"You have one new friend request."
The ubiquitous notification from Facebook is something that regularly arrives in my email box. I usually don't look at them too closely but the name on this one took me by surprise. Not just because I had not heard from this person in awhile, but because this is a person who, in the past, had hurt me deeply – and now she wanted to be Facebook "friends."
Facebook has been a strange and interesting experience for me, and I can't think that I'm alone in noticing this odd phenomena. In high school, I was a misfit – someone who played the class clown to avoid the slings and arrows of bullies, mean girl cliques, and the sting of being left out of the "in" crowd. I had so few close friends I could count them on one hand. So, it shocks me that I have more than 1,300 "friends" on Facebook. Most shocking is that many of them are former high school classmates who were anything but my "friends" back in the day.
Interactions I have had with most of my past high school mates has been cordial, even friendly. There are some who remember me better than I remember them, and some who have obviously forgotten that they used to loathe me. Perhaps we've all matured in some way, and maybe Facebook offers us an avenue to heal, to reconcile – even to forgive those who trespassed against us long ago.
This is what ran through my mind as I stared at this name from my past – asking to be my "friend." Our history together was not pretty. It started out as a good friendship. Then, she and my then-girlfriend developed an even better friendship – one that led to infidelity. It came to a head one drunken New Year's Eve as she waved a gun at me and my girlfriend – challenging my girlfriend to choose.
Fortunately, the whole incident led to this friend's sobriety, which led to the 12 steps, which eventually led her to the step on making amends. One day after church she asked me to forgive her. My girlfriend and I had already broken up – not just because of the infidelity. I really wasn't ready to forgive her – or my ex – but I told her that I did. Perhaps I forgave from pity, or to make her go away and stop asking. Either way, I don't think I meant it then.
Now, as the name flashed before me in my email box, I wondered if I meant it now. She had been out of my life, and out of my thoughts for years. I had moved out of the city where she lives, so bumping into
her by accident was not a possibility. But, social media makes accidentally bumping into the source of old injuries a reality – and here I was, smarting a bit all over again. It made me wonder – is Facebook really a "Forgivebook" – presenting us with an opportunity to practice forgiving those who have hurt us in the past?
Jesus was radical about the subject of forgiveness. Jesus' disciples were astonished to learn that their master advocated not just forgiveness of those who have harmed us, but forgiving "70 times 7" if need be. In addition, Jesus was explicit in the prayer he taught the disciples that our trespasses are only forgiven "as we forgive those who trespass against us."
How can we to forgive when the sins against us have been so grievous? We've been told to "forgive and forget," like forgiving magically wipes the slate clean – but this isn't true at all. We can't change the past – it happened and it hurt like hell. Forgiveness, then, isn't about a clean slate – it's about moving on.
Had I really moved on, though? Just staring at her name brought a wash of feelings … pain, regret, melancholy, a longing for a first love lost. I had not forgotten any of it. After all these years, had I really forgiven?
Richard Foster, in his book Prayer, says those feelings are to be expected since forgiveness is not pretending that the offense did not really matter. "The offense is real," he writes, "but when we forgive, the offense no longer controls our behavior." In addition, simply because the hurt is there "doesn't mean we have failed to forgive."
So, my relationship with this person will never be the same as it once was. The slate can never be clean – but forgiveness challenges us to put new, healing, and reconciling words on that slate. Forgiveness invites us to open our hearts once again – even to those who have hurt us in the past – to give them the benefit of the doubt, 70 times 7 times if necessary.
I clicked "accept." Welcome, my old friend, to "Forgivebook."
The Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge is the associate pastor at Garden of Grace UCC in Columbia, SC, and is leading a new parish extension called Jubilee! Circle. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass.