“If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” Matthew 6:14-15
This is, by any account, one of the more challenging teachings of Jesus. Life is full of wounds we’ve suffered at the hands of others, the worst of them often from people close to us. If we’re honest, we recognize they could say the same of us.
Forgiving is hard, and it demands courage and faith and work. Even as I write this I can easily think of situations in my life where the process of forgiveness is ongoing and still a little raw.
As our culture abandons Jesus, it’s no surprise this hard teaching is disappearing too. The world seems ever more full of anger and bitterness and full of the notion that mercy is weakness.
We often hear it said (or shouted): “No justice, no peace!” This is true. It’s a gloss on a saying of Blessed Pope Paul VI, and it reflects the truth that peace is the tranquility of a just order.
However, it is also incomplete. Peace is impossible without mercy too. If justice is the only point of reference, we all fail. We all need forgiveness, most of us often, and we all have many occasions to forgive. Without forgiveness there is only an endless litany of mutual recrimination and grievance — much like what we see all around us.
As Jesus teaches, forgiving from the heart those who have wronged us opens us to divine mercy. This brings peace with God and, through it, peace within ourselves and with others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “Forgiveness is the fundamental condition of the reconciliation of the children of God with their Father and of men with one another” (2844).
This is one of the most critical — and most hidden — needs of our day. As followers of Jesus, given sure knowledge of this truth, we bear a special responsibility to live it and bring light to the world. No one else will.
Forgiveness is hard for almost everyone, but in different ways. I’m inclined to brood. I could easily be more deeply hurt about something a week or a month after it happened than I was in the moment. My natural inclination is to keep turning it over in my mind, looking at it from different angles.
For people with a different temperament, it may look different, but for me, this means forgiveness is not a one-time effort but a process. Each time the thoughts come to mind, I may have to, in a sense, forgive again, letting grace permeate heart and mind anew. Failure to do this brings the danger of nursing a grudge.
This passage from the catechism resonates with me: “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” (1843).
God’s grace enables us to forgive from the heart, but it usually does so deep down in our own hard work. It’s rarely fairy dust that solves the problem instantly. Rather, it makes the impossible or difficult work of forgiveness bearable and possible. It’s often easier to see in the rearview mirror.
Grace doesn’t make our wounds unreal, it slowly transforms them into something like the glorified wounds of the risen Jesus. And it doesn’t always mean complete restoration of whatever has been broken, although sometimes it does. It means letting go of anger and hatred and judgment.
It also needs to be said that forgiveness has nothing to do with pretending a wrong didn’t happen or justifying it, although sometimes we see more clearly after we’ve forgiven.
In his book “Interior Freedom,” one of my favorite spiritual writers, Father Jacques Philippe, describes forgiveness in this way:
“Forgiving means saying: ‘This person has wronged me, but I don’t want to condemn him; I don’t want to identify him with his fault; I don’t want to take justice into my own hands. God is the only one who “searches mind and heart,” and “judges justly,” and I leave it to him to weigh this person’s actions and pronounce judgment. . . . What’s more, I don’t want to pass a final judgment with no appeal on the person who has hurt me. I want to look at him with eyes of hope, because I believe something can grow and change in him, and I continue to want his good. I also believe that from the evil done to me, even if it seems irremediable from a human viewpoint, God can draw good. . . .’”
My experience is that nothing is more helpful or practical for forgiveness than actively praying for the person who hurt me. In fact, I often find praying for my “enemies” deeply rewarding and liberating.
The prayer can be very simple, something like this: “Father, you know my heart, and you know how this situation has wounded me. I offer those wounds to you now, and I ask to you to grant me a forgiving heart. I renounce my anger, and instead I hold up to you this person who has hurt me, asking that you forgive any wrongs he has committed and that you bless him abundantly, fulfilling his true good in the ways you know best.”
I find if I can pray that and mean it, I am well along the path of forgiveness, even if I have to do it again the next day. I also find that I am the one who benefits. I am no longer a hostage to anger and hurt feelings. I’m no longer hostage to the need to prove myself right. I’m free to move on with life.
As I said, I’m convinced this is something we need and the world needs. If you think so too, here’s an idea: Pick three people who have really hurt you and start praying for them. If you have held a grudge, take it to the confessional. See if your life is not better, and with it your own little corner of the world.
Then add to the list as needed, as it surely will be for the rest of this life.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at keller@ dioceseduluth.org.