I am not a paragon of anything except maybe cussy potty mouth and failure to clean out my recyclables properly before chucking them in whichever bin is closest. So I’m not in a position to preach about anything, let alone forgiveness, an art that I have not mastered. Instead of me preaching about forgiveness and you nodding, brothers and sisters, let us reflect together on forgiveness.
For me, as a Christian, I kind of dislike when people say things like, "I don't forgive others for their sake; I forgive them for me, so I can have peace of mind." I'm not sure it's the same thing. To me it sounds more like, “I put the thing out of mind or come to peace with it so that I can live with my life as it is.” Let’s call this forgiveness-as-letting-go. And it’s good as far as it goes.
But imagine being the person in need of forgiveness. Has this attitude given you anything? No. That’s a sign that this sort of “forgiveness” doesn’t really give anything to the transgressing party, the object of the verb for-give.
Imagine again, if God gave us this sort of “forgiveness”. “I forgive you so that I can be happy,” God says. Err… Isn’t He the very source of all happiness? Isn’t He eternally happy in His Triune Self? He needs to forgive us to be happy? I can’t imagine that.
It stands to reason that forgiveness, as God commands, cannot be this “I let go so I can feel peace” kind of “forgiveness”, this forgiveness-as-letting-go.
So what is forgiveness?
I think the “let go so I can feel peace” has some kernel of truth. I think at the heart of forgiveness is a sort of “letting go”. As part of forgiveness, we must let go of our claims against a person.
Now, don’t get all panicky. I’m not saying that if someone murders my child, I should let go of the claims of justice. I must let go of my claims against him. Justice and society have their own claims over which I have no authority and which I am not entitled to release. But my claims, my claim to vengeance, to my moral superiority, to being aggrieved… those I must let go. And letting go of those will bring me healing.
But I must also give something to the person I am forgiving: release from my claims against him, mercy from me though the law demands and will give punishment, and a willingness to rebuild friendship and the bonds of mutual aid that should bind us all even though he doesn't deserve it. Forgiveness is more than letting go. It’s a kind of giving. Let’s call this forgiveness-as-giving.
And it is hard. Damn hard.
Forgiveness-as-giving doesn’t mean that I must forget. I can’t forget. In fact, I can’t control what I forget. Remembering is kind of within our control, but forgetting is not. The most I can do is I can try to not try to remember. But I can’t make myself forget and therefore I cannot be commanded to.
And it doesn’t mean that no trespass ever occurred or that I pretend that the liar isn’t a liar or that the thief isn’t a thief. I need not give my password to a person who has just robbed me. But I must be willing to make a move toward rebuilding. I must be willing to release the man from my spiritual clutches. I must give up pretending that I am made of better stuff than he.
Make no mistake. This is a spiritual mountain.
So why should I climb this spiritual mountain?
One reason stands out. In the prayer that he taught us, our Lord connected our forgiving others to us being forgiven by him. Not only that, he sets forth that we will be forgiven not only to the extent but also in the way that we forgive others: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Grudging forgiveness, forgiveness “so I can have peace” does not seem the kind that I want to receive. And mind you, “trespass” isn’t just walking on someone else’s lawn. It means violating them. Forgive us for our violations just like we forgive those who have violated us.
So that’s a good reason.
Well, there’s the personal example of our Lord himself, who, while he was actually being nailed to a cross and left for dead, prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus didn’t just personally forgive them; he asked God to release them from His claims as well, from the claims of justice itself. Jesus didn’t just forgive them, he advocated for them. He even made excuses for them. While they were murdering him.
This forgiveness, this taking the side of the people who hurt us, is part of the very high standard of Christian living to which we are all called from and by our baptism. There is no escaping it and its aim is not to make us feel better.
So what is it for?
Did Jesus enjoin and emulate this kind of forgiveness arbitrarily? Or because it is nice? I don’t think so. To explore his reasoning, we have to get a bit metaphysical, a bit ontological. That is, we have to look at the structure of reality itself.
