The spiritual path is always easy until it isn’t easy. Forgiveness, for instance, is something that most people say is good, and it is extolled by nearly every religion. Yet when we are actually wronged, it can be so unspeakably difficult to choose forgiveness that it often seems like an unattainable ideal that human beings are simply not wired to embody. Yet I believe that forgiveness is literally inseparable from our relationship to God, and when we do not forgive, we do ourselves a great disservice.
Forgiveness is not merely a good sentiment, or even the “correct” thing to do. Rather, it is a profound spiritual principal that, when we choose it, has innumerable blessings to reveal. Forgiveness is a vast and profound topic, but in this post I’ll share my thoughts on five dimensions of it: forgiveness and health, forgiveness and God’s love, forgiveness and karma, forgiveness of yourself, and forgiveness and non-duality.
Before beginning, I want to briefly clarify that forgiveness sometimes must be given at a distance. It is sometimes unhealthy, or even dangerous, to continue a relationship with a person who harmed us. Yet, even if we permanently distance ourselves from someone, we should simultaneously strive to be free of all internal ill will. Forgiveness similarly does not mean that we cannot courageously stand up to injustice while simultaneously having compassion for the perpetrators of it. The remarkable lives of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. powerfully demonstrated this principal in modern times.
Lastly, it is important to note that forgiveness is sometimes a process. Sometimes people harm us so deeply that it may take years to reach a point of total inner forgiveness. We should not expect to be perfect all at once, or repress our natural feelings. Yet we should also set our compass due north, and recognize that forgiveness is the best option for all the reasons I will explore below. If you find yourself unable to forgive, I recommend praying, “Oh Lord, you are Love Itself. By Thy Grace, please give me the ability to forgive this person totally.” If you are sincere, I guarantee that God will hear your prayer and help you in ways that you could not help yourself
1. Forgiveness as a Strategy for a Healthy Life
The most surface-level perspective on forgiveness is that it is a good strategy for personal health. It is somewhat of a superficial perspective, but to me it is still worth mentioning. We have all been in a situation where someone wronged us, and there is no denying that being betrayed, physically hurt, or taken advantage of by someone else is inherently painful. Yet we often add to this pain by allowing the action to steal our mental tranquility weeks, months, and even years after the original event.
Instead of moving on internally, we allow thoughts of hatred to simmer: “He did this!” “She said that!” “She is a terrible person.” “I hope harm comes to him.” “I hope she pays for this.” When we think in this way, we constantly re-live the original pain, and stop ourselves from moving on. Regardless of the way you feel about God, this is simply an irrational strategy. It adds to our stress, re-vivifies trauma, steals our precious mental peace, and – perhaps most importantly – does absolutely nothing to change the reality of the situation.
This is why in the book of Proverbs it is written, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” What does this strange statement really mean, psychologically speaking? To me, “heaping hot coals” on your enemy refers to the fact that, by forgiving them, you are the one that wins. If their intention was to steal your happiness, you thwart their plan through forgiveness by refusing to let thoughts of hatred, which are naturally destructive, take root in your mind. If you succeed by internally forgiving your erring brother or sister, “The Lord will reward you” with inner peace that is the natural psychological byproduct of releasing negativity.
By now, it is a well established fact that anger and stress can contribute to physical illness. By practicing forgiveness, we can avoid illness, maintain our inner peace, and also refuse to let someone else’s actions determine our attitude. Such a strategy is far more rational than persisting in an attitude of hatred, for it’s not as if holding a grudge actually changes things. From this perspective we should be motivated to forgive, based simply on the inner peace and physical benefits that such an attitude naturally produces.
2. Forgiveness and the Personal God – Jesus’ Radical Teachings about Forgiveness
Forgiveness is not merely a strategy for health. For me, it is a principal so closely connected with my idea of God that to practice un-forgiveness is nothing short of spiritual hypocrisy. For forgiveness is not merely an act of God but, I believe, the very nature of God Himself. It is my deepest and most passionate conviction that God is love. He unconditionally loves all people equally, regardless of anything they have ever done or will ever do.
