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*****= An all-time favorite
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*****How Good Do We Have to Be?

A New Understanding of Love and Forgiveness

by Harold S. Kushner

Reviewed June 30, 2006.
Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, 1996.  181 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (296.7 KUS).

Here’s another book that I feel God brought into my life at exactly the time I needed it.  I had been thinking a lot about forgiveness.  I don’t remember if someone had left this book lying on a table in the library or if they had checked it in, but I do know that I saw the front cover and was intrigued.

I’ll discuss Harold Kushner’s theological underpinnings at the end, so as not to get into debatable things right away.  The things he says about forgiveness are good advice, no matter what theology you’re bringing into it.  They match what is said in Steven Stosny’s books about overcoming resentment, and many other books I’ve read lately.  These principles are true and they will give you a happier life.

Kushner is a rabbi, and he discusses what people want from the service on the Day of Atonement:  “The people in synagogue have not come to be told that they have done things that were wrong.  They know that all too well.  They have come to be assured that their misdeeds have not separated them from the love of God.  They are not looking to be judged and condemned.  They are looking to feel cleansed, to gain the confidence and the sense of forgiveness and acceptance that will enable them to begin the New Year without the burden of last year’s failures.”

I related to this because when my husband told me he wanted a divorce, he told me about all the hurtful things I had done over our nineteen years of marriage.  I was devastated, because he was right.  I had done those things.  But I took great comfort in the verses from Psalm 103, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate; our God is full of compassion.  He will not always accuse; nor will he harbor his anger forever.  He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”  God doesn’t hold sins over our heads—what he wants is a repentant heart.

Harold Kushner says, “Religion sets high standards for us and urges us to grow morally in our efforts to meet those standards.  Religion tells us, ‘You could have done better; you can do better.’  But listen closely to that message.  Those are words of encouragement, not condemnation.  They are a compliment to our ability to grow, not a criticism of our tendency to make mistakes.  We misunderstand the message of religion if we hear it as a message of criticism, even as we misunderstood our parents, thinking they were disappointed in us when what they were trying to do, however awkwardly and maybe unrealistically, was prevent our one day looking back and being disappointed in ourselves for not having done our best.  Religion condemns wrongdoing.  It takes us to task for lying and hurting people.  But religion also tries to wash us clean of disappointment in ourselves, with the liberating message that God finds us worthy of His love.”

“The more I, as a clergyman, dealt with people’s problems and the more I, as a husband, son, father, brother, and friend, learned to look at my own life honestly, the more convinced I became that a lot of misery could be traced to this one mistaken notion:  we need to be perfect for people to love us and we forfeit that love if we ever fall short of perfection.  There are few emotions more capable of leaving us feeling bad about ourselves than the conviction that we don’t deserve to be loved, and few ways more certain to generate that conviction than the idea that every time we do something wrong, we give God and the people closest to us reasons not to love us.”

“To say that God forgives us for our misdeeds is not a statement about God, about God’s emotional generosity.  It is a statement about us.  To feel forgiven is to feel free to step into the future uncontaminated by the mistakes of the past, encouraged by the knowledge that we can grow and change and need not repeat the same mistakes again.”

“When we let ourselves be defined in our own minds by our worst moments instead of our best ones, we learn to think of ourselves as people who never get it right, rather than as capable people who make an occasional, thoroughly human mistake.”

“When religion teaches us that God loves the wounded soul, the chastised soul that has learned something of its own fallibility and its own limitations, when religion teaches us that being human is such a complicated challenge that all of us will make mistakes in the process of learning how to do it right, then we can come to see our mistakes not as emblems of our unworthiness but as experiences we can learn from.  We will be brave enough to try something new without being afraid of getting it wrong.  Our sense of shame will be the result of our humility, our learning our limits, rather than our wanting to hide from scrutiny because we have done badly.”

For Christians, though we do say that all men are sinners, we also have the verse Romans 5:8—“But God demonstrated his own love toward us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  In other words, God even loves sinners.

Kushner continues, “A colleague of mine says, ‘The purpose of guilt is to make us feel bad for the right reasons so that we can then feel good for the right reasons.’”

“It has been said, ‘A sensitive conscience is a fine servant but a terrible master.’  We want to be judged because to be judged is to be taken seriously, and not to be judged is to be ignored.  But at the same time, we are afraid of being judged and found flawed, less than perfect, because our minds translate ‘imperfect’ to mean ‘unacceptable, not worth loving.’  We make the facile translation from ‘I have done some wrong things’ to ‘I am a person who constantly does wrong things’ to ‘Anyone who really gets to know me will discover that I am bad and will reject me.’  Some of us become so preoccupied with insisting that we are perfect, so insistent on lying to protect ourselves and on finding someone to blame, so determined never to lose an argument, that we don’t notice how obnoxious we become in the process.”

