Do we forgive because people are doing their best?

Question: The Course seems to provide elaborate reasons for forgiving another person, like the person is really a Son of God, or is really calling for help, or it's all a dream and so the offense never really happened. Can't we just do away with all this complexity and simply say that we forgive people because they are doing their best?

Answer: As popular as the idea is that everyone is doing their best, the Course never actually says that it's true. Further, the Course never makes doing our best a rationale for forgiveness. This may sound like a letdown, but in place of the idea that forgiveness rests on people doing their best, the Course offers us three essential freedoms, freedoms which end up being very precious indeed.

The first is freedom from what has been done to us. When we say that someone is doing her best, we often mean "given how badly she has been treated over the course of her life" (especially in her childhood). The unkind treatment she has received, in other words, sets a limit on how well she can do now. It sets a ceiling on what her best actually is. This, however, would make her a genuine victim, would it not? And one of the Course's core teachings is "I am not the victim of the world I see" (W-pI.31.Heading). True, we seem to be genuinely hurt by others, but in the Course's teaching it was only our interpretation of what they did that allowed their actions to be experienced as hurtful. Moreover, we always retain the choice either to let ourselves be bound by the treatment of others or to be set free. This came across very clearly in what Jesus told Helen Schucman in speaking about Bill Thetford's resentment toward his parents:

As you have so often said, no one has adopted all of his parents' attitudes as his own. In every case, there has been a long process of choice, in which the individual has escaped from those he himself vetoed, while retaining those he voted for. (Urtext)

The second freedom is the freedom of choice that I just mentioned. If you think about the concept of free choice, it means that your action is caused in the moment by your own power of choice. Nothing else caused it and no one could have predicted it with absolute certainty. You were free to go right, but instead you chose left. Yes, your choice may have been hemmed in by habit patterns and external pressures, but even in the midst of these, you had a choice.

The fact is that the concept of free choice and the idea that we are always doing our best are extremely difficult to put together. For we do make mistakes. We do judge. We do attack. Yet free choice says that in every such instance, we could have chosen differently. Thus, in those instances, we clearly were not doing our best. The Course says, "It is at this moment that complete salvation is offered you, and it is at this moment that you can accept it" (M-24.6:1). If that is our best, how often are we doing our best? Yet the good news is that in each moment we have the power to choose complete salvation.

The third freedom is the freedom from how well we are doing. One of the basic perspectives of this world is that we are defined by what we think, say, and do. We are defined, in other words, by our performance. If we perform badly, we are bad. If we perform wonderfully, we are good. The idea that we forgive others because they are doing their best is a variation on this overall perspective. It says that because people are doing the very best they can, because they are performing optimally within their limitations, they deserve our forgiveness.

Yet the Course sees this overall perspective as one of the most fundamental traps from which we must escape. The idea that our performance defines us sounds promising but ends up being a bitter prison. Human behavior tends to be a pretty shallow, self-centered affair. If that is what defines us, how worthy can we be? How can we be truly innocent, even holy? If shopping, eating, banking, competing, copulating, and complaining defines us, how can we possibly be Sons of God? Is that what Sons of God do? The Course teaches that, thankfully, we remain forever free from the shortcomings of our performance. No matter what we do, we are still holy Sons of God. Even if we have given up on doing our best, even if we "walk the way of hatred and the path of death" (W-pI.195.5:2), we remain as pure and holy as God created us. The whole idea that "I am as God created me"—the premier lesson of the Workbook—is that God, not my performance, is what defines me. I am God—created, not self—created. And that is why I deserve forgiveness.

The Course, therefore, has some initially bad news for us: We are not necessarily doing our best. Given that we are Sons of God, we are probably not doing anywhere close to our best. Yet this initially depressing news comes with some good news—the best possible, in fact. First, we are free from what has been done to us. No matter how others have treated us, our nature remains free of injury, possessing all of the limitless potential that is inherent in how God created it. Second, we have free choice. In every moment complete salvation is offered us, and in every moment we can accept it. Third, we are free from how well we are doing. Even when we don't accept salvation, even when we could have chosen a miracle but instead chose to simply be nasty, that does not define us. Our nature remains untainted by anything we've done. The only hand that has shaped our nature is the loving Hand of God. Would we really want to trade these three freedoms for the small comfort of the notion that we are doing our best?

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