If God is love, how should that affect our attitude toward forgiveness? How can we claim to worship a God of love if we choose not to forgive those who wrong us? Jesus, that great Jewish prophet who exemplified the Way of Love, has much to teach us about this topic. In the teachings of Jesus, I have found a powerful expression of God’s love and forgiveness that is perhaps the most important aspect of his mission on Earth. The connection between Jesus and forgiveness is profound, and I will only briefly comment on a few significant sayings here.
Jesus taught that the Father’s love was impartial and, like the sun, rises “equally on the good and the evil.” Jesus also taught that the only rational response to the reality of God’s love is unlimited forgiveness toward His erring children. Once Peter asked him, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus famously answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” Jesus was obviously not literally saying that you should forgive someone who wrongs you up to 490 times; rather, he was using hyperbole to make the point that we should never, under any circumstance, harbor un-forgiveness in our heart, and forgive people in a manor that is unlimited.
After Jesus answered Peter, he went on to tell one of the most profound and emotionally stirring parables in the entire Bible. Because of its genius ability to make a complex philosophical point, I will share the entire parable rather than paraphrasing:
Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. “So my heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
What a brilliant and powerful spiritual teaching! Jesus reveals that forgiveness is so central to God’s Nature that to neglect forgiveness in our own life, and claim to worship God, is outright hypocrisy. When we do not forgive someone who wronged us, we are like the wicked servant who had his almost unimaginably large debt cancelled, but was willing to punish someone who refused to pay a debt that was astronomically smaller. To understand the parable fully, you must know that “10,000 talents” was worth millions of dollars in today’s money, whereas 100 denarii referred only a few dollars by comparison. Jesus was making the point that we have received an unimaginable amount of love and forgiveness from God. From this perspective, refusing to forgive one of His erring children reveals both a shameless form of ingratitude to God, and an of ignorance of His eternal qualities.
The end of the parable seems very harsh, but in my interpretation Jesus was not referring to God’s literal punishment. Rather, I believe he was metaphorically describing a psychological reality that is the inevitable and intrinsically hellish byproduct of un-forgiveness. When we do not forgive, we are “delivered” to the inner “torturers” of anger, hatred, and stress. These internal thoughts then manifest in our life mentally and physically in countless negative ways.
Jesus calls us to a higher state of spiritual living. Like Jesus, when you understand that the God is love, and that everyone is His equally dear child (however deeply they are in error), it naturally follows that – if we claim to worship God – we must make an effort forgive and practice unconditional love. In Jesus, we have a great example of such an attitude embodied. Jesus did not merely talk the talk, but walked the walk in an almost unimaginable way by maintaining this attitude of love, even toward the Roman soldiers who tortured him to death on the cross.
In the life of Jesus, God revealed that love and forgiveness must be unlimited and without condition if they are to be spiritually genuine. Perhaps the most powerful words ever uttered by a human tongue are when Jesus cried out on the cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing,” referring to people who were inflicting on him the most terrible form of injustice. Jesus was able to forgive in such an extreme circumstance, revealing that we all have the capacity to choose love, regardless of the situation. May all people be blessed with an inward revelation of God’s love, and, by His grace, learn abide in the inner state of unconditional love that the prophet Jesus so powerfully displayed to humankind!
3. Forgiveness and Karma
Yet another aspect of forgiveness is its relationship to the law of karma. In my book, Daily Bliss (free PDF above), I have more fully described my views on karma, which is a very complex subject. For this post, it is enough to say that I view karma as the universe’s impartial law of cause and effect, a law which governs the sphere of what we call morality. Our life today, with both its positive and negative aspects, is the result of our past karma both from this life and, I believe, from past lives.
