One of the more surprising words from the cross is Christ’s plea to His Father: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness is a uniquely Christian virtue, and it is one of the most outstanding and remarkable attitudes or actions, if you will, of the saints. For instance, St. Maria Goretti forgave the man who killed her, stabbing her 14 times which such anger the weapon was bent when it hit her spine. Alessandro was so bitter that it was only after he had a dream of Maria, offering him 14 lilies (one for each wound), that he converted. After he was let out of prison, he headed to see Maria’s mother, and asked to be forgiven. She told him, “If Maria has forgiven you, then I cannot withhold my forgiveness.” Likewise, Saint Jane Frances de Chantal was married, and her husband was killed in an accident. It took a long time for her to forgive the man who killed him but, in time, she could, and could even offer to be the godmother of his child.
Forgiveness is perhaps the most common act of mercy that we are called upon to practice: little things like unkind words, rude gestures, insults, but also bigger things like abuse, murdered loved ones, and suffering. All cry for some sort of response. This is a huge pastoral problem: very often people come and tell us they can’t forgive, and that bitterness has affected their whole lives. It also touches on some of the most difficult questions we face: why does God allow evil? What is the meaning and value of suffering?
Perhaps for this reason, forgiveness can remain sort of enigmatic. When Pope Saint John Paul II forgave the man who tried to assassinate him, TIME magazine ran a cover with a photo of the two, and the caption: Why forgive? On one hand, the reason for forgiving is very clear: Christ tells us, in no uncertain terms, that our receiving forgiveness for our sins is contingent upon our granting of forgiveness. The Gospels bear abundant witness to this. For instance, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Mt 6:14-15) After the parable of the unforgiving servant who is handed over to the torturers because he refused to forgive, Christ says, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart” (Mt 18:35). Likewise, “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions” (Mk 11:25).
With this, then, we advance at least beyond TIME magazine. But there are many questions yet to address. We know why we should forgive, but what does this mean? What does it mean to forgive? Does it mean to forget, since we have the phrase ‘Forgive and forget’? Does it mean pretending like something never happened? Does it mean excusing what someone did, or saying that what they did was ok? To answer these questions, let’s see three different points: first, what forgiveness is not, and what it is, second, anger and resentment – why forgiveness is difficult, and then seven concrete steps to help others and ourselves to forgive (in all of this, we’re following Fr. Fuentes’s book El Camino del Perdón).
So, what forgiveness isn’t. Forgiveness is not excusing the person and their actions: in a very beautiful essay, C. S. Lewis explains it this way: “Forgiving does not mean excusing. Many people seem to think it does. They think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to [say] that there was really no cheating or bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive.”
When we forgive, we acknowledge that what the other person did was wrong; it was a bad thing, and it shouldn’t be repeated; in this sense, forgiving and excusing are opposites.
Sometimes there are circumstances which lessen a person’s guilt, but after all excuses have been made, what is left is for forgiveness. After attending to those circumstances, C. S. Lewis continues, “Even if [the person who hurt us] is absolutely fully to blame we still have to forgive him; and even if ninety-nine percent of his apparent guilt can be explained away by really good excuses, the problem of forgiveness begins with the one percent guilt which is left over.”
Likewise, forgiveness is not just not being angry anymore – this happens with time, but it isn’t enough. Nor is it just saying the words, “I forgive you,” with pride, or without meaning them – the words aren’t a magic formula. Forgiveness is more than just accepting what happened, because you can accept what happened and not be reconciled to the person. Lastly, it’s not forgetting the bad memories; note that Jesus says to forgive, but doesn’t say forget. In fact, you have to remember, because, on one hand, memory is a quasi-integral part of prudence (you need experience to make good decisions, and that comes from memory; you can read ST II-II, q. 48, a. 1, and q. 49, a. 1).
