Forgive! … Or Not
by Matthew Cramer
“…To forgive is divine”. (Alexander Pope)
No one escapes forgiveness issues. They might involve a parent, sibling, teacher, coach, boss, customer, spouse, offspring, friend and others. Regardless of who it is, we all offend or are offended in life — in both minor and major ways. The list is endless.
Not long ago, our great-granddaughter, 4 years old, went to our Powder Room on business. Soon after, her mother discovered that she’d played with the soap dispenser, splotching liquid soap around the room. She took our great-granddaughter back to the Powder Room to assist in cleanup, and when they were done, sent her to me to apologize.
This child is very active, lovely and precocious. So when she approached me slowly, head bowed with downcast eyes, I quickly grasped the situation. She covered her face with her little hands, and muttered faintly that she was sorry for getting soap all over the Powder Room.
I responded with a loving OK, but she turned quickly to leave as if glad to have survived an ordeal that was now finished. Mindful of the graces that flow from forgiveness, I called for her return, saying, “Wait, it’s not over yet!” She returned timidly, expecting what, she did not know. The look on her face was sorrowful and apprehensive.
Taking her cherubic little face in my hands, I drew her up close, gave her the most loving expression I could muster, and said, “I forgive you!” As I said the words, her face morphed through a tableau of feelings: first surprise, then relief, then happiness, and ended with the broad smiles of exuberant joy as she ran to tell all that she had been forgiven.
Our reactions to offenses occupy every possible shade along the way from simple shrug-offs, to voluntary forgiveness, through ironclad denial and suppression, to violence. Few of us are well-schooled or experienced in how to handle offenses committed against us, much less those we commit against others.
Forgiveness means to cancel a debt, to give up resentment, give up a desire to punish, give up a legitimate claim to exact a penalty. When someone commits a significant offense, three issues result:
- Relationships among the affected parties can be severed or significantly handicapped. Organizational and societal relationships can be damaged even to the point of war. And when sin is committed, relationships with God are damaged.
There are consequences for wrong acts. Offensive acts are unloving and outside of God’s order; thus, natural consequences attach. If a parent is overly critical of a young child, that child’s self confidence can be limited, sometimes severely.
If the offended parties harbor resentment, bitterness, revenge, and so on, their world views can be jaded with mistrust of others, excessive aggressiveness to compensate for a lack of self confidence, and other dysfunctions.
- There are legitimate issues of justice that must be satisfied; issues such as retribution, penalties, and compensation.
THE BLESSINGS OF FORGIVENESS
And there is more. While offenses cause dysfunction in the natural order of things, forgiveness — given genuinely and without rancor — dispenses grace and life from God.
In the case of Original Sin, Adam and Eve offended an infinite, loving God; there was no way they could make up for that offense. After Original Sin, they could walk no longer in the Garden with God, and were thrown out. There was damage to their human nature that is passed on to us. Nature turned against them, and evil was able to exploit the damage in their authority. (For more detail, see The Train Wreck Of Humanity.)
Our offense against God was so significant, that only God’s Son, as both Man and God, could repair the damage. Thankfully, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the debts were cancelled, and the relationship repaired. Love can now flow freely between God and us, and we receive a new life, the life of Jesus, at baptism.
“And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col 2:13,14 RSV)
At the macro level, we can see from this pattern that forgiveness brings life: in our hearts, our spirit, and in Creation. Forgiveness is necessary to repair relationships. It frees us from guilt, and removes stumbling blocks in our lives — thereby providing a fresh, new, unencumbered start to life in the affected areas.
In the Catholic Church, the Sacrament of Penance (a.k.a. Confession) demonstrates this pattern. Sorrow for having offended God brings the penitent to the Priest. The penitent lists his offenses and the priest offers advice and answers questions. The priest assigns a modest task to perform as penance (usually a few prayers).