This is a bold statement, but I say it with absolute conviction: anyone who takes revenge is simply ignorant of the law of karma. They do not understand that when someone harms us, harm will inevitably come back to that person in precise proportion to the wrong committed, with or without our participation. Part of why Jesus prayed, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” is because the Romans did not know that crucifying Jesus created terrible karma for themselves. If they truly understood the law of karma, they would never have done it.
We should not, of course, wish bad karma on anyone, but should also understand that we live in a universe governed by a strict justice system. The bad karma that accumulates from taking revenge not only is against our own interest, karmically speaking, but is unnecessary. For in this lifetime or another, the person who caused harm will surely re-experience it at some point, unless the Lord has mercy on them. This is why God says in the Bible, “Vengeance is Mine. I will repay.” People with wisdom understand that repayment for wrongs is something that the Universe takes care of on its own. But it is not as if God punishes, like Zeus throwing a bolt of lightening at “sinners.” Rather, every action we commit is a seed that bears fruit compatible with its own nature, and in due time we all “reap what we sow.” Simply put, those who intentionally harm will come to harm based upon the inexorable law of karma. We should have as little to do with this process as humanly possible, and simply choose love, even toward people committing the most wicked actions.
When we are wronged, we should first recognize that nothing happens to us that is outside of our own karma, and respond to the situation without harboring internal hatred. Secondly, we should refuse to take revenge, and, like Jesus, should ideally even pray for spiritual benefit of the person who wronged us. This may sound beyond human capacity, but anyone who limits the sphere of their compassion has simply never fully experienced God, the Sole Existence whose nature is Love Itself.
People who take revenge also do not understand that taking revenge will generate its own negative karmic cycle in their own life. Un-forgiveness and revenge create a terrible pattern. We are hurt, then we hurt back, then they hurt back, then we hurt back, and it goes on and on, even into future lives. The hard truth is that the only way to stop a negative karmic cycle is to simply choose love, and let the past go. There is no other way to be free.
The Buddha said in the Dhammapada, “Hatred cannot dispel hatred. Love alone can dispel hatred. This law is ineradicable.” This may sound overly philosophical, but we can clearly see in our world how simply this truth operates. We will never be fully free from negative karmic cycles, and from hatred, until we replace it with love and let go of our ego’s grudges. And if we intentionally cultivate internal grudges and/or take revenge, we should not expect to be fully happy. We should remember that forgiveness and love are aspects of the very nature of God. We should therefore not expect to receive the fullness of Divine blessings if we abide in these inveterate hindrances to human happiness that are themselves the antithesis of Divine Love. If people knew how much destructive karma comes from revenge and hatred, they would naturally renounce it with great joy and choose the higher Way of forgiveness.
4. Forgiveness of Yourself
Everything I say about forgiving others can also apply to ourselves. Many people torture themselves with guilt years after they have sincerely atoned for something harmful they did. With this in mind, I briefly want to mention a very important point: karma and my relationship with the Personal God are in two distinct spheres. While my behavior affects my karma, it does not affect God’s love for me. Nor, even, does my choice to abide in un-forgiveness, though I myself would suffer as a result. God’s love is changelessly unconditional, and He relates to us solely based on His grace alone.
This is good news! It means that you are already forgiven for every stupid thing you have ever done. If God has already forgiven you, you should forgive yourself, let go of unnecessary guilt, and know that self-condemnation is a lie that God never wants you to feel. You should never be afraid to go to God because you have done something wrong. Simply ask His forgiveness, make an effort to change your behavior, and know that you have already received forgiveness based upon His nature. He has never once been angry with you, and His love for you is constant, like the law of gravity. As Yogananda taught, we can pray, “Naughty or nice, oh Lord, I am still Thy child, and you love me always!”
If you glean anything from my rambling writings, I hope it is that God unconditionally loves you forever, has already forgiven you of every error, and relates to you exclusively with perfect Grace. His love does not negate, however, the reality of karma that simply creates impersonal effects from impersonal causes. The wise understand that both truths are two sides of the same coin.
