Last night, I attended one of my multiple weekly Bible studies. We've been going through a series on marriage relationships, and this week and last week focused on how to handle conflict. Last night, the primary focus seemed to be on forgiveness. For a while we discussed the difference between apologizing to someone and asking for forgiveness, but I was more interested in the discussion about what it means to offer forgiveness, even if, or especially if, it isn't deserved.
When it comes to the difference between an apology and asking for forgiveness, I think of the apologies my parents trained my brother and I to offer each other. A large majority of our altercations over the years have been physical. Our parents taught us to apologize specifically for our part in the conflict, acknowledge wrongdoing, and ask for forgiveness. When we were younger, I'm not sure we really grasped the purpose, since I can remember multiple occasions of hurriedly blurting "I'm sorry, I was wrong, will you forgive me?" at each other without any real intentionality. Despite this, however, the training stuck with us, and molds how we resolve conflict in more recent years as well. Just this last summer we used this model to overcome a conflict by getting to a point where we each acknowledged the part we'd played in the argument, whether it was intentional or reactionary. It doesn't always solve our problems, but we have a model to fall back on when we need it, and that's been a help over the years.
When it comes to offering forgiveness when it isn't deserved, one specific instance comes to mind, and it was all I could think about last night. When I was sixteen, I had just moved back to the United States after three years in England. I had made a friend in the youth group of our church that I had interests in common with, and we did almost everything together for the first six months or so that I lived there. A large portion of our friendship was me putting effort into us getting together and hanging out, and receiving no reciprocal effort from her end. To put it bluntly, she was a flake. My mother recognized this early on, and encouraged me to make additional friends, probably based on the very real fear that this relationship might eventually dissolve.
The winter following my move to the area, I went on a youth retreat with our church. My friend and I had planned to room together for the weekend, but there were to be four teenagers to a room at the hotel. In this case, the four were myself, my friend, and her two best friends since kindergarten. Having been a military brat my entire life, being around people who had known each other that well for that long was already a foreign concept. However, I was completely unprepared to be so thoroughly abandoned by the closest friend I had at that point. I spent the entire weekend alone, periodically in the company of other youth that seemed to realize I had no one to hang out with. My friend and her best friends only saw me at bedtime and for breakfast, then they would run off for the rest of the day without thinking of me. I had no idea how to handle it, and when I returned home, I told my parents about what had happened, but tried to downplay it as much as I could. I was upset, but I didn't know how to react or how to move forward. I tried to act like nothing had happened, but I couldn't really hang out with my friend anymore after that without feeling betrayed.
The hardest part about this situation was that she had no idea she'd done anything wrong. I felt owed an apology, and I wanted her to acknowledge she had hurt me so we could close the book on that particular chapter. Unfortunately, she did no such thing, and we continued to grow further and further apart. By then I had made other friends, a group of five girls, most of whom I'm still good friends with, and one guy that has remained one of my best friends for going on six years. Still, I hadn't been able to let go of this particular wrong that had been done to me, even though the statute of limitations was clearly up. I couldn't bring it up a year after the fact, and I was still holding onto the ludicrous hope that she might one day wake up and realize how much she had hurt me and come apologize.
I don't know what it was, or even when, but at some point, I discovered that one does not need to be apologized to in order to extend forgiveness. I didn't need to forgive her for her sake, I needed to do it for myself. Holding grudges isn't healthy, something I'd always known but somehow forgotten. I wish I could remember what I heard that led me to this conclusion, a sermon, Bible study, a church camp, a podcast, or anything else, but I don't. All I remember is having the epiphany that forgiving my former friend was on my shoulders, not reliant on anything she did or didn't do. So I made the decision to forgive her, and I let it go. I couldn't forget, and I still saw her every week, but there wasn't a dull roar of animosity tainting my every interaction with her. We were never friends again, but I stopped feeling entitled to her apology, and I moved on. Knowing that my forgiveness isn't reliant on anyone else's actions allowed me to find freedom, and it's a lesson I'm eternally grateful I learned.