RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#26 in a series)
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Some people seem more stubborn from birth, and some are more easy-going. So do some have an easier time forgiving because of that ‘bent’ in their personalities? Or is it a combination of things, including one’s bent and one’s training?
What the question calls a “bent” is what developmental psychologists call temperament — a set of inborn biological predispositions to respond to the world in particular ways. Some parenting books would have you believe that you can treat all your children the same way and achieve the same result. But even siblings can be radically different from the get-go. One child, for example, may respond to everyday frustrations with relative calm, while the other responds with a meltdown. Parents need to make allowances in their parenting practices accordingly.
How might this apply to the matter of forgiveness? I do think it’s possible for some people to have an easier time “forgiving” because of their temperament. But I’ve put the word in scare quotes because it’s important to be careful about what this means.
By inborn temperament, some people are more emotionally reactive than others. In other words, the exact same stimulus provokes a stronger reaction in person A than it does in person B. This is further complicated by the question of how often and how strongly a child is provoked. That combination of temperament and environment can eventually lead to vast differences between children: one develops hair-trigger reactions and finds it difficult to deal with negative emotions; another has milder reactions to begin with and finds it easier to let things go.
Why does it matter? Because “forgiveness” is a word that carries moral weight, and I’m guessing that the question itself has some such suggestion behind it. The fact that forgiveness is easier for some means that it’s harder for others, and raises the question of how blameworthy a person might be for being slow to forgive.
There’s no simple answer. But let’s think about it from both sides. None of this is to say that people should be given a “pass” on Jesus’ command to forgive. But it does mean that empathy and compassion are in order, and these should temper our tendency to rush to judgment when we see someone struggling to forgive.
From the other side, what if we are the ones struggling? As Christians, we may have heard over and over again how important it is to forgive others. We may have been told directly that we’re hypocritical failures as disciples if we don’t forgive quickly and completely (and yes, sometimes we are told this by people who are trying to manipulate us into ignoring their evil). If that is so, then our battle is on two fronts. The first, obviously, is the battle to forgive.
But the second and more insidious battle may be against shame: shame for being a “bad Christian,” shame for not being able to forgive the way we’re supposed to.
To some extent, shame can be the mark of a healthy conscience. But shame without grace is deadly. It makes us hide our true selves and pretend to be people that we’re not, which only makes our relationships more complicated and confusing.
What we need in such a situation is compassion for ourselves, grounded in the loving grace of God. We cannot be who we aspire to be without first acknowledging the truth of who we are, and we may not be able to tolerate that truth without the sure knowledge that we are loved by God.
I know that I have been forgiven, we may need to tell ourselves. And I want to be more forgiving. But it’s hard for me. I don’t let go of things easily. I feel the constant need to protect myself. Lord, help! Thank you that you love me for who I am, right in this very moment. Help me not to hide that from myself or others, so that I can be free to learn to be more like you.
Forgiveness can be difficult. But miracles are possible for those who truly know themselves to be forgiven.