Intent, Impact, and Forgiveness

For all that non-profit canvassing groups may knock on your door at dinnertime, they often do an excellent job teaching leadership skills. One of the conflict resolution techniques that we taught most often was called “intent versus impact.” It’s a two-sided lesson; we need to recognize that actions that impact us negatively may not have been intended to harm, but we also need to recognize that our own actions can harm, no matter how good our intent. Really, it’s just another version of the Seven Habits rule of “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

I can do intent versus impact. I can recognize that, no matter how I would’ve taken a given action, or how someone should have taken it, all that matters is whether my action actually does hurt its recipient. It may be hard sometimes, of course, but I can do it. Likewise, I can recognize that even if I’m hurt by someone else’s action, they probably didn’t intend any wrong. These are habits, actions that can be repeated intentionally until they become almost reflexive.

What’s hard is forgiveness.

I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness, this past Holy Week. I know I haven’t posted much, but it’s not because there’s been nothing happening; quite the opposite. I spent hours in church each day from Wednesday to Sunday, in some of the most powerful and moving church services I’ve experienced. One of the themes that kept coming back to me, in different guises, was that of forgiveness. I’m reminded of a remark I heard in a sermon a few months ago, reflecting on Christ’s “new commandment” of John 13:34: just as Christ has loved us, we also should love one another.

That commandment, the speaker reminded us, is not the golden rule. The golden rule is certainly good advice for going through life; after all, we don’t want bad things to happen to us, so we shouldn’t make bad things happen to other people. But our own love, even our self-love, is limited, in both quantity and perspective. I wouldn’t ask another person to die for me; why, then, would I ever die for another person? I might desire certain objects or patterns of behavior, but that doesn’t mean I should propagate them if they’re offensive to their recipient. No, Christ’s new commandment changes the measuring stick completely. Our love for others is not measured by their love for us, but by Christ’s love for us, and that’s a love and a forgiveness that defies human limitations.

This ties into one of the biggest themes emphasized by Holy Week: our own culpability in Christ’s suffering. As one of the Good Friday hymns concludes, “I crucified Him.” My own unfaithfulness to God, along with the faithlessness of all humanity, was why Jesus died. His death wasn’t necessary, easy, or morally imperative; without humanity, Christ wouldn’t have suffered at all. Christ chose to die so I’d be able to learn how to love him, and that gift is one of the most powerful messages at all.

Forgiveness, you see, is a gift. It’s a gift that God gave me, a gift that God gives me each week through the sacraments and through the Spirit. That’s why I can give it away to other people; they don’t deserve it, but neither did I. Forgiveness isn’t about justifying what other people did, or making their reactions understandable. It’s certainly not about being recompensed or revenged for their wrong, tit for tat. It just . . . is. It’s the statement of “yes, you did hurt me, but I choose to forgive you; I choose to move past it and invest my love into this relationship anyway.”

Forgiveness is hard. I don’t understand it. But I’m trying, with slow and fumbling movements, to learn.

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