Monday, September 25, 2006

As We Forgive Those... (part 1)

I’m starting today a three-part series on forgiveness, since it is such an important element of the Christian life, but one perhaps not practiced often or fully enough. These reflections are an edited version of a talk I gave some years ago. The emphasis here is not God's forgiveness of us, but our forgiveness of each other. My method is to ask and then answer a few basic questions concerning forgiveness. It is not a complete treatment of the subject, but you’ll at least know how to get started. I have to get started by forgiving again, 70 x 7--for its malfunctions, preventing me from publishing this post much earlier...

First: what is forgiveness? Let’s see what Mr Webster has to say. There are three basic definitions: 1) to cease to feel resentment toward an offender; 2) to give up resentment or claim to requital; 3) to grant relief from payment of a debt. When I ask people which is the best one, they invariably say #1, and they are invariably wrong. Why is that? (This will tell you a lot about the modern approach to such issues.) They all think that to forgive is to cease to feel resentment towards the offender, but that’s a very subjective and unhelpful approach, and it doesn’t quite correspond with Christian morality. The second definition is the best, and the third is good, too, though its application is more limited. So forgiveness is not about ceasing to feel resentment (or any other negative emotion), it is about giving up resentment or claim to requital. That is a crucial distinction, because it places forgiveness in the will instead of the emotions. Forgiveness is doing something, not necessarily feeling something. It is a choice, a decision.

All morality, and hence all judgment thereof, is a matter of willing and of doing. On judgment day, God is not going to ask us how we felt about so-and-so, but what we did or did not do for so-and-so, what our choices were—how we chose to think, speak, and act. It is good if our emotions are in accord with our decision to forgive, but even if they aren’t, we can make that decision with an act of the will and it stands as such before God, so we are free of the sin of withholding forgiveness. We can pray for God to heal our emotions so that we also have more warm regard for the one we forgive, but that may take time, and we leave it to God—without, however, falling away from our original decision to forgive.

Forgiveness is letting the offenders off the hook, giving them another chance—as we would wish to receive another chance when we offend God or another person. This is not something that is easy to do, or that comes naturally to us fallen people, who may be too strong on pride and the instinct of self-preservation—and too weak on a sense of security and inner freedom. So forgiveness has to be a work of grace; it is something that restores God’s image in us more clearly, for He Himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (as the Gospel says: Lk 6:35; Mt 5:44-48). We are created in the image of God, and if we are to live according to that image, we must “be merciful, as our heavenly Father is merciful.”

The next question is: why forgive? One reason, though not the primary one, is that it is good for our physical, mental, and especially spiritual health. The bitterness, anger, tension and stress that come from holding grudges and refusing to forgive can produce depression, anxiety, irritability and other psychological symptoms, which in turn can produce psychosomatic problems which harm our bodily health as well. It is obvious that spiritual health suffers from not forgiving as well, since it keeps us in a state of sin—more or less serious, depending on the case—which is an obstacle to grace, healing, and our deeper relationship of faith and love with our Lord Jesus Christ. Hell is the abode of those who eternally nurse their bitterness and grudges, blaming and cursing others, expressing but never satisfying their hatred. Part of their torment is knowing that if they had only humbled themselves and forgiven those who brought pain or injustice to them—and who, ironically, may very well have later repented and are at that very moment enjoying Heaven—they would have had happiness instead of horror as their everlasting recompense.

But the most fundamental reason why we should forgive is simply that this is the word of God. (Read these to get a feel for that: Mt 6:14-15; 18:21-22 and 23-35; Mk 11:25; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13; Sir 28:1-7, 10.) We forgive because forgiveness belongs to our discipleship of Christ, our being like Him. To refuse to forgive is to have the mind of the devil and not the mind of Christ. It is a matter not only of the “Golden Rule,” but Jesus makes it clear that the kindness and love we show to others we show to Him. Forgiveness is not an option to be chosen only by the saints. The Greek word for forgiveness occurs 142 times in the New Testament, so it is clearly an essential part of the Gospel message for all, both for our individual relationships with God and for the whole life and spiritual health of the Church. Are those enough reasons to be forgiving?

To be continued…