On the other hand, forgiveness changes the way we see the past: no longer with fear, anxiety, or anguish, but rather with calm. “The truth is [however],” says Pope Saint John Paul II, “that one cannot remain a prisoner of the past, for individuals and peoples need a sort of ‘healing of memories,’ so that past evils will not come back again. This does not mean forgetting past events; it means re-examining them with a new attitude and learning precisely from the experience of suffering that only love can build up, whereas hatred produces devastation and ruin.”
This was the experience of Joseph. If you don’t remember the story, Joseph is Jacob’s beloved son, only because he is the son of Rachel. His brothers are jealous, they decide to kill him, but instead opt to sell him as a slave. So they do, and after a miserable time as a slave, he ends up as Potiphar’s slave, and ends up promoted to head of the household, only to be thrown in prison because of a false accusation from Potiphar’s wife. In prison he interprets dreams, and tells Pharaoh’s cup-bearer not to forget him, which he does, and only two years later does he remember. In Gn 50, his brothers are worried that he hasn’t forgotten the whole selling him into slavery thing, and so they go to him and ask forgiveness. In v. 20, he replies, in the NABRE version: “Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good.” It’s hard to translate that phrase well. That verb meant literally means to weave or to plait, which perhaps captures better the interconnectedness of what seems like just random acts of violence and anger, or just plain bad luck on Joseph’s part.
So then, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness consists principally of three things: first, the abandonment of resentment toward those who have offended or hurt us unjustly. Second, a renunciation of revenge—something we are entitled to by human justice, since objectively an unjust wound has occurred. Third, the effort to respond kindly to the aggressor, such as with compassion, generosity, and love.
Since resentment is a form of anger, let’s look at what anger is in general, and how resentment needs to be dealt with (this is our second point).
We do well to remember that anger is a passion, an emotion, of the irascible appetite; it arises when there is a present evil that is difficult to overcome (that notion of present is important). Like all of the passions, they are neither good nor evil in themselves; they become so in the measure they are ordered or disordered, directly to a proper object or not, etc. Case in point, Jesus Christ was angry when He cleared the Temple – defending God’s glory, but in a measured way. He kicks out the money changers, overthrows their tables, but simply tells the ones selling doves “to get them out of here” (Jn 2: 16). It’s an act of mercy, because doves are for the poor people. If he had let them go, or smashed their cages, they would have had nothing to offer.
Christ had ordered anger; but anger can be disordered in two ways: in cholerics (and sanguines too), it usually takes the form of a quick and violent reaction, called violence. In melancholics (and phlegmatics too), it often takes the form of bitterness or resentment, a sort of long-lasting anger like heartburn in the soul. It is a grudge that is kept alive by constant revisiting of the wound, opening it time and again, without allowing it to heal (see ST I-II, q. 46, a. 8). To revisit the wound is to make the evil present again, and hence the anger kindles without ever going out. This leads to pride, hardness of heart, lack of compassion, and more, but everything that kills the soul of the bitter person, without really affecting the one who did the harm. In short, it’s been said that “being resentful is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”
The injuries that cause resentment are many and varied: they could be real or imaginary – something might really have happened, or it might be just something I’ve made up in my mind. They might be just or unjust – if my superior imposes a punishment on me, I might be angry, but their actions are just. They might be involuntary or voluntary – the person who causes it might do so against their will or without their knowledge, or intentionally.
These differences are important, because, while all can cause bitterness or resentment, imaginary injuries require humility to see that the injury is not so great as we think (it’s not even real). Likewise, just or involuntary injuries require humility, but more to be realistic about what the person has done, how much they knew, etc.
Where forgiveness really has its work cut out for it is with real injuries that were unjustly afflicted by a person who did so voluntarily. There are no excuses to be made, no reason for the injury, just sin and pain. And this brings us to the path of forgiveness.
Earlier we mentioned 7 steps that can help us to forgive: first, recognizing what it is we need to forgive, second, moving our will, third, asking for the grace, fourth, correcting our understanding, fifth, understanding the value of suffering, sixth, be grateful, and seventh, showing forgiveness to the one who hurt us.