The penitent expresses contrition and his determination to abandon the offensive behavior (repentance) in the Act of Contrition. Finally, the priest prays for the penitent. By the authority of his position as an ordained priest of the Apostolic Church, this representative of Jesus recites some of the most wonderful, healing words anyone can ever hope to hear:
“May God, the Father of mercies, who through the death and resurrection of his Son reconciled the world to himself and poured forth the Holy Spirit for the remission of sins, grant you through the ministry of the Church pardon and peace. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”(Emphasis mine)
As a young lad many years ago, I went to Confession a lot. In those days, absolution was recited in Latin: “…ego te absolvo…” I wasn’t a Latin scholar, but I knew what those famous words meant. That fresh, free, peaceful feeling I always felt leaving the confessional, has never changed over the years — it is the certainty that I am once again fully right with God.
A COMMAND TO FORGIVE
“Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Mt 18:21,22 RSV)
God’s forgiveness, always there, becomes operative in our lives when we ask for it. Then, why does Jesus tell us to forgive one another? If someone has offended us, if they really did something wrong — even if they have asked for forgiveness — why should we let them off the hook? After all, I have suffered a legitimate offense. I have a right to redress. God can forgive them if He wants. Why should I?
The first and best answer is that Jesus said we must. We should forgive as a simple act of obedience. Forgiveness is the life giving oil that lubricates relationships, and keeps them from becoming dry and corroded by hate, retribution and anger, to name a few. So it’s not surprising that Our Lord would admonish us to spread forgiveness liberally.
A second answer, however, gives us more insight. It’s the Godly thing to do.
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col 3:12,13 RSV)
Forgiveness of others testifies to the presence of Our Lord’s life within us. Of course, not all offenses are real. They can be based on false assumptions or our own hypersensitivity in a certain area. But when offenses are real — legitimate so to speak — they rightfully deserve consequences, restitution, and punishment.
When we are offended, the demand of our human nature is immediately legalistic. We are legitimately entitled to feel hurt, be angry, and seek retribution. And exactly because it is a legitimate entitlement, it is relatively impossible for our legalistic, Adamic nature to turn away from, and let go of, the offense.
Only through God’s action can we freely forgive. He sent His Son who died for all offenses — both those against God and others. Thus, when we forgive, we demonstrate the action of the Lord who resides within — empowering us to forgive. If we refuse, we deny Him within us, and His love for all.
This is so important, and reveals so much the essence of God’s life, that Jesus warns us that forgiveness born in His love cannot reach us when we deny it to others.
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Mt 6:14,15 RSV)
THE TRAP OF UNFORGIVENESS
A third aspect of the command to forgive is one of the least recognized about forgiveness. Forgiving others is just as much for our benefit, as for the benefit of the one who offends.
The scriptures suggest that not only should we dispense forgiveness liberally, we must not harbor unforgiveness:
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Ro 12:19 RSV)
“Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Lk 17:3,4 RSV)
It doesn’t take long for unforgiveness to cast a pall over its victim. It coats our spiritual, emotional and intellectual eye glasses — through which we view and assess events — with a thick layer of negativity that distorts evaluations, conclusions, and the meaning of facts.
In our ministry to others, we have seen the quicksand of unforgiveness lead to all sorts of animosity and evils that attack our souls to separate us from the love of God. Unforgiveness ruins relationships, stunts spiritual growth, impedes inner healing, and provides a breeding ground for bitterness, hate, revenge, party spirit, self pity, and calumny, to name a few — all gleefully encouraged by prodding attacks from evil.
If a person commits an offense against someone and then seeks forgiveness from God, he is freed from his guilt, forgiven by God, and his relationship with God is restored. But if then, the offended one refuses to forgive, and hangs on to the legitimate offense and its trappings, who is in trouble? Certainly not the person who committed the offense. No, it’s the one who righteously hangs on to unforgiveness that is vulnerable to its iniquity.
