Of all the things about which I preach, very few (if any) provoke as strong (and usually negative) a reaction as the call to forgive. I get more angry pushback after a Mass at which I preach on forgiveness than when I speak about chastity, greed, or any other challenging moral topic.
It would seem that the anger is rooted in two things: first, that the call to forgive implies some dishonoring or diminishing of the pain or injustice someone has experienced, and second, that it seems to imply that there is a requirement to stay in or resume relationships that are poisonous or dysfunctional. But forgiveness need not imply either of these.
Forgiveness is a concept that is often misunderstood. Many people interpret it to mean that they must stop having negative feelings about something that happened to them, or toward someone who hurt them. Many also think of forgiveness as a work they must do out of their own power, rather than as a gift to be received from God. No! Forgiveness is a work of God within us, whereby He acts to free us from the poisonous effects of bitterness and grief that often accompany the harm that was inflicted upon us.
Forgiveness is letting go of the need to change the past. Obviously, we cannot change the past; we cannot change what has happened. But we too easily think that ruminating over past hurts will somehow change what happened or even “get back at” the other person. It will not. Refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Clinging to our hurt and anger, understandable though it may be, only harms us.
Thus forgiveness is first for us, more so than for the other. In calling us to forgive, God is offering us the gift to be free of a great deal of poison and of a costly emotional state that robs us of joy and strength. Carrying anger and hurt is like lugging around bowling balls all day long. What a relief it is to just be free of that weight! And this is what God offers when He gives us the grace to forgive, to let go of the need to change the past, to let go of the desire for others to suffer because of what they have done to us.
Forgiveness does not necessarily mean that we are able or even should resume relationships with people who have done us great harm. At times we are able to do so, but it is not always advisable. Sometimes relationships are poisonous for both parties involved. Sometimes, because the other person has not or cannot repent (perhaps because of addictions or deep-seated drives), it is too dangerous to be close to him or her. Thus Scripture says, If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (Rom 12:18).
Receiving the gift of forgiveness requires a growing relationship with God and a trust that He sees and knows all things. As my relationship with God grows, it increasingly becomes enough for me to know that if someone who has harmed me does not repent (and I pray that he does), he is going to have to answer to God one day. God sees all things, understands all things, and will deal with things in the best way. Increasingly, I am content to leave most things to Him.
How is the forgiving of injuries a spiritual work of mercy? First of all, as we have seen, it is a work of mercy toward our very self. Anger, hurt, and nursing grudges all sap us of strength, stress us, and vex us. Receiving the gift to forgive is a mercy for us since we are relieved of these burdens. Our strength and energy can be directed to other, better things. We even sleep better!
And because our strength is directed to good and profitable things, we are now better able to love and be available to others. This, too, is a great mercy.
It is not always the case that the harm to us is so great that we cannot be restored to a relationship with those who have harmed us. Thus, forgiving injuries is also a work of mercy to the one who has harmed us; it can restore to them a relationship with us that is important to them. It is a very great gift to offer mercy and pardon to one who has harmed us and seeks our forgiveness.
In the family and in the wider community as well, forgiving injuries is a work of mercy, since it breaks the cycle of anger and retribution that often tears families, communities, and nations apart. It is a restorative work that knits together ties that have frayed.
This is a great work of mercy indeed. In moments of grave harm it may be difficult to access, but always pray for this gift. Almost nothing is more poisonous, both to us and others, than festering anger and resentment. Thus, to forgive injuries is a great, healing gift to receive from God and share with others. Ah, the beauty of mercy!