The first step in forgiveness is recognizing what it is we need to forgive. There are many ways we can try to ignore those things we need to forgive:
- Deny anything happened – “Really it was nothing”
- Falsify what happened – Invent a new series of events
- Repress it – never think about it or mention it
- Transfer – take it out on other people
- Imitate what we suffered – this happens especially when we don’t forgive
There are also signs that we hold bitterness towards someone (others, ourselves, or even towards God): for instance, if all we have are bitter memories, or we’re always complaining about them, envy and jealousy, always finding flaws with certain people, violence, mistreatment, abandonment, ignoring others, etc.
It’s worth noting that sometimes even physical illnesses can be a result of a lack of forgiveness: those addicted to drugs and alcohol are often bitter people – “The levels of hatred and violence in substance abusers is higher than that of the general population.” Likewise, self-harmful behaviors (eating disorders, for instance) are often linked to bitterness (a way to get revenge or punish either others or oneself). “The data that [bitterness] causes heart problems is just stupendous. The data is just as established as smoking, and the size of the effect is the same” (Dr. Charles Raison). Bitter people can also suffer from stomach aliments, weaker immune systems, and even arthritis.
The second step is to move our will: again with Pope Saint John Paul II, we read that “Forgiveness is above all a personal choice, a decision of the heart to go against the natural instinct to pay back evil with evil.” I have to want to do it, but I can only want to do something if I see it as a good for me, as something that is helpful for me, and that I set myself to do. On one hand, it means seeking out the reasons why forgiveness is a good thing. On the other, it means determining myself, in spite of obstacles or bad feelings, to continue forward seeking to forgive.
In this regard, though, we also need to ask for grace (the third step). A hardened heart and resentment are worse evils than physical illnesses. In the Bible people beg Christ to heal their physical ills, so how much more do we need to ask God for His grace to heal our spiritual ills! Many people who are finally able to forgive, even terrible things, note that the breakthrough comes when they see that it is not simply a natural attitude; it is something supernatural, and it requires grace.
A fourth step is to correct our understanding. In order to forgive, we need to correct three mistaken images we have: first, that of ourselves: we ourselves are sinners (humility) who are loved by God and have received His mercy (we are loved) – “Ultimately we need a sense of being accepted unconditionally. Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being. If ever man’s sense of being accepted and loved by God is lost, then there is no longer any answer to the question whether to be a human being is good at all. . . . Only faith gives me the conviction: it is good that I exist,” as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI noted.
Second, we need to correct our understanding of our neighbor: they have their good qualities and bad ones; they are not God, but, like us, they are made in His image and likeness.
Third, we need to correct our image of God our Father: very often, this is something that impedes forgiveness as well. If we don’t think of God as Father, not just in the sense of Creator of Everything, but rather as my Father who loves me with a unique and unrepeatable love, our spiritual lives will be stunted, and forgiveness is impossible.
But if we do achieve this, then, from here, we can start to see the other events in our lives, even the bad ones, as part of His loving Providence. Our memories can be “healed” as we see them in a new light.
A fifth step is to understanding the value of suffering, especially innocent suffering: the work of Blessed Carlo Gnocchi, The Pedagogy of Innocent Suffering, is a great aid in this regard: he writes, “The prototype of this suffering is Christ, the Son of God, innocent and most pure, who dies for the redemption of men, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,’ and of analogous value is the suffering of infants, of children, and of the Saints who also suffer for the purification and for the salvation of their brothers and sisters.” Also to be recommended is Pope Saint John Paul II’s Salvifici Doloris: Apostolic Letter on the Christian Meaning of Suffering.
“In order to perceive the true answer to the ‘why’ of suffering,” he writes, “we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery. . . . Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the ‘why’ of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love.”
