By (Fr.) Charles Van Winkle, CSC
Let us consider one of the most formidable, prevalent and most misunderstood obstacles to good health, freedom and happiness. Of most importance, we will consider the solution, which is much easier than most people realize.
Unfortunately, a dominant fallacy regarding forgiveness is the belief that it may often take years to forgive, or that there are occasions when it may be impossible to forgive. If indeed it is this challenging to forgive, why did Jesus teach us the prayer we should in conscience daily be able to pray; the prayer that says our disposition to receive God’s forgiveness depends on our having forgiven anyone who has offended us? Read on to relish the freeing truth.
If a person asks why he or she should forgive, perhaps the best answer results from answering another question: How much do you love yourself? The doctrine of forgiveness is said to be the most effective of therapies. One meaning of forgiveness in the Old Testament is to have a weight lifted. The late Father Leo Trese wrote in one of his syndicated columns: “There is nothing so corrosive to happiness as the nursing of ill will toward another. There is some¬thing suicidal about hatred. The hater destroys his own happiness. It is he who suffers rather than the person he hates. If we find in ourselves any degree of hatred toward another, we are fools not to spit out the poison.”
“Should a man nourish anger against his fellows and expect healing from the LORD? Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins? … The vengeful will suffer the LORD’S vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray your own sins will be forgiven” (Sir 28:3, 4, 1, 2).
One day a businessman and a psychologist stepped into the elevator at the same time. The businessman got off at the 14th floor and the psychologist at the 17th. But just before the businessman got off at the 14th, he cursed and spit on the psychologist. Calmly the psychologist took out his handkerchief and wiped off the spittle as if nothing had happened. In utter astonishment the elevator operator ex¬claimed to the psychologist, “How could you let this guy do this to you!?” The psychologist replied, “Fellow, that is his problem.”
The application should be evident: Anytime someone treats you in an irrational, unreasonable, uncouth, boorish, hateful, immature manner, you don’t have the problem; the other person does. Accordingly, without being judgmental, feel sorry for the offender. And as Jesus says, pray for the person; exercise your baptismal priesthood to help the person to become who he or she is called to be. As St. Paul says, “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good” (Rm 12:21).
“But,” you may exclaim, “how to forgive!? If you only knew what was done to me!” Here is a hint. “To fail is human, to for¬give is divine.” A fourteen-year-old Muslim boy became a Christian. Consequently, he was ostracized by his family and former friends. And on one occasion the young Christian was being taunted by a for¬mer companion: “You sap. You stupid person. What has this Christianity done for you for which you now suffer so much?”
“My Christianity,” he replied, “my Christ enables me to forgive.”
So at this moment, if you find it difficult or even impossible to forgive, Jesus is saying to you, “Bring your burden to me, and I will strengthen you; I will give you my ability to forgive” (cf. Mt 11:28).
However, let us consider an especially relevant truth I believe most people in our “be guided and ruled by your feelings” society fail to realize. To have forgiven we do not have to like or feel good toward the one who has hurt us. Certainly Jesus did not like or feel good toward those who crucified him. One might have the attitude, “If he is going to be there I am not going; I never want to see or speak to him again!” and still have forgiven.
The late Corrie ten Boom who witnessed her sister being beaten to death in the concentration camp said, “Forgiveness is not a feel¬ing or an emotion; it is an act of the will. And a person can make the act of the will regardless of the temperature of the heart.” As Jesus says, “…bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:28).
Therefore, because the essence of love and forgiveness is in the act of the will and not dependent upon the feelings, when we have made the act of the will to pray for the offender, we have proof we have forgiven, notwithstanding feelings to the contrary.
But how are we able to make the act of the will to pray for the offender when hateful feelings are so overwhelming? The answer of the young Muslim boy converted to Christianity—to Christ—is just as applicable to all of us. And so Jesus continues to say, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest …. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt 11:28, 30); “But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt 6:33); “…because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5b).
Therefore, the successful way to achieve the victory is as follows: By living what I refer to as the FLP, the Faith-Love Principle, we are always able to forgive: As a little child at the very first moment of encountering any danger immediately retreats to a loving parent, so must you in your mind immediately retreat to Jesus at the very first moment of the temptation to hate and to be unforgiving. That is, at that very first moment mentally, not on your lips, say, “No, in the name of Jesus” to the temptation to hate and to be unforgiving; then immediately say, “Jesus, with your strength I ask you to bless so-and-so and anyone else who has hurt me.” Having made that act of the will with the strength of Jesus to pray for the offender, you have proof you have forgiven, even though your emotions may convey the opposite.
However, because “Jesus” means “Healer” as well as “Savior,” every future time you exercise the Faith-Love Principle when you are tempted to hate and be unforgiving, the emotions will begin to wane, to calm; to be in accord with the freeing truth that if someone has mistreated you and failed to respect your dignity in your having been made to the image and likeness of God, that person has the pro¬blem and needs you by your prayer to exercise your baptismal priesthood on his or her behalf. Then you will indeed realize that living the truth sets you free.