Continuing with our reflections on forgiveness, we must examine another question: whom do we forgive? The obvious one whom we need to forgive is the one who has offended us. We are to make no judgments as to whether or not that person is “worthy” of our forgiveness, for then we show that we do not really know the true nature of forgiveness, and we do not love as Jesus loves. “Forgiveness is reckless. It squanders itself upon rogues who have no intention of improving themselves” (Simon Tugwell, OP, from his book on the Beatitudes). When God forgives, He is not saying, “Well all right; you’re a good chap underneath, I’ll give you one more chance.” No, He simply forgives 70 times 7 times, which means without limit. This is how Jesus told St Peter—and us—to forgive.
Sometimes it is harder to forgive ourselves for some sin than it is to forgive someone else, so we ourselves are next on the list of whom we must forgive. It may be that we have confessed our sin, and even that whomever we offended has forgiven us. But we still feel guilty or miserable or discouraged because we haven’t forgiven ourselves. This can actually be a sin of pride: a kind of inverted pride—not a pride that boasts, but one that sees our sin as being somehow beyond mercy because we ourselves can’t stand to fail. Some people can't bear failure because pride brings down the verdict of “guilty.” Then they have to punish themselves for not measuring up to their idealized images of themselves. If we say, “How could I have done such a thing?” pride is at work. Then it is time to humble ourselves before God—to accept forgiveness and to forgive ourselves.
Accepting forgiveness means we know we are sinners and therefore need forgiveness. This is living in the truth, which is what humility is all about, and this brings us to inner peace. “We must not try to pretend that somehow we are forgivable and that that is why we are forgiven. We are no more and no less forgivable than anyone else. If we try to privilege our claim to forgiveness, it is not really forgiveness we are looking for, but some other kind of recognition... we must be prepared to accept the company that forgiveness places us in [i.e., sinners]. It is no good wanting to be forgiven and then reserving the right to look round disapprovingly on all the others. This is why forgiving is so inseparable from being forgiven” (Tugwell).
The next Person we may need to forgive is—God. Why forgive God? He is incapable of evil and is by nature Love. How could He possibly sin against us or offend us? When we speak of forgiving God it has to be in a qualified sense, but it still is something we have to deal with. We need to release God from any blame we lay on Him when things go wrong in our lives: “Why did You let this happen to me?” “Where were You when I needed You?” “Why didn’t You answer my prayer?” etc. When we “forgive” God, we begin to acknowledge that his wisdom is superior to ours, that his vision of the future is clearer than ours, that his understanding of our own needs is better than ours, and that his desire for our inner integrity and eternal salvation is also greater than ours. Then we can accept in peace whatever God does—or doesn’t do—in our lives. This presupposes, of course, faith and trust in the Lord, and love for Him, too.
Next we have to ask: what do we forgive? The basic answer to this is simple: everything. But that is not so easy. We cannot withhold mercy if we are to be truly Christian in our relationships with others. We cannot draw the line at a certain point and refuse to forgive beyond a certain measure of pain we experience from others. Forgiveness has to keep flowing like a river—from the Heart of Jesus through our hearts to others. But this readiness to forgive all things does not mean that in order to be Christian we have to throw ourselves to the lions. We are allowed to avoid (to a reasonable extent, anyway) certain persons and situations if we have repeatedly experienced them to be occasions of sin and hurt. Jesus said, “if you are persecuted in one town, flee to the next,” so flight can be a legitimate and even necessary response to a hurtful situation. But we have to be in the Holy Spirit to discern this. We cannot run away from problems or responsibilities if we have been called to face and deal with them in a mature, compassionate, self-effacing, and self-sacrificing manner. We must be willing to suffer for the Gospel’s sake, if that is what forgiveness requires, but we must do this according to God’s will, and not out of a feeling that we have to carry every cross, even those not intended for us. Sometimes we carry crosses of our own making and not what God desires.
Continuing with our questions: when to forgive? The obvious answer here is: immediately. It is not good to let hurts fester inside of us, not good to nurse self-pity, not good to imagine taking revenge. We must simply accept what has happened and forgive the offender. Then we ourselves are freed from the grip of unforgiveness and all the bad effects in our body and soul. Then we also free the other from the grip of our unforgiveness, giving them the opportunity to repent and be forgiven and healed, as we would like the same opportunity after we have sinned.
I have mentioned the bad effects of withholding forgiveness. Now I should say something about the good effects of releasing ourselves and others from unforgiveness. There’s a true story to illustrate this. A certain woman was responsible for serious failures in raising her daughter. The daughter wouldn’t forgive her, but the woman eventually repented and began to serve the Lord and the Church. After some years the daughter herself had a conversion experience, and she had a vision: she saw herself dressed in a dirty bridal gown; then a hand appeared, with drops of blood falling from it, and the gown was made clean—she knew then that all her sins were forgiven. Then she heard a voice: “Now forgive your mother.” Meanwhile, her mother had long been grieved that her daughter refused to forgive her. After her encounter with Christ, the daughter finally did forgive her. At that very hour, it was later realized, the mother suddenly felt euphoric and free, not knowing why. Then her daughter called her to tell her the good news, and she realized that the burden of her daughter’s grudge was lifted, and the lightness and joy resulted from her daughter forgiving her. There is a real spiritual power at work here, for the lifting of the burden was experienced by the mother before she knew of her daughter’s conversion and forgiveness of her.
Even though there may be a burden placed on another from our unforgiveness, we are the ones who mainly suffer from it. Many people aren’t spiritually sensitive enough to be wounded by another’s lack of forgiveness. We may think we are hurting othrers by withholding forgiveness, but for the most part we are only hurting ourselves, hardening ourselves in bitterness and spite, which will take a mighty act of God to overcome.
Stay tuned for part 3…