Forgiveness: It’s Complicated

What does the word “forgiveness” mean to you?

A burden? Something we are obliged (but never really want) to do? Letting someone off the hook? Pushing down hurt and anger? Dealing with lingering guilt? Figuring out how to move on in a relationship?

Or, the lightening of a load? Freedom? New peace of mind? Gratitude? Joy?

Let’s just say, it’s complicated for most of us. And this is very very human. It’s not something we as Christians need to beat ourselves up about, thinking that because forgiveness is truly a process, we’re somehow failing if it takes on-going effort or attention in our lives. How we experience forgiveness matters for evangelization, because forgiveness isn’t truly good news if it’s a burdensome obligation or something that doesn’t actually bring us new freedom, peace, and joy!

Starting Point: The Lord’s Prayer

Jesus’ exemplary words of prayer, often translated as, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” can sound conditional, as if our work of forgiveness is the cause of God’s mercy for us (Matthew 6:12). But, this reading is incorrect and misses true power of divine love. As Pope Benedict XVI explains, “the Lord is telling us that guilt can be overcome only by forgiveness, not by retaliation…but forgiveness can only penetrate and become effective in one how is himself forgiving” (Jesus of Nazareth Book 1, 157). “Whatever we have to forgive one another is trivial in comparison with the goodness of God, who forgives us” (158). We as humans cannot limit God’s forgiveness, but we can cut ourselves off from it, refusing to let God in and forgive us.

What to do when we struggle with forgiveness?

First, know that the struggle is okay. It’s often part of the process. The place to begin is not with our own difficulties, but putting ourselves in the position of being known and loved fully by God. Seeing ourselves, broken and torn up as we are, as God sees us. We will never have the power to forgive a wrong done to us, if we do not first allow our own debts, our own guilt to be forgiven by our Lord who is Love. After we have allowed ourselves to be bathed in God’s love, then we can ask God for more of the supernatural grace we need to be able to forgive someone else.

Next, be affirmed that “forgiveness must be more than a matter of ignoring, of merely trying to forget” (158). Work through pain, hurt, and loss of trust. Honestly acknowledge to yourself the people and actions that have caused sadness or grief. Seek healing.

Then, comes the point of surrender–letting go of any desires to retaliate, to get even, to be proven “right.” We can decide to feel differently about a situation, even if it’s not yet our gut instinct to do so. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “when you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” We can decide to behave as if we feel positively (or at least non-retaliatory!) toward a person, even if we’re not fully there yet. This is a time for growing closer to Jesus, asking for more and more of his grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit to make this healing and transformation possible, to renew our inner selves and help us in living out, with resolve, our decision to see a person who wronged us, who was “enemy,” as one who is loved by God and us.

In doing this, we can know that we’ve done as God desires for us. We’ve forgiven. Even if the process of healing is on-going, forgiveness has happened. Even if the consequences of an evil act are still apparent, we’ve forgiven. God continues to be with each of us, even as we struggle day-to-day or are “ambushed” by evil spirits wanting to remind us of past guilt, to stir up feelings of anger or aggression.

This is forgiveness. It’s complicated. As humans, we’re powerless to fully forgive another, on our own. But, with supernatural help from God, we can forgive and know that we’ve forgiven another–even as we work through the process of healing. To be still in the process, doesn’t mean we’ve failed to forgive. It means we’re human. And when we open ourselves up to God’s grace, mercy, and love–anything is possible with God and in God’s time.

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div., M.N.A., blogs, ministers in parish life and lay/deacon formation, and serves as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. She and her husband, Luke, have been married since 2011 and live in Ypsilanti, MI with their two young sons.

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