The saint says, then, that the meaning of suffering is revealed in Divine Love. Suffering is always a call from Christ to join Him on the Cross, to draw near to Him as we leave behind those things that call to us on this earth. Suffering can be offered, just as Christ offered His sufferings for us, and just as we offer prayers, fasting, and other sacrifices. This isn’t just the trite reply of saying “offer it up,” in the passive sense, but rather to really make it a gift to God, accepting it from His hands as a way to “fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” Just as the priest pours a drop of water into the chalice, a drop that is transformed into the Blood of Christ, so our sufferings, if united to His, became a beautiful piece of the work of redemption.
Once we begin to see that our suffering can have value, we can move to the sixth step: be grateful. When we are bitter, we tend to focus only on the bad things that have happened to us, and we start to see everything in a negative light. But, if we try to remember the good things that we have received, especially undeserved good things, it breaks the cycle. It also helps us to see even bad things in light of God’s providence: “Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing other than this purpose” (St. Catherine of Siena). “Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best” (St. Thomas More).
Lastly, we can show forgiveness to the one who hurt us: in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives four steps of forgiveness:
- First, love your enemies: Jesus emphasizes the word enemy. We can decide to forgive even before we have the desire to forgive, because love is a choice
- Second, do good to those who hate us, even when they might not return the favor. This means to do good to them, even if they don’t care about our good.
- Third, we bless those who treat us badly, meaning, not only to say good things about them, but also to understand all things, even bad things, in light of God’s goodness and love for us.
- Fourth, pray for those who persecute us. Prayer is what changes most radically our heart; but true prayer is born from mercy, in imitation of Christ’s prayer. When we pray to forgive the person who has brought evil upon us or done wrong to us, we place ourselves “in their shoes”; and it is only then that the evil that they have done or are doing stops destroying our hearts and minds.
Sometimes we can offer our forgiveness directly to the person who offended us. Sometimes we cannot (e.g., if they are dead, or we don’t know where they are, or if it’s not prudent). However, we can also offer our forgiveness to them before God, and pray for them, especially at Mass.
In summary, then, forgiveness is both an act, and also a constant disposition: to know who we are, to know who God the Father is, and to work so as to uproot the bitterness from our hearts. “Forgiveness may seem like weakness,” said Saint John Paul II, “but it demands great spiritual strength and moral courage, both in granting it and in accepting it.”
In the Book of Revelation (21:5), right towards the end, we read the following that was said by God the Father (who, incidentally, seldom speaks in the Book of Revelation): “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.’ The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ Then he said, ‘Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.’” Note that emphasis: God doesn’t do anything in vain; He knows how hard it is for us to trust. “Behold, I make all things new.” The Greek verb for make is in the present tense: Right now, I am making all things new.
Think of those words for a moment: I make all things new. All things – not some things, not only good things, not just the best things, not things that I think are ok, but all things. Even the bad ones. Even the worst ones. Even the ones that don’t seem to have any explanation, humanly speaking, other than the consequences of original sin. I make them new – not, I make them ok, not, I make them bearable or tolerable. I make them new. Even more, the English word doesn’t do justice to the richness of the Greek new καινὰ. It doesn’t mean newness in the sense of age; the Greeks have a different word, neos, for that. The Greek καινὰ means recently made, fresh, unused, unworn, superior and better than what came before it, unprecedented, novel, unheard of. It’s like the Lord said through the prophet Habakkuk: “Look over the nations and see! Be utterly amazed! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe, were it told” (1:5). In our days, this is being done continually, constantly. God takes the worst things of this world, and transforms them into holiness.
This is God accomplishes through us if we forgive.
 Cholerics – fast reaction to stimuli, reaction lasts for a time; sanguines – fast reaction to stimuli, reaction doesn’t last long; melancholics – slow reaction to stimuli, but the reaction remain for a long time; phlegmatics – slow reaction to stimuli, but reaction doesn’t remain for long.
and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.
(Spiritual Exercises #234. Louis Puhl SJ, Translation.)