“We need to learn that saying, ‘I’m sorry, I messed that up,’ inspires more admiration than ‘Don’t blame me; it was someone else’s fault.’”

“The question is not whether or not we will make mistakes, whether or not we will get some important things wrong from time to time and feel terrible about it.  Of course we will.  Anyone who takes the moral demands of a human life seriously will make his or her share of mistakes.  The question is, how shall we deal with our imperfection, our sense of inadequacy?  How do you relieve guilt?  How do you cure shame?”

“Yes, religion can make us feel guilty by setting standards for us, holding up ideals against which we can measure ourselves.  But that same religion can then welcome us in our imperfection.  It can comfort us with the message that God prefers the broken and contrite heart that knows its failures over the complacent and arrogant one that claims never to have erred.”

“There is no need to try to fool God, as Adam and Eve tried to do, blaming others, by claiming that we couldn’t help ourselves or we were tricked into it.  God knows us too well to be fooled, he knows what we are about, and he loves us anyway.  It is not that God doesn’t care whether we do right or not.  God cares deeply; it is God’s caring that invests our moral choices with cosmic significance.”

“If our parents cannot handle our mistakes, if they have trouble loving us despite our imperfections, it may be because they need us to be perfect to reflect credit on them.  If our mates continue to harp on our failures, it may be because they want us to improve and don’t know a better way of making that happen.  If friends are unforgiving and reject us for our mistakes, it may be because our mistakes touched them at a particularly vulnerable and sensitive place.  But God doesn’t need us to meet His needs, and His expectations of us are more realistic than are those of the people around us.”

“There are some things we should feel guilty about, but the guilt feelings should attach to the deed, not to the doer.  The husband who betrays his marriage vows or gambles away his paycheck and leaves his family financially deprived should feel guilty.  A friend, therapist, or clergyman who accepts his excuse that his wife’s nagging drove him to it is doing him no favor.  That just permits him to hide from his imperfection, maintain his stance of ‘I’m fine, I don’t have to change, it’s all somebody else’s fault,’ and to resist the powers that could help him change and become more fully human.  But is he more likely to change if we condemn him as an irresponsible person (rather than condemn what he did as irresponsible), or if we tell him instead that inside him is the desire and ability to be a responsible, loving husband and with God’s help and the support of friends, that desire and ability can be realized?”

I’m reminded of the passage where Jesus talked with the woman caught in adultery.  Everyone remembers where he said, “Let him who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  But Jesus also said, “Neither do I condemn you; go now and leave your life of sin.”  He did NOT say, “You know, adultery isn’t so bad.  That man seduced you and his wife is a horrible person and how can love be wrong?”  No, Jesus, who alone of the company was without sin, said that she had sinned, but he told her she did not have to stay that way.

Perhaps that’s why I John 1:9 says that if we confess our sins, God will forgive us.  He wants us to do right—and our lives will go better if we do.  But if we don’t think we have done anything wrong, if we don’t take any responsibility and blame others for our failings, then how can He forgive us?  We would not change a thing and would continue in our sin.

“Children need to admire their parents.  And one of the things we should teach our children to admire about us is our willingness to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘I was wrong about that,’ ‘I don’t know.’  I can remember times I had to tell my children that I had been wrong about something, how fearful I was that they would lose respect for me because of that admission, and how astonished I was to find that they loved me all the more for being willing to say that.”

“If we try to teach our children to see us as perfect, they will be terribly disappointed when your imperfections emerge, as they inevitably do.  But if we teach them to see us as people trying to grow by learning from our mistakes, then we make it easier for them to see their own mistakes and failures as lessons to be learned from, rather than badges of shame and incompetence.”

“When our children were not quite a year old and just starting to walk, they would take a tentative step or two and fall down.  We didn’t scold them for being clumsy.  We praised them for their efforts to do something new, and assured them that with practice they would get better at it.  We owe them the same praise and the same patience with their moral growth.”

“But if romantic attraction is the basis for love among courting couples, it is no long-term basis on which to build a marriage.  The illusion of perfection in the other will not last.  And that is why the essence of marital love is not romance but forgiveness.

“Let me be very clear as to what I mean by that.  To define love as forgiveness does not mean that a man can inform his wife about his extramarital affairs and when she becomes upset, say, ‘The fact that she can’t forgive me proves that she doesn’t love me and that justifies my doing what I did.’…  Forgiveness as the truest form of love means accepting without bitterness the flaws and imperfections of our partner, and praying that our partner accepts our flaws as well.  Romantic love overlooks faults (‘love is blind’) in an effort to persuade ourselves that we deserve a perfect partner.  Mature marital love sees faults clearly and forgives them, understanding that there are no perfect people, that we don’t have to pretend perfection, and that an imperfect spouse is all that an imperfect person like us can aspire to.”