A great story, about a monkey and a banana, illustrates the trap of unforgiveness and goes like this: Put a banana in a glass jar with a neck large enough to accommodate a monkey’s hand. Place the jar/banana before the monkey.
The monkey sees the banana and decides it’s his for the taking. He reaches in the jar, grabs the banana, and comes face to face with a problem. Because he is grasping the banana, the hand that went easily into the jar, cannot be withdrawn. Worse, the jar is now attached to the end of his arm, and he cannot use his hand for anything except grasp the banana.
Sensing that living a fulfilling monkey life with a jar on the end of his arm is going to be difficult, the monkey tries to remove the banana by forcing the jar off his hand. If the jar doesn’t break, the monkey will approach panic as he furiously bangs it up, down and sideways to get his hand free.
It doesn’t occur to the monkey that the only way to free his hand is to let go of the banana. After all, the banana is quite attractive and he has already decided to keep it for himself.
Now, the banana represents a genuine offense from which we are righteously entitled to feel hurt, angry and justified to seek redress. The jar represents all the negative results cited above, that attach to us through sustained unforgiveness. Large offenses produce large jars; small ones, small jars. But each jar is crippling to one degree or another.
The monkey, of course, represents us — the offended ones — grasping the gift of righteous emotions and claims for justice. Some people have so many jars of various sizes attached to them, they stumble their way through life with great difficulty, hobbled and blind.
HOW TO FORGIVE
It’s never easy to give up something that is legitimately ours. Still, there are occasions when we sacrifice something for a greater good, such as put a child through college, or quit smoking. But when we’ve been hurt, and our pride is wounded — now that can really be difficult.
It helps to remember that forgiveness never means denying the injustice of real wrongs, denying their seriousness, denying our hurts, or denying the consequences of sinful acts. Indeed, in some significant cases, we may even need to seek redress in the secular arena.
It’s the spiritual side of things that’s so destructive. In forgiveness, we give up legitimate claims so we can be freed from attachments to hurts and wrongdoing, attachments that grip our lives. Forgiveness transfers responsibility to sort out the issues of justice to the Lord, where it belongs. Thus freed, we can turn our backs on offenses and walk away — free again.
Here are five simple steps to get rid of unforgiveness:
- First, you must come to the realization that you have been cooperating with unforgiveness, and determine to rid yourself of its attachments. You can ask the Holy Spirit to reveal them to you.
- Second, go before Our Lord in prayer, acknowledge cooperation with unforgiveness and ask His forgiveness for holding on to the attachments that led you to unloving behavior. If you have made any spiteful vows or decisions, renounce them at this step.
Third, still in prayer, take all those who have offended you before the Cross. Mindful of Jesus death for them and you, say “I forgive you … (insert their name) …” to each one. While doing this, release and give to Our Lord, as best you can, each of your jars.
Sometimes the hurts are so strong, letting go is more than you can bear. In that case, say “In the Name of Jesus, I forgive you“ with the same intent of releasing your jars to Our Lord.
- Fourth, still in prayer, ask Our Lord to heal all the memories, hurts, and wounds connected with the offenses. Take some time to allow the Holy Spirit to work. Sometimes, memories that need to be healed may surface. Let go of them as well so they will participate in Our Lord’s healing.
- Fifth, thank Our Lord for His sacrifice that makes possible the forgiveness and healing you have received.
Taking these five steps in genuine submission to Our Lord, removes the sting of the offenses and their power to control aspects of our lives. We will still remember them, but the pain and the deceptions will be gone. Catholics are encouraged to avail themselves of the graces of Penance, especially if the emotional attachments have been particularly strong.
Having come this far, we must still deal with habits and knee-jerk reactions to new events that might evoke old memories and hurts. The power of those habits and reactions will be significantly reduced. Still, we must not allow them to re-ignite old feelings and behaviors. Rather, we must deal with them through our will, until they fade away.
Our Lord sums up forgiveness and unforgiveness this way:
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Lk 6:37,38 RSV)