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If God is capable of infinite forgiveness, shouldn’t we be equally forgiving? That might be easier said than done, but with the help of Auschwitz survivor Eva Mozes Kor and eighteenth-century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, we might have a chance.
In this episode, hosts Curtis Childs and Jonathan Rose seek a better understanding of forgiveness and what it can mean for both the forgiver and the forgiven, as explained by psychology professor Dr. Erica Goldblatt Hyatt.
Research has revealed that forgiveness has a lot of psychological benefits for the forgiver. So why don’t we all do it? Curtis lists some misconceptions about forgiveness that can be barriers to allowing it to happen:
- Forgiveness means you have to forget what happened.
- Forgiveness means there’s no justice. It just dismisses harmful behavior.
- Forgiveness means you can’t grieve and process a painful experience.
- Forgiveness can’t happen unless the other person apologizes.
- Forgiveness is weakness.
But aren’t all those statements true? Time for a little exploration.
The Challenge of Forgiving
To get to a spiritual definition of forgiveness, we need to see what forgiveness looks like in action. To help, Chris Dunn from the Swedenborg Foundation shares what he learned from Auschwitz survivor Eva Mozes Kor about transformative forgiveness.
Eva was only ten years old when she and her twin sister were sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. While the rest of their family was killed, Eva and her sister were the subject of horrible medical experiments. Even after they were liberated from the camp, Eva’s sister died from complications related to those experiments, and Eva lived in a state of constant anger. It was an encounter with a former Nazi—riddled with guilt and dedicating himself to telling the truth about what happened at Auschwitz—that finally inspired Eva to forgive, and it freed her from a pain she’d been holding on to for years. This acknowledgment and expression of her emotions helped Eva move from being a victim of her past to becoming a survivor.
So forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to forget (misconception #1)—it means you remember it and do all you can to stop it from happening ever again, but you free yourself from your own pain and anger. This leads right into misconception #2: forgiveness doesn’t mean giving up justice; it can happen alongside the pursuit of legal action. Nor does forgiveness stop you from grieving (misconception #3)—it just helps you move from suffering to healing.
Wrapping up this moving example of forgiveness, Curtis and Jonathan address Swedenborg’s take on these three misconceptions, pointing out that sometimes the loving action is to stop harmful behavior and that all spiritual processes, including forgiveness, can take time.
The Divine Anger-Vacuum
What does it mean that God is infinitely merciful and forgiving? The concept of God as unconditionally forgiving can be found across faith traditions, even in the Hindu Upanishads. But if that’s the case, when and how does this forgiveness happen?
Swedenborg suggests that this isn’t the right question. He says that it is the nature of the Divine to be forgiving and that it happens constantly. Does that mean, then, that it doesn’t matter what we do? Not exactly:
Our sins are of course constantly being forgiven by the Lord, because he is mercy itself. Nevertheless, despite what we may think about how our sins are forgiven, they actually still cling to us and are not put aside from us unless we live by the precepts of true faith. As we live by these precepts our sins are put aside, and as our sins are put aside they are forgiven. (New Jerusalem §165)
In other words, God forgives us, but we don’t receive that forgiveness until we truly reject the wrong things that we’ve done.
Sound strange? It might make more sense if we think about forgiveness in a different way. Swedenborg tells us that it’s impossible for God to be angry. So when we do something wrong, God isn’t angry with us. Forgiveness, then, must mean something different from a ceasing of anger.
People believe that when our sins are forgiven they are washed away or rinsed off the way dirt is rinsed off with water. However, our sins are not washed away; they are just put aside. That is, we are held back from doing them when we are kept focused by the Lord on doing what is good; and when we are focused on doing good it seems as though our sins are gone and therefore as though they have been washed away. Further, the more we have been reformed, the more capable we are of focusing on doing what is good. . . . If we think that our sins are forgiven in any other way, we are sadly mistaken. (New Jerusalem §166)
In other words, forgiveness is about protecting us from doing harm to ourselves or others. This is a process called repentance. As we put our sins aside, God helps us to stop doing them anymore.
Bonus track: Jonathan explains the etymology of the Greek word for forgiveness in the New Testament.
How do we start that process of repentance? It’s not easy, but Swedenborg offers some tidbits:
- We don’t need to list (confess) all of our sins for God. God is with us all the time, and he knows our hearts and our actions.
- We don’t need to beg for forgiveness. God forgives everyone.
So how do we tell when our sins have been set aside? It’s a gradual process, but the end result is beautiful.
But how can this understanding of forgiveness inform our own decisions and our behavior toward others? Keep reading.
When it comes to being forgiven, learning to forgive is of utmost importance. If we don’t forgive, we create an ecosystem of negativity within us, as Chris Dunn described in a recent “Ten Questions” episode. Even aside from the effect that it has on the other person, the act of forgiveness creates a better state of being within us. Holding on to anger, on the other hand, can affect our spiritual state throughout our lives and even into the afterlife.
Again, this doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of justice. Forgiveness allows us to act with zeal without being clouded by anger. You can think of it as seeking an alternative fuel for your response to a given situation.
The goal is to learn from God. As we saw in the previous section, God never withholds forgiveness from anyone, no matter what, and the goal of his process is to get as close to that state as possible.
This brings us back to misconception #4 from the list at the beginning of the episode. Since forgiveness is an internal state of mind, we don’t need to wait for another person to apologize. It’s a process of liberation within ourselves. This is challenging, and therefore it is an act of empowerment and liberation rather than of weakness (see misconception #5). It opens a protective inner connection with God that wouldn’t be possible if we were filled with hatred and thoughts of revenge.
What is my forgiveness? I like it. It is an act of self-healing, self-liberation, self-empowerment. All victims, all [who are] hurt, feel hopeless, feel helpless, feel powerless. I want everyone to remember that we cannot change what happened. That is the tragic part. But we can change how we relate to it. — Eva Mozes Kor
Forgiveness itself can be a way out of hell, as Jonathan explains, because in order to forgive, we have to take a God’s-eye view of the situation. Everyone, even those who commit horrific acts, is fighting the influence of hell. If we think about other people as all being part of the same fight, we can have compassion for those who may have lost a battle or two.
In the wrap-up, we remember how Eva’s story proved that forgiveness can bring joy and open us to a better life farther and farther from hell.
Related Swedenborg and Life Videos
“Zeal vs. Anger” (short clip)
Free E-Book Downloads
True Christianity vol. 2 (contains chapters on repentance and regeneration)
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About Swedenborg and Life
In a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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