There are reams of work on the topic, from deeply spiritual writings to entirely secular advice on forgiving for the sake of one’s own mental health. I’m thinking about forgiveness today in the context of Advent, a time during which we humans reflect on the way God’s people waited and wandered their way through centuries and centuries until God fulfilled His own plan of forgiveness and redemption.
We ask, in the Lord’s prayer, that God forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Sometimes I think that if God forgave me as I forgive others, I’d be lost forever.
The gospel story where Jesus talks with Peter about forgiveness is one that has given me great difficulty in the past. Peter asks Jesus a seemingly simple question: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” And Jesus responds, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times….” In other words, we are called to forgive without limit.
Jesus goes on, wonderful Teacher that He is, to illustrate with a parable, but we tend to stop reading at “seventy-seven times.”
I struggle with this passage. I struggle with forgiveness every day of my life. Why? Because someone I love has repeatedly done wrong against me and other family members. She does not express remorse, nor does she ask for forgiveness. She is certain that all of us are to blame for her pain, and she is equally certain that she is in the right. We have been estranged for nearly two years, the culmination of many years of starts and stops, of repeated forgiveness followed by new hurts and new wrongs. And I have learned – learned in the hardest of hard ways – that letting her back in will do nothing more than create a new opportunity for her to “sin against me.”
I am pretty sure I am well beyond the 77 times Our Lord speaks of in His answer to Peter. And I sincerely question, as a devout Catholic Christian, what my spiritual obligation is in this situation. Over the course of time, some answers have begun to take shape – most of them developing from what I have read and what I have heard in homilies and from reading this section of scripture many times over.
The best definition of forgiveness I ever heard came in a homily I heard a while ago: Forgiveness is the state where we no longer wish harm upon the person who has wronged us. It’s natural, when someone hurts us or offends us or damages us in some way with their words or actions, to respond with a desire for retaliation. And retaliation is the opposite of forgiveness.
Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus instructs us to “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39). Catholic writings on this verse make it clear that Jesus is speaking (as He did with much of the Sermon on the Mount) with use of Aramaic hyperbole to make His point; that this statement, like many other statements in this same section, are not meant to be taken literally.
So turning the other cheek, and being willing to forgive without limiting the number of times we do so, are ways that we behave, in Christ, with love toward others. Rather than seeking retaliation when others do us wrong, we are instructed to love them and, in loving them, seek the best for them.
When someone displays repeated and escalating hurtful and damaging behavior, it sometimes becomes impossible to love them and seek the best for them in a direct way. In fact, with adult family members who behave in this way, I think that doing so may even cause us to be an occasion of sin for them. In my own case, I now know that if I let the person who has hurt me back into my life, she will inevitably lie to me, steal from me, lie about me to others, and possibly cause physical harm to me. Given that I have no power or authority to force her to receive professional help (as I would for a minor child in my care), the best way I can love her is to pray for her – for healing and for her soul to be filled with God’s love in place of the torture that seems to be there now.
Make no mistake: I do not write this as a justification for being from estranged my loved one. Nor do I write this as a justification for not offering or providing assistance and support, financial or otherwise, for her in her jumbled and chaotic life. Nor is my message that estrangement is somehow a necessary or even desirable or acceptable component of or outcome to forgiveness. Estrangement is really a last resort; it happens only when wrongdoers are intransigent and all efforts to maintain a direct loving relationship have been met with hate and hurt. Forgiveness should never be a basis or excuse for alienation from another person.
Rather, my intent is to seriously and prayerfully examine – on a daily basis, if necessary – the depth and quality of my love and forgiveness. And I dare to think that for anyone who struggles with forgiveness in even remotely similar circumstances, prayerfully asking themselves these questions may help them to achieve some reconciliation with it:
- Do I pray, regularly, for this person’s healing and for good things in his or her life?
- Do I avoid wishing for, or behaving in a way that supports, retaliation or harm in return for the wrong they have done?
- Do I avoid dwelling on the wrong done to me? Do I avoid complaining to others about this person or the wrong was done to me?
- Do I sincerely and wholeheartedly wish and pray for good things for this person?
- Do I avoid creating situations where this person can do repeated or greater harm?
Jesus admonishes us throughout the gospels to live a life of mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. Getting to a clear understanding of His meaning requires our full participation in prayer and reflection. Living a life where we refuse to return hurt for harm, pain for injury, or ill will for evil is very different from living in a way that allows, or even encourages, others to continue to sin against us. True forgiveness lies in turning the other cheek – not so that it, too, can be struck, but so that we turn away from the hurt and keep from hurting others in retaliation.
We need to ask not only for His guidance, but for the grace to hear and follow it. We are called to forgiveness, and when we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others, I think that we are asking Him to see that we are forgiving as He has called us to forgive: not as He forgives, for His forgiveness comes from infinite mercy and love and is beyond our power to give; but as we are called to forgive – without counting or limiting our forgiveness, and with prayerful desire for the good of the one who hurt us.
Father God, each day I need and seek Your forgiveness for all the ways I have fallen short of Your love, for all the choices I’ve made that separate me from You. And each day, as I seek Your forgiveness I also seek to forgive others. I am in great need of Your grace in order to do so, Lord. Remind me, please, of Your Son’s call to forgiveness and place in my heart a true desire for the good of every person who ever harms me. And give me strength, please, Lord, to withstand temptation, so that I do not create the opportunity or invitation for others to do wrong. In Jesus’ Name I ask it. Amen.
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