Open the door to forgiveness

“Nothing makes us so like to God as a readiness to forgive.” — St. John Chrysostom

What a blessing Pope Francis gives us in proclaiming a Jubilee Year of Mercy. We live in a fallen world; we wound each other constantly in small ways and in large ones as well. Without forgiveness, the world quickly becomes hell, but forgiveness does not come naturally to us. Indeed, it sometimes seems humanly impossible. God, in his mercy, breaks into this hopeless situation through the death and resurrection of his son to wash away our sins and pour his grace into our hearts — grace that can enable us to forgive as Jesus did.  

Forgiveness lies close to the heart of Christianity. Christians are called to a radical forgiveness that extends even to our enemies. In the Lord’s Prayer, our receiving God’s forgiveness is linked with our willingness to extend forgiveness to those who trespass against us. Just how that link works is very deep and complicated. It is easy to become discouraged and anxious if you find yourself unable to forgive someone. Do not think of God as condemning you for this and withholding his mercy from you. God chastises the hard-hearted and chronically unforgiving — see the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:21-35) — but he is compassionate and patient toward those in the throes of pain and anger from some deep betrayal.

God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, who comes to dwell in us, can over time make possible the full forgiveness that is otherwise impossible. Henri Nouwen put this beautifully in “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (Image Books, $16): “I need light, but that light has to conquer my darkness — and that I cannot bring about by myself ... I cannot leave the land of my anger ... I am lost. I must be brought home by the shepherd who goes out to me.”

We must let ourselves be found and healed by God. Forgiveness is not something that we can just will it to be done. It is a process — sometimes a very long process. It requires grace and prayer to finally forgive from our hearts. 

What forgiveness is not

We cannot simply deny the reality of the hurt or injustice, saying, “Oh it was nothing.” Repressed feelings come out in bad ways. Forgiveness is not just forgetting, though a little forgetfulness helps — turning your face away from their sins, as God does with ours. But in some ways, forgiveness is easier than we think. You must try to stop nursing your anger and holding the wrong against that person, but you don’t need to immediately feel all warm and fuzzy toward them and expect the relationship right away to return to what it was.

Rebuilding trust can take time. And there are cases where restoration of the relationship in a concrete way is impossible (for example, if the other person has passed away). Or full restoration of the relationship might be only a very distant hope when the offender is totally unrepentant and ready to do it again. It is all right to keep some distance to protect yourself, but keep praying for reconciliation. Finally, in forgiving, we do not absolve the person. Only God can do that, and only they can ask for it.

The role of prayer

Each of us needs to open our hearts to God in prayer over a period of time, because only he can meet us where we are. There is no one-size-fits-all answer; we come to God with all our life experiences, we have different temperaments, are dealing with different sorts of wrongs committed against us (ranging from the horrendous to the relatively minor), and are at different stages in the process of forgiving. The hardest step can be deciding if we want to forgive and asking God’s help. We may have to sneak up on this — “God, I want to want to forgive,” or “God, I’m willing to consider that possibly someday I will forgive. Help me.” Even a little openness to forgiving is something with which God can work. 

We should open our hearts to receiving God’s forgiveness and healing love. Once the violent emotional pain has abated some, it is easier to begin seriously to try to forgive. In his light, take a good look at yourself in prayer, remembering the man trying to remove the speck in his brother’s eye with a beam in his own. Regular confession can help here. Ask God to help you control your anger and refrain from revenge.

One powerful prayer is, “Help me to see this person as you see him.” Seeing them in the light of God’s love can yield surprising results — perhaps, for an instant, feeling God’s love for them and seeing them as lovable. Their brokenness might be revealed, or extenuating circumstances might come to light. We might come to understand how they see the situation and find they were at least partly right. When able to do so, we should say a prayer for them. God alone knows that person’s heart and what is needed. So, perhaps it is best to simply pray that they receive the grace to experience true conversion of heart, for the heart is the center, and from that, everything else flows.

So we should take time as this Year of Mercy begins to sit quietly with the Lord, asking him to show how he wants each of us to grow closer to him, to experience his mercy more deeply, to let go of old anger and to become more tender-hearted and compassionate so we can become a channel for his mercy to reach out to others and draw them to him.

Celia Wolf-Devine writes from Rhode Island.

Seven steps to forgiveness
Practical suggestions to help the faithful let go of the past and focus on emulating Christ’s mercy.