The Challenge of Forgiveness

The Challenge of Forgiveness

Gilbert went through an ugly divorce five years ago.

Whenever he must talk to his ex-wife about their three children, his blood pressure goes up and he lashes out combatively. After those conversations, he finds himself stoking the fires of resentment and reliving the entire divorce. The pain continues even after five years. Gilbert has not forgiven his ex-wife and doubts if he ever will.

The simple truth is this: you can never be transformed into the image of Christ if you doggedly fuel a grudge and deliberately resist forgiving someone in your life.

Jesus challenged the understanding of justice found in firstcentury Judaism. According to the Book of Exodus, justice was rendered by receiving an equitable compensation that balanced the scales of the wrong committed: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (21:24). Jesus, however, took exception to this. For him, there is only one form of just compensation, and it is given to the accused, not received by the accuser, because we ourselves have already been granted it by God: forgiveness. As the letter to the Colossians succinctly sums it up: “Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (3:13).

This form of countercultural justice is a decision, an act of the will. It is also a direct call to die to the false self and its need to find some way to get a petty form of revenge, to feel right and justified. It is not dependent upon an apology; some people, such as the sinful woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears, have never learned the social grace of directly saying “I’m sorry” and asking for forgiveness (see Luke 7:36–50). And Christian forgiveness does not wait to find some emotional space where it feels good to offer it; Jesus himself forgave his persecutors in the very midst of his betrayal even as he hung upon the cross (see Luke 23:34). Forgiveness is the limitless choice not to pick the scab, not to become entangled in the grudge, not to stoke the fires of anger and resentment by hugging the hurt or announcing it to others (see Matthew 18:22).

We often hug the hurt and pick the scab because it makes us feel powerful and intellectually right. We fail to remember, however, that keeping a grudge alive takes a lot of emotional energy. The more we invest in the grudge, the more we are sapped of our emotional stamina. Bitterness, anger, and self-pity become our evening cocktails as we surrender our serenity and inner peace; they help to continue the betrayal or hurt that occurred weeks, months, or even years ago.

Ultimately, if we don’t want to commit to forgiveness in imitation of Christ, then we might want to consider forgiving because it’s the best thing we can do for ourselves! It sets us free and closes the door on the past. Consequently, as the Mayo Clinic’s website reminds us, compared with people who harbor grudges, those who forgive have healthier relationships, greater spiritual and psychological wellbeing, less anxiety and stress, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, and a lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse. No other decision in our lives has such ability and power.

—Fr. Albert Haase, OFM, Catching Fire, Becoming Flame: A Guide for Spiritual Transformation

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