“The embarrassing secret is that many of us are reluctant to forgive.  We nurture grievances because that makes us feel morally superior.  Withholding forgiveness gives us a sense of power, often power over someone who otherwise leaves us feeling powerless.  The only power we have over them is the power to remain angry at them.”

“There may be a certain emotional satisfaction in claiming the role of victim, but it is a bad idea for two reasons.  First, it estranges you from a person you could be close to.  (And if it becomes a habit, as it all too often does, it estranges you from many people you could be close to.)  And secondly, it accustoms you to seeing yourself in the role of victim—helpless, passive, preyed upon by others.  Is that shallow feeling of moral superiority worth learning to see yourself that way?”

Rabbi Kushner counseled a woman still angry with the husband who left her years ago.  He said, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did wasn’t so terrible; it was terrible.  I’m suggesting that you forgive him because he doesn’t deserve to have this power to turn you into a bitter, resentful woman.  When he left, he gave up the right to inhabit your life and mind to the degree that you’re letting him.  Your being angry at him doesn’t harm him, but it hurts you.  It’s turning you into someone you don’t really want to be.  Release that anger, not for his sake—he probably doesn’t deserve it—but for your sake, so that the real you can reemerge.”

Now I’ll discuss the theology on which Harold Kushner bases these views.  “The starting point of this book is my contention that over the years, Jews and Christians have misunderstood the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  We have read it as a story of disobedience and divine punishment, and learned to believe in a God who would punish us severely if we ever did anything wrong.”

“But if we could free ourselves from the notion that God punishes people for doing one thing wrong, if we could come to see God as a God whose love was constant enough to overcome inevitable disappointment, then we would not only like ourselves better, with all the good things that would flow from that. . . . Once we stop misunderstanding the Garden of Eden story and learning from it that God expects perfection of us, we could stop expecting perfection from our wives, husbands, and children, asking them to be perfect in order to reflect well on us.  We could love them flaws and all, and invite them to love us in the same way.  But we won’t be able to do that as long as we insist on believing that one mistake is grounds for rejection, whether it is God or we or someone around us who is doing the rejecting.”

“For animals, life may be difficult but it is also simple.  Food may be hard to come by, they may have to be constantly on guard against predators, but animals never have to make moral decisions.  When it comes to killing for food, when it comes to mating, when it comes to protecting their young or sending them off on their own, animals are driven by instinct.  Human beings, on the other hand, having eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, find issues of supporting their families much more complicated.”

“Human life is infinitely more complicated than animal life because we are alert to the moral dimensions of the choices we make, and the more authentically human we are, the more complicated our lives become.  Could it be that, when God told Adam not to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, He gave not just a prohibition but a warning, like the person telling a friend in line for a promotion, ‘You know, if you get that job, you’ll have more responsibility, less time with your family.  You’ll have to make decisions that will hurt innocent people.  Are you sure you want it?’  Might it even be that God wanted Adam and Eve to eat the fruit, though He knew it would make their lives painful and complicated and He winced at the pain they would be condemning themselves to, because God didn’t want to be the only One in the world who knew the difference between Good and Evil?

“Animals can feel pain, but human beings, because we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, can feel a dimension of pain that animals cannot.  We can feel loss, dread, frustration, jealousy, betrayal, at levels animals will never know.  It is part of the price we pay for our humanity, for our being able to feel love, joy, hope, achievement, faithfulness, and creativity.”

He also makes the case that the consequences of eating the fruit weren’t necessarily punishments.  “Work, sexual intimacy, parenthood, a sense of morality, the knowledge of good and evil—aren’t those precisely the things that separate us from the animal kingdom?  Those are the sources of creativity, the things that make us human.  They may be painful, but it is the sort of pain that leads to growth, like the burden of being a decision-making executive rather than a factory worker or the problems of being an involved parent rather than remaining childless.”

Now, I like some of the things about this view.  It makes a lot of sense.  But I don’t think that God actually wanted them to eat of the tree, because of having read fiction that presents the alternative.  C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra shows Satan tempting the first human woman on Venus.  She ends up choosing to obey God, and something glorious follows.  The woman does learn about good and evil, but not so much by experience as humans do.

Diane Duane’s Young Wizard books, including one I’ll be reviewing soon, Wizards at War, present the idea that every civilization all over the universe is given the Choice by the Lone Power—whether to choose Death or not.  And she suggests that some civilizations make a better choice than humans did.

