Being and Becoming Forgiving Persons
Being and Becoming Forgiving Persons
To be and become forgiving persons is to remember that our transgressions have already been forgiven by God (see Ps 32:1). The exemplary life of Jesus brings us to our knees in gratitude for the mystery of redemption. He forgave those who mocked him, spat upon him, scourged and crucified him (see Lk 23:34). We wonder time and again if he really expects us to do the same.
What about the child whose father or mother beat her: can she forgive them? Or the wife whose husband betrayed her? Or the friend who shattered a solemn confidence? Having felt at times dehumanized, unloved, and justifiably angry, is not our first reaction to seek revenge, either openly if we are strong enough to fight back or through seething anger if we are too weak? Truly, on a mere human level, it seems impossible to obey the Lord’s command to forgive “not seven times, but…seventy-seven” (Mt 18:22).
To break the impulse to seek revenge, we need to follow Jesus to the foot of the cross. In the face of violent crowds, who professed to be his friends one day and the next proved to be his foes, he taught us to turn the other cheek (Mt 5:39); to make peace with family members before we approach the altar (Mt 5:24); and to love our enemy (Mt 5:44).
The opposite posture of unforgiveness may not express itself in physical outbursts but in hidden resentment that poisons our heart. In mock charity we may say: “I’ll forgive what you did to me, but don’t expect me to forget it.”
The trouble is that pretending to forgive a person who causes such distress is not enough. We have to move toward lasting forgiveness and letting go of the hurt others inflicted upon us.
Forgiveness has to well up from who we most deeply are to the point of dispelling the lingering unforgiveness we may still feel due to the fact that we only see another person’s vices. We identify them totally with the wrong they did to us; we label them unforgiveable—a conclusion that in the long run harms us more than it does them.
We may also falsify forgiveness by using it as a means to manipulate others by making them feel guilty for the wrong we accuse them of doing to us. The proverbial example would be the chronically ill mother or father, whose son or daughter nurses them. On the one night he or she decides to go out, their parent may moan, “Have fun, but if I should have one of my attacks, don’t worry. I forgive you for not being here.”
It is tempting to focus on the maltreatment we have received, but Jesus asks us to follow a different course. He shows by his own actions that forgiveness is the only virtue strong enough to unclog the sludge of old hurts, crippling resentments, lingering bitterness, and hidden pockets of rage. Forgiveness cleans the wounds that still fester in our system due to an event as foolish as feuding. It frees us to seek reconciliation with God and others since Christ himself has cancelled our debt.
Is it any wonder that we must pray daily for the gift of forgiveness as well as for the willingness to accept, even to expect, persecution. It is consoling to observe at all times the pattern of the Paschal Mystery. Just as Calvary led to the joy of Easter, so our trials last but for a season. They come and go as God sees fit. If we respond to them courageously, our formation in Christ will deepen. The cross is but a stopping place on the road to resurrection and the reign of God. We know from experience that God never tries us beyond our strength. Even if we falter once in a while and betray him, we go on believing in his forgiveness and trusting that the meaning of our entire faith journey will in due time be made manifest.
In the light of God’s forgiveness, trust begins to replace suspicion. Patience softens anger and irritation. Forgiveness quiets our inclination to quick reprisal. Whatever form it takes, verbal and non-verbal, forgiveness feels like warm oil poured on our own and others’ wounds. It is sweet balm softening scars of resentment and giving us a new lease on life.