still do) is the disappointment of realizing my paradigm was wrong.  I have found forgiving a theoretical being to be as difficult as forgiving a real one. 

As a poor analogy, my daughter used to sprinkle oatmeal and glitter on the lawn for Santa's reindeer at Christmas time.  When she learned that Santa wasn't real, she asked who ate the oatmeal, and why we had let her put food on the grass.  She easily transitioned from one paradigm to another, and understood why we let her have her fairy tales.  How much more difficult would it have been if she believed Santa had conversations with her in head.  How would she have reacted if her whole life we had given her letters from Santa, full of stories and rules written just for her?  I suspect the transition would have been harder, and she would have resented us for leading her along.

So it has been for me with God.  While I can accept that the people who fed me the fables were sincere in their own beliefs, and believed they were doing what was best for me, it's easier to forgive them than to forgive the supposed receiver of my prayers, who turned out to be a ghost.  I imagine that eventually I'll realize my emotions have realized what my intellect already knows - being mad at an imaginary friend is ridiculous, and serves no purpose.


  1. To forgive God implies that God has done something to harm the individual who is doing the forgiving, that God is actively involved in the day to day aspects of living. If so where is the free will and what is the point to it all. I suspect that God went out for a smoke several thousand years ago and has not come back yet. Instead he inspired prophets like Christ and Buddha to point the way to personal enlightenment and growth. The world is an uncertain place and the concept of fairness is a human construct just as the concept of evil is a societal one. Once this is understood forgiveness takes on a new light and a new meaning. People are not born evil they are just born with the capacity to do evil as society defines it. I forgive people who do harm to myself or people I love because I understand they do not know any better or are unable to control themselves. This however does not imply that I do not believe societal justice should not be enacted.

  2. I've found old concepts lurk like ghosts in the cobwebs, even after I've swept my mind clean. Do any of these jump up, like default modes for you? It's the same when I forgive someone who has truly hurt me. Wisps of unforgiveness reappear. Those ghosts are hard to exterminiate. Memory of fear and pain is deep-seated in our reptilian brain, to protect us from repeated harm. Christian forgiveness implies performing an act which may not be fully possible in light of our biology. Even secular psychologists recommend forgiveness, but they offer little science around how to accomplish it. I hope they someday will. It's very complex and difficult.

  3. Forgiveness is difficult, even if it is logical. Due to something traumatic that happened in my youth, I am driven to be against gay marriage. I won't be militant about it but I firmly believe that the act is wrong. However, as a logical person and a liberal, I know that there is no real justification for holding this grudge. There is no reason to believe all people act the same way as one individual. Interesting battle I have about this issue.