We all know that we are supposed to forgive and forget, but why is it so hard to do?
To help answer this question, Our Sunday Visitor talked to Robert Enright, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin and one of the founders of the International Forgiveness Institute ( w ww.forgiveness.com), via e-mail about why it is so difficult to forgive and the role God's grace has in forgiveness.
Our Sunday Visitor: Why is it so difficult for us to forgive?
Robert Enright: To forgive is to enter into Christ's crucifixion with him. As he bore the pain of our sins, we are now asked to bear the pain of others' offenses against us. Forgiving is a difficult path indeed because of the pain of the cross that we now bear.
Of course, we do not forgive sins; God does that. Instead, we forgive people by offering love.
OSV: Does a person have to verbalize the words -- "I forgive you" -- for the process to begin or be completed?
Enright: The courageous and grace-filled action of forgiving another has no set of fixed rules associated with it.
Will the other person benefit from hearing the words "I forgive you"? If so, then state those words as a gift to the offender.
Will he or she recoil in horror and embarrassment at hearing the words? If so, then refrain, but try to show your forgiveness by a smile or a kind word or other act of charity toward the one who was hurtful. If the person is deceased, you could pray for him or her.
OSV: What are the ramifications of refusing to forgive?
Enright: Those who refuse to forgive are not necessarily giving their final word on the matter. Perhaps they will forgive tomorrow or next week or next year.
We must remember the parable of the unforgiving servant in which Jesus tells us of the imprisonment that awaited the one who was forgiven much by God and then refused to forgive a much smaller debt by a fellow servant. The unforgiving one was probably imprisoned by his own hatred.
Our forgiving others acknowledges the importance of Christ forgiving us through his cross work.
OSV: Catholics believe that we are given grace through the sacrament of reconciliation. What part does this grace play in helping us to forgive? Does this sacrament give Catholics a predisposition to forgiveness?
Enright: Who, on their own, can love someone who was cruel, is cruel and shows no signs of ceasing to be cruel? We need the example of Christ forgiving us from the cross to understand why we should forgive. We need the grace of Christ to act on that understanding.
As the Church in her wisdom has instituted the sacrament of reconciliation as a direct extension of Christ's forgiving cross work and as an instrument of his grace, then, yes, it follows that the sacrament does predispose us to forgive.
At the same time, we must realize that Christ died for each of us, but not all come to him. The sacrament, thus, will not automatically bring all to forgiving others. Those receiving the sacrament must say "yes" to the grace and to the challenge to now go and do likewise, forgiving others as we are forgiven.
OSV: What steps can an individual, hurt by another, take to let go of anger and begin the forgiveness process?
Enright: When we forgive, we struggle to reduce resentment and to offer compassion and love toward someone who was unfair to us. Forgiveness takes time and should not be rushed.
Acknowledge that you have been treated unfairly by someone.
Make a moral choice of whether to forgive or not. To forgive is not to excuse or condone. A person who forgives offers the exquisite gift of compassion and love to an offending person. It starts as the forgiver's internal response of mercy.
Take a broader perspective on the hurtful other person. The one who offended is a child of God, created inhis image and loved by him. It is difficult to hate a person whom you know is loved by God.
There are other steps, but this gives the reader the gist of the forgiveness process.
[Specific steps for forgiving are spelled out Enright's book, "Forgiveness Is a Choice" (American Psychological Association, $19.95).]
OSV: How does the victim know if he/she has truly forgiven?
Enright: The late Lewis Smedes in his book, "Forgive and Forget," counseled us that when we begin to wish the offending person well, we are on the path to truly forgiving. It is a simple but profound idea.
OSV: Once we have forgiven, over time we are able to feel freer than when we were holding on to our grudge. Why?
Enright: On the psychological level, as our anger diminishes, we tend to feel better. Deep, abiding anger is a killer. On the level of Christian mystery, the paradox of walking the difficult path of forgiveness is that we can experience joy as we suffer on behalf of others who hurt us. We experience joy on the deepest level of forgiveness when we experience unity with Christ.
Lori Hadacek Chaplin writes from Iowa.