[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Recently, I heard a spiritual teacher present what was to me an odd (and definitely non-Course) rationale for forgiveness: We can forgive those who attack us because we secretly agreed to have them attack us in order to teach us a loving spiritual lesson. It’s all perfect; everything that happened is part of a loving divine plan that everyone agreed to before we came to this world. Even when people hurt us terribly, deep down they’re really doing it for our good. If this is so, what reason do we have to resent them? We can thank them for all the good they’ve done for us through their attacks, and be at peace.
Now, this spiritual teacher was clearly a kind and sincere person who has helped lots of people. And I think there’s something good in anything that moves us in the direction of forgiveness. God knows it’s a big step up from the usual game of resentment, retaliation, and revenge. Yet I have to admit that this rationale for forgiveness doesn’t make much sense to me, and in my opinion is quite contrary to the teachings of A Course in Miracles.
If it were just one teacher saying this, then I would just set it aside as something that isn’t helpful to me. But the “it’s all perfect, even the attacks we make on each other” idea is one I’ve actually heard a lot in various forms, even from Course students. I remember a Course student telling me that Hitler was just doing his perfect part in God’s plan for salvation. (Jesus in the Urtext, on the other hand, calls the Holocaust an “appalling error.”) I remember another group of Course students going to the World Trade Center site to thank the terrorists for the wonderful contribution they made to the world’s awakening. Given the prevalence of this type of view, I thought it would be worthwhile to share my two cents.
First, let me give a fuller account of the scenario this spiritual teacher presented. In this view, we started out in a state of perfect oneness. The dilemma was that, like a fish that doesn’t know it is surrounded by water, we didn’t fully know what it was like to be in a state of oneness. (Though we must have known it to some extent, for if we weren’t aware of our oneness at all, we couldn’t even make the request I’ll describe in the next paragraph.) How could we truly understand what oneness felt like unless we knew what the opposite to oneness felt like?
To solve our dilemma, then, we asked God for an experience of the opposite—separateness—so we could fully recognize the experience of oneness through the contrast with our experience of separateness. God fully approved of this plan—it’s really what He had in mind all along—and gave us what we wanted. The form this took was that we made an agreement to give each other intense experiences of separateness when we incarnated on earth. We would hurt each other, betray each other, abuse each other, even kill each other. Of course, for this plan to work, we’d have to forget all about our agreement before we came to earth, for otherwise we would never play this game. Through this divinely approved plan, we would learn (eventually) how wonderful oneness is by comparison.
Accepting this scenario (or at least being open to it) is the basis for forgiveness. When I am attacked by another person, it is simply because that person is fulfilling the role we agreed he should fulfill. He’s just doing his job by giving me an intense experience of separateness. I can therefore forgive him, for two reasons. One, I’m no longer a victim because I realize that I agreed to this. Two, I have no reason to resent him because he is simply playing his role in a wonderful divine plan to experience separateness so we’ll recognize our oneness. Indeed, my attacker must really love me a lot to agree to such a difficult role. I really should thank him for being such a good attacker. It’s all perfect! And if it’s all perfect, there is nothing to forgive.
I frankly found this teacher’s presentation very strange. I couldn’t help but think of that old John Mellencamp song, “Hurts So Good“:
Hurt so good.
Come on baby make it hurt so good.
Sometimes love don’t feel like it should.
You make it hurt so good.
How could it be that forgiveness is based on being grateful to our attacker for making us hurt so good?
All sorts of questions arise for me as I contemplate this whole scenario. For starters: Why would we not fully know what our oneness felt like in Heaven? The Course claims that we were fully aware of our oneness in Heaven, and the Christ in us still is. (Everyone uses that fish analogy to make the “we didn’t know” point, but why do we assume that fish don’t know they’re in water?) Moreover, why would we need contrast with an opposite to know our oneness? The Course claims that in fact knowledge cannot be “understood by being compared to an opposite” (T-4.II.11:11). It is beyond comparisons of any kind.