Now, I agree that the consequences are great gifts.  I like that way of looking at it.  But I feel that in offering us laws and principles, God is telling us, “You can do this the easy way or the hard way.”  We can take his word for it that having an unforgiving spirit is wrong.  Or we can refuse to forgive, and watch it eat away our insides and make us bitter.  Maybe, just maybe, there was an easier way to develop a conscience that Adam and Eve could have taken.

Anyway, I think that this idea of the Garden of Eden speaking of the development of conscience fits very well with George MacDonald’s theology that all will eventually respond to God and “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow.”  Some will repent after death, but all will repent.  That makes punishment not so much retributive as rehabilitative.  If hell is the length to which God will go to win back His children, then He’s not blasting us for one mistake.  As with the woman in adultery, He’s not looking to have us pay for our sins.  What He wants is for us to admit our sin so that He can help us become better people.

I think this idea fits with the verse, “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”  After Adam we know about good and evil and we know that we are sinners and we will die.  But Christ came to take away our sin—to show us that we can know about good and evil—and do what is good.  In the next world, there will be no more dying, or sorrow, or pain.  It’s another step, and a beautiful one.

So Adam and Eve’s punishment was not so much retribution as consequences of knowing good and evil, as Harold Kushner suggests.  And God is not asking for perfection from us.  He’s asking us to “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  We’re going to make mistakes, but one sin, or even many, will not separate us from him forever.  What He wants is a broken and contrite heart over our sin, a willingness to leave it behind and continue to grow.

George MacDonald emphasizes over and over again that justice and mercy are not opposites, for both exist in God.  The purpose of punishment is to teach us, not to make us pay.  That’s why “ ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”  We can trust God to know when the heart is repentant and there is no more need for punishment.

But even if you don’t agree with the theology behind this, there are some good principles in this book that echo “If you do not forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father will not forgive you.”

I was recently discussing forgiveness over e-mail with my cousins and siblings and, you guessed it, I found myself wanting to quote George MacDonald (from Unspoken Sermons First Series).  He tells us what a person might say who’s trying to forgive with God’s forgiveness:

“He has wronged me grievously.  It is a dreadful thing to me, and more dreadful still to him, that he should have done it.  He has hurt me, but he has nearly killed himself.  He shall have no more injury from it that I can save him.  I cannot feel the same towards him yet; but I will try to make him acknowledge the wrong he has done me, and so put it away from him.  Then, perhaps, I shall be able to feel towards him as I used to feel, for this end I will show him all the kindness I can, not forcing it upon him, but seizing every fit opportunity; not, I hope, from a wish to make myself great through bounty to him, but because I love him so much that I want to love him more in reconciling him to his true self.  I would destroy the evil deed that has come between us.  I send it away.  And I would have him destroy it from between us too, by abjuring it utterly.”

Both my sons had teachers at different times who gave extreme consequences for small children being messy.  My oldest son’s second grade teacher had a wide variety of educational games for the kids to use after they finished their work.  But in the first week, some kids didn’t clean up after playing with them—so she put the games away for the entire remainder of the school year.  My second son, in Kindergarten had almost the same thing happen.  At Christmas vacation, his favorite activity in Kindergarten was playing with Legos.  But shortly after he went back to school, someone didn’t put away the Legos after playing with them, so they were locked up, never to be seen again.

That kind of punishment does not teach the kids anything.  It doesn’t give them a chance to learn and do better.  It says, “You blew it, so you don’t deserve this privilege any more.”  They’re young!  Take the privilege away for, say, a week, or a month.  Then give them another chance.  Now, both those teachers were probably partly motivated by not having the desire or energy to continue to pick up toys.  Fortunately, God is more patient with us!  He gives us the chance to do better.  He doesn’t blast us for one mistake.  And he can bring great good even out of bad consequences.

Kushner says that “We have the power to choose happiness over righteousness.”  (I wish he used the word “self-righteousness” instead of “righteousness”—that’s the idea here.)  “Righteousness means remembering every time someone hurt us or disappointed us, and never letting them forget it (and—frightening thought—giving them the right to remember every time we hurt them or let them down and constantly remind us of it).  Happiness means giving people the right to be human, to be weak and selfish and occasionally forgetful, and realizing that we have no alternative to living with imperfect people.  (I once saw a button that read, ‘Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.’  I might extend that to read, ‘Never attribute to malice what can be explained by human frailty and imperfection.’)”

I highly recommend this book.  Whether you agree with every point or not, forgiveness is an important concept to think about.

Review of another book by Harold Kushner:
Living a Life That Matters

Copyright © 2006 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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