Forgiveness is a very high form of charity and it does something amazing. It really is the only thing that restores - improves - the harmony of the world that has been damaged by transgression. Before the sin, things were OK. The sin messed things up. That's what sin does. The act of forgiving and the act of accepting forgiveness each fill our hearts with the charity they embody. They make the world better than it was before the crime. If you’ve had the experience of asking pardon of another person for really having injured him, and really, truly being forgiven, or vice versa, you know what I mean. It’s a rare experience and a profound one. Giving and receiving forgiveness do not make everything back to the way it was before, and in some ways, there will always be the scars from the wound. Even in the Resurrection, our Lord had his scars as witnesses to what he suffered (John 20:27). But in a very real way, the bonds of love and fellowship are made stronger by having been injured and healed, by having overcome hate and vengeance.
It is with this understanding of forgiveness that some of the odder sayings of the Gospel take on a clearer light.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” (Romans 12:21).
“But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” (Romans 5:20).
“Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins,” (1 Peter 4:8).
Forgiveness is the only thing that makes the world better than it was before sin, even though the damage of the sin is perhaps terrible and irreversible. I think here of St. Maria Goretti, whose canonization Mass was attended by her parents and her murderer, who was inspired by her forgiveness. They all sat together.
Forgiveness is the only thing that can - after the fact - justify the existence of sin, make the sin have been worthwhile after all, even if it was never good. Forgiveness is the only thing that makes the universe not some great big cosmic joke played by a god that loves to see his own creation go down the spiraling toilet of grudge and vengeance, one sin at a time.
But forgiveness-as-giving is hard. Damn hard.
So how do we do it?
Well, I don’t know how to make myself forgive. But through my hard struggles to forgive, I have found some things that help me. Here are some tips that might work for you.
Tip #1: Examine Your Conscience
Very often, I am not as innocent in a situation as I think. OK. So, I’m not saying that when someone hit-and-runs you that you deserved it. But that’s kind of an extreme case. When I get into arguments, I’m usually involved, and rarely totally rational, kind, and pure in my intentions.
When I realize my own involvement in a situation, I often feel this loosening inside. It’s awesome. Humbling, but awesome.
Tip #2: Reflect on and Confess Your Sins
Maybe I am innocent in a specific situation. Nonetheless, I am not innocent generally. It will do me well to remember that. What other sins have I committed?
Really contemplate that.
Bonus points if I notice that some are not entirely unrelated to the situation at hand.
Confessing my sins and receiving absolution really puts me in a good frame of mind for forgiving others. It’s almost magical. You could even call it grace.
Tip #3: Reflect on the Humanity of the Person Who Hurt You
Here’s a hard one to do. Nonetheless, the person who fired you is a person. You might want to think of him as a punching bag. I know I do. But he’s a person. He has hopes and fears and responsibilities. The woman who was nasty to you - maybe her mom is sick. Maybe she is sick and you don’t know. Maybe she’s worried that her daughter is sick. You don’t know. In that case, try what our Lord did: “Father, forgive her, for she knows not what she does.” Make an excuse for her. “She must be having a really bad day. Maybe her kid brought home a crappy report card and she feels like a failure. I don’t know.”
This approach is powerful. It’s also really hard. It requires us to see the other as fully human, just like we want to be seen as fully human. “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get,” (Matthew 7:2).
Tip #4: Pray
All of this is really hard. In fact, I don’t think we can do forgiveness-as-giving on our own. Maybe that’s why so many self-help gurus encourage us to settle for forgiveness-as-letting-go. Forgiveness-as-giving is a kind of charity. It is a kind of self-sacrificial, selfless love. Charity is a theological virtue. That means, in part, that we cannot do it without God’s help.
So ask God to help you.
Our Lord Himself is perhaps the patron of people who must forgive others. Our Lady is also the Help of Christians and a great advocate in the heavenly courts.
Here’s a twist. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44). Pray for the people you need to forgive. And don’t pray for them to stop being jerks. That’s really just praying for yourself to stop getting jerked around. Pray for all the things they would pray for if they knew what to pray for: for their sick mom, for their stresses and fears, for their kid. Pray on their behalf, as our Lord prayed on behalf of the men who were killing him.
Pray for the grace to pray for the people who need your prayers.
Dang. This is getting so meta.
The bottom line is this: give yourself to God in prayer and ask him to give you what you need, to give you your daily bread. Then you will have what you need to give others what they need.
Pray, pray, pray. The answer is always prayer.