Besides these metaphysical questions, there are more down-to-earth questions about how to live this teaching. If I see others’ attacks on me as benevolent lessons in love, how should I view my attacks on others? Should I keep on attacking, saying to anyone who objects, “Don’t get mad at me. I’m just giving you an incredibly intense experience of separateness, so you can appreciate oneness. You should really thank me”? (This is not a purely hypothetical question: I have seen abusive cult leaders justify their abuse with exactly this kind of rationale.) And what if I decide to stop attacking and be loving instead? Normally this would be considered a good thing. But in this scenario, would stopping my attacks be dropping the ball, because I’m abdicating my agreed-upon role of giving that intense experience of separation? Is actually trying to recognize my oneness with another person contrary to the goal of teaching him oneness?
Now, maybe all of these questions have good answers. As I said, the teacher presenting this material was obviously a good and sincere person; I have no doubt that he would be strongly against abuses of this teaching. As a teacher of forgiveness, he was clearly in favor of trying to recognize our oneness with others. And on the metaphysical side of things, who really knows what’s true? I believe what the Course tells me, but I am by no means certain of it. Heaven is a mysterious and paradoxical realm. For all I know, something like this could be true.
That being said, given my belief in a truly loving God, I think this scenario is extremely unlikely. It just doesn’t look like the kind of plan a loving God would be in charge of. There are many ways I could illustrate this, but what keeps coming to my mind is this: I find it very hard to believe that God’s plan would require us to do things in a higher spiritual realm that we would regard as insanely pathological on earth. The following analogy will illustrate what I mean.
Imagine a man and woman who have a perfect marriage—not the mere appearance of perfection, but real perfection. (For the sake of this analogy, set aside for a moment your objection that such perfection is impossible on earth.) The two were made for each other. They’ve been happy with each other from the very beginning. They are truly and deeply joined. They have a rich and meaningful life together. Their union is loving, peaceful, joyous, and blessed in every way. They are an inspiration to everyone they encounter. They give new meaning to the words “holy matrimony.” Their marriage is really and truly a match made in Heaven.
But they’ve never had the experience of a bad marriage; all they’ve experienced is this wedded bliss. So one day, the woman says to the man, “You know, this marriage really seems wonderful, but how do I know how happy I really am? I think to fully appreciate what I have, I need a really stark contrast. So, from now on, I want you to beat me, torture me, and make my life a living hell. Then, I’ll eventually realize just how happy a good marriage is by comparison.” The man agrees with this plan. He says, “You’re right—that would really teach you how happy a good marriage is compared to the nightmare I’ll inflict on you. I will gladly agree to beat you, torture you, and make your life hell, because I love you so much that I want to play this role for you.” The woman says, “Thank you so much for this beautiful expression of love.” Then they go to a hypnotherapist, who makes them forget all about this agreement so they can carry out their plan.
Think about it. If this scenario actually happened in real life, how would you regard these two people’s decision? Quite simply, any reasonable person would regard it as utterly crazy. Something must have snapped in both of them to cause them to throw away a perfect marriage and voluntarily choose hell. Surely there is a better way for them to fully appreciate the happiness of their marriage. Something deeply pathological is going on here. It is sheer insanity. What started out as Heaven on earth will end with him in jail and her in a women’s shelter.
Okay, now maybe the standards in higher spiritual realms are different. But I am simply incapable of believing that a truly loving God would set up or approve of a plan that, in order for us to fully experience oneness with Him and each other, required us to do something that by any reasonable standard is utterly pathological and insane. On the contrary, I would expect that our decisions and actions in a higher spiritual realm would be far less pathological by earthly standards. Can it really be that God’s way for us to fully experience oneness is for us to inflict painful forms of the exact opposite of oneness upon one another? It makes no sense at all that behavior that would be regarded as horrendously unloving on earth would somehow be loving in higher realms.
