What Is Forgiveness?

In my 10 years as a priest I have enjoyed accompanying people on their spiritual journeys as a spiritual director and pastoral counselor. For the past three years, I have had the awe-inspiring privilege of working with the post-abortion healing ministry in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

During this time, I have come to discover that a person’s healing journey can be truncated by his or her vision of what exactly it means to forgive. I would like to share with you 10 truths about forgiveness that I have discovered and found to be helpful.

1. Forgiveness does not mean acquitting.

A lawyer once pointed out to me that we in the United States do not have a “justice system,” but rather a “legal system.” There are many things — abortion, for example — that are not just but are legal. The question we ask today is whether or not someone has broken a law versus whether or not someone has done a just or unjust act.

In the world of forgiveness, this becomes very confusing because, in our legal system, when defendants are declared innocent, people must pretend that the acquitted persons are innocent even if the evidence still points to the fact that they did commit the crimes they were charged with. Many people therefore believe that, when they forgive someone, a condition of that forgiveness is that they must now pretend that the person did not hurt them. This is foolishness.

True forgiveness is about owning the fact that we have been hurt and physically making a choice to respond to that hurt with love and peace instead of a desire of vengeance and feelings of hate. I found it has brought a great sense of relief to men and women who have participated in abortion for them to come to understand that they do not have to “declare themselves innocent” in order to forgive themselves and others in their healing process.

2. Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting.

Along a very similar line people sometimes come to the misconception that, if they are to forgive someone, they must forget that that person has hurt them. We have all heard someone say we should “forgive and forget.” Forgiveness is not about forgetting; it is once again about the choice we make to respond to a situation.

I personally think that informing someone that that they need to forgive and forget is an attack upon that person’s human dignity. What we do and what happens to us matters because we are people, and we do matter. In my own life I think I wasted too much time trying to forget that my dad was verbally abusive to me while I was growing up instead of making the choice to forgive my father.

3. Forgiveness is a virtue.

One of the most important things that I learned about virtues is that each virtue always falls in between two vices. For example, the virtue of humility (seeing oneself as God see us) falls between pride (making too much out of ourselves) and self-hate (not making enough of ourselves). Another example is the virtue of courage (the ability to face fear), which is between the vice of cowardice (not facing our fears) and foolhardiness (rushing into our fears with reckless abandonment).

The vice of not forgiving is resentment (holding onto a grudge). The vice of forgiving too much is enabling, which is not really about forgiveness but more about taking the easy emotional way out. True forgiveness must always be paired with love, which is wanting what is best for the other person. Allowing a person to hurt you over and over again in the name of forgiveness does not do you any good, and it also harms the person inflicting the hurt.

4. Forgiveness takes time and does not happen all at once.

It is truly amazing how many things we can do with a simple touch of a button. We can send messages into outer space, have them bounce off a satellite, and find another human person on the face of the earth all in a matter of seconds. Yet there are still things that require time and cannot be rushed. Forgiveness is one of those things.

Often the wounds we have go much deeper than just one instance, and they play off many different fears and feelings. For true forgiveness to take place, people must begin to untangle the mess in their hearts. Someone once told me that the best way to begin forgiving someone is to pray that the person who hurt you gets what he or she deserves — as long as we do not suggest to God what it is that they deserve, that would be a good start.

There are times on the journey of forgiveness that we will feel that we are making great steps and other times we may feel we have to move back a step or two. As long as we are determined to move forward, we can trust that God will help us reach our destination.

5. Forgiveness is not about restitution.

Sadly, many people feel that in order to forgive or be forgiven that the person being forgiven must be able to make restitution for what he or she has done. How, though, can someone make restitution for the life a child taken through the sin of abortion? How can anyone be ready to do what is necessary to fix a relationship if they do not know how much they hurt another?

Forgiveness — to be true forgiveness — has to be unconditional. A person should look back upon past mistakes only in order to learn how to avoid making new ones and never look back in an effort to make up for those past deeds.

6. Forgiveness means no longer being a victim.

When we are wounded by someone it can feel like we have no choice but to react in a certain way and that our free will has been taken from us. Often this feeling is that you hurt me, so now I must hurt you, but the opposite can be true too: you hurt me, and now I must allow you to hurt me again and thus resent you for it.

Being able to forgive the person who hurts us prevents us from being a victim. I believe that many of the martyrs proved this point by the way they died for their faith, often forgiving those who were in the process of killing them as our Lord forgave those who were crucifying Him.

7. Forgiveness is not a feeling.

I believe that love and forgiveness are very similar in that many people mistakenly identify them as feelings. Love is wanting what is best for the other person even if it requires sacrifice on my part. There are times in which I desire to strangle someone I love, but this does not mean I don’t love them: in fact, the very fact that I do not strangle them proves my love for them.

Sometimes, as we work on trying to forgive others and ourselves, we can mistakenly think that we are not making progress because we do not feel like forgiving. But, if we are consistent in our desire to forgive, we are making more progress than we will ever know.

8. Forgiveness is not mutual.

It is important to know that forgiveness is not always mutual. The gift of forgiveness does not have to be accepted in order for it to be given. Would it feel better if it were? Yes, but the other person’s rejection does not take away the healing power one feels from releasing a grudge and from when one stops drinking from the spiritual poison of resentment. The number one rule in all counseling is that we can only control ourselves and not other people.

9. Forgiveness does not require perfection.

Actually, forgiveness often requires mourning the loss of the perfect. One of the biggest stumbling blocks in my own life in regard to forgiveness was that I had never mourned the loss of “the perfect father–son relationship.” I had not gone through Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief.” Only after walking through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance with my counselor and spiritual director could I move past my hurt feelings from not having the relationship with my dad that I wanted. Doing that allows me to appreciate the relationship I have with him now.

10. Forgiveness does require prayer.

Because of the Fall, forgiveness is not something that comes naturally to human beings. If we are to be people who truly forgive one another, we must pray for the ability to forgive. Forgiveness is truly supernatural. Our human nature tends to respond to hurts in one of two ways: fight or flight. It is faith that introduces this third way of forgiveness.

As I stated in the beginning, discovering these 10 truths about forgiveness has been a true blessing for me in my ministry as a priest — especially with regard to my work with men and women responsible for abortions. I pray that these truths will help you in your ministry also. TP 

Father Pastorius, ordained a priest in 2003 for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, is pastor of Epiphany Parish in South St. Louis, Mo.