5. Forgiveness and Non-Duality
So far, I have been discussing forgiveness from the perspective of the Personal God and karma. Yet perhaps the most important aspect of forgiveness is that it is a very pure expression of our God/Buddha Nature. It is perhaps the most reliable test for Divine realization. For, in my opinion, anyone who has ill will toward any person (even if they are terribly wronged), has not experienced what God actually is.
A sage perceives all beings – both good and bad – as their own Self, and also understands that only One alone exists; everyone is simply a different form of It. The Buddha taught that evil does not arise from a flaw in human nature, but from the root ignorance of thinking that we are a separate ego. A sage therefore does not renounce harming others to avoid evil karma, even though this is one important level of wisdom. Rather, a sage simply realizes that everyone and everything is a manifestation of God, and therefore is their own Self.
When, by the grace of God, you realize your own True Nature through the power of meditation, you will naturally lose interest in holding grudges. Enlightenment does not mean you are no longer a human being who feels pain. Rather, it means you are not only a human being. The One who we really are is changeless, and cannot be hurt by anyone who seeks to harm us. As Krishna says of the Self, or our True Nature, in the Bhagavad Gita, “Fire cannot burn It, nor can water wet It, nor wind dry It. It is constant, ever-present, firm, immovable, and eternal. It is said to be invisible, incomprehensible, immutable. Therefore, knowing it to be such, you art not right to grieve for It.” When you truly understand who you really are, you will no longer feel a need to cultivate hatred toward people who harm your illusory ego. When someone does harm us, we can simply feel, “That which I truly am is un-affected by this; yet what an excellent opportunity to practice compassion.”
From this perspective, un-forgiveness is simply a construct of the illusory ego that sages pay no attention to. If we have no ego to protect, why would we get upset when “we” are insulted? When we realize that the ego is an illusion, and that ultimately we are God Itself, we naturally treat everyone equally. As Krishna relates in the Bhagavad Gita, “Those who possess this wisdom have equal regard for all. They see the same Self in a spiritual aspirant and an outcaste, in an elephant, a cow, and a dog.”
I would add that they see the same Self in their best friend, their dearest family member, and also in the person who has wronged them the most. They have no ill will for the person who wronged them, and understand that such a person is simply ignorant of their own True Nature. May all beings meditate deeply, practice universal compassion, and realize that everyone is merely God in disguise!
Conclusion – Ain’t got Time for That
The last and most obvious thing to say is that un-forgiveness is simply a waste of your precious time. The purpose of having a human body is to realize God, and to complete His purpose for you on Earth. Nothing else matters in comparison. I have set my heart upon realizing God, and I don’t have time for petty human disputes that have, in the past, frittered away so much of my precious energy and time.
To conclude, I want to share a symbolic image I heard in a recent talk. Imagine a massive steel train rolling forward that passes through suburban neighborhoods at night. As it passes through, some tiny dogs begin barking at it, but the train keeps rolling. What a great picture! If people in your life hold you back, insult you, or harm you, let it go, and keep your train rolling. Keep it rolling, and pay no attention to the “small dogs,” to the small minded people who spend their precious time criticizing and insulting others. The only way to let them win is to let them steal your joy and cause you to revert to hatred. We have not come to Earth to settle scores, to get people’s approval, or to change the behavior of others. We have come to the Earth to realize the incomparable Bliss our Eternal Beloved, and we simply have no time to waste cultivating the spiritually useless habits of un-forgiveness, hatred, and revenge. Thanks for reading.
To God be praise forever! He is the sole Do-er and the Father/Mother of us all. Even His most misguided children are seeking the Everlasting Joy that He alone can bestow. May all beings awaken to the universal compassion that is the very essence of their own True Nature. May all beings choose love and forgiveness when tempted by the illusion of hatred! To God be praise forever! With love,
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