What does the Course say about this scenario? First, let me acknowledge that the Course does have its version of the idea that spiritual lessons can come through attacks, as indeed they can come through all life events. Most of us are familiar with the Course’s idea that attack is really a call for healing and help. The Course tells us that “all things, events, encounters, and circumstances are helpful” (M-4.I(A).4:5)—which must include attacks. It says that nothing has ever happened “that did not serve to benefit the world, as well as him to whom it seemed to happen” (M-4.VIII.1:6). It says that when we look upon the world through the Holy Spirit’s eyes, we will see “the love beyond the hate, the constancy in change, the pure in sin, and only Heaven’s blessing on the world” (W-pI.151.11:3). It even speaks of how the Holy Spirit has woven everything that happens here into His plan for salvation.
However, there is a crucial difference between the Course’s view and the “it’s all perfect” view. In the Course, attack or suffering of any kind is never brought about or approved by God or His agents. God doesn’t set up painful situations to teach us spiritual lessons; indeed, the Course tells us, “There is no need to learn through pain” (T-21.I.3:1). In passages like the ones in the previous paragraph, the Holy Spirit is taking our mistaken, very imperfect choices for attack and pain and embedding within them lessons in forgiveness and love—lessons learned not through experiencing separation, but through setting aside separation and experiencing oneness. As I’m fond of saying, He takes our lemons and makes them into lemonade. They’re still lemons; He would prefer something much less sour to work with. But He can only use what we give Him.
The Course also has a version of the “secret agreement” scenario the spiritual teacher presented. It says that yes, we do bring people into our lives to give us painful experiences of separation. In some deep place in our minds, we have all agreed to do this; the Course speaks of “the secret vow that you have made with every brother who would walk apart” (T-28.VI.4:3). And we then forget the agreement we made, which is why it is currently secret. We’re not aware anymore that we made it.
However, in the Course’s view, this is not some benevolent spiritual agreement we’ve made so we can learn oneness by contrast. Instead, it is an agreement to forever banish oneness from our minds, to condemn ourselves to a bitter world of separate bodies attacking one another. It is an entirely ego-based agreement. It is insane. It is deeply pathological, just like the husband and wife’s decisions in my analogy. It is not all perfect; it is the antithesis of perfection.
What, then, is the way to forgiveness in the Course’s scenario? It isn’t to see that the attacker was just playing his perfect role by attacking you. It isn’t (to address a similar view I hear often) to affirm how great he is at pushing your buttons and thus flushing out your ego. It isn’t to thank him for doing such a splendid job of keeping that vow to be separate. Instead, it is to renounce that vow and make a new vow, a vow to recognize the oneness you have always shared: “Let this be your agreement with each one; that you be one with him and not apart” (T-28.VI.6:1).
Forgiveness is seeing the face of Christ in your brother, the true Identity you share with him beyond this twisted vow the two of you made. It is recognizing that your insane pathology has had no effect whatsoever on the truly loving nature God gave you both when He created you. It is not telling a new story in which there was a good and loving reason for his attack; it is seeing the truth beyond all the stories, beyond all attack. It is not celebrating the decision to separate; it is recognizing that the separation never occurred. You have always been one, and still are.
In practical human terms, this means that the way to forgive and recognize oneness is not to be really good at giving each other experiences of lack of oneness, but to become really good at giving each other experiences of oneness. It is to learn how to be genuinely kind and good and helpful and loving toward one another. It is to learn how to join with others in the way that couple in my analogy were joined, before they made that sick decision to turn their marriage into a nightmare.
True love doesn’t “hurt so good”; it doesn’t hurt at all. “Love cannot suffer, because it cannot attack” (T-10.III.3:2). Doesn’t it make more sense that love never brings suffering and never attacks for any reason, not even to teach a lesson? Doesn’t it make more sense that the way to know oneness is to be one, not separate? Doesn’t it make more sense that to forgive is not to call the pathological “perfect,” but to behold the real perfection that forever abides beyond the pathological?