I am practicing Lesson 198 today (“Only my condemnation injures me”), and had an insight I wanted to share.
One of the interesting things about this lesson is that it openly says that forgiveness is an illusion (2:10). What does that mean? This puzzling idea has inspired more than one Course student to think, “Why should I focus on forgiveness when it’s not even real? I want the real thing, not some lower-rung illusion. I’m going straight to God.”
Yet, of course, this lesson is not telling us that forgiveness is an illusion so that we, spiritual superstars that we are, can dispense with it and focus ourselves on higher things. It says that we who are mired in illusion need the one illusion “that is answer to the rest” (2:10), the one that “sweeps all other dreams away” (3:1). Forgiveness may be an illusion, but this illusion is one we need.
Yet again, what does it mean to say that forgiveness is an illusion? I think it means this: Normally, when we forgive an attacker, we think we are doing something real. We think we are actually changing that person’s status from guilty to exonerated. As his victim, we believe we hold in our hands his fate, his status as criminal or free man. It’s like the power a minister has to say, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Our forgiveness, then, seems like a pronouncement that carries an almost legal power, power to move our attacker from one category to another.
This makes our pronouncement something that is entirely our choice, and a bit of an incongruous choice at that. After all, if he’s a criminal, why exactly are we pronouncing him innocent? It’s like saying to a midget, “I pronounce you a giant.” What is our basis for doing that? Why pronounce something to be true that is not true? Strangely, then, when forgiveness is real, it becomes a kind of contradiction.
This is the value of forgiveness being an illusion. In the Course, forgiveness is an illusion because our attacker is not a criminal. He’s already innocent. Our pronouncement doesn’t change his status. It doesn’t change anything real. It’s as if we’re a minister dramatically intoning “I now pronounce you husband and wife” to a couple who’s already married.
Our forgiveness, then, does nothing real. No one’s status is changed. No one is moved from one category to another. Instead, our forgiveness is simply our own realization of the category he is already in. Sure, an attack on us may have taken place, but since “injury is impossible” (1:1), that attack was without real effect. We gave it any effect it seemed to have, because we imagined it as our own attacks justly returning to us. Our attacker is already forgiven, then, because he was never truly condemned in the first place. Our forgiveness is merely us catching up to what is already true. All in all, to say that forgiveness is an illusion is just another way of saying, “There is nothing to forgive” (T-14.III.7:5; 15.VIII.1:7).
If forgiveness seen as real was a strange contradiction, forgiveness seen as an illusion becomes perfectly natural. I’m not pronouncing that a midget is now a giant; I’m simply acknowledging a giant as what he is. What could be more natural?
To recognize forgiveness as an illusion, then, is not a reason to dispense with it. It’s a way to make what has felt so hard become suddenly easy.