Psychologists define forgiveness as, “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person who has harmed us, regardless of whether or not the person actually deserves forgiveness.” If you’re like me, forgiveness isn’t easy, especially when the hurt is deep. Yet, forgiveness is a necessity, not just for the person who is being forgiven, but also for the person doing the forgiving. As Jesus tell us, “Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)
Why is forgiveness a necessity? Well, for starters, it enables us to let go of the disappointment, anger and resentment built up within us. Holding onto these negative feelings can make it difficult for us to trust others and to live in the present. Though forgiveness doesn’t require forgetting or excusing the harm done, it does require letting go of the negative feelings that are weighing us down.
Forgiveness is also a necessity because it helps us to release ourselves from the past and move forward. How does it do this? It does this by taking our focus off what happened and putting our focus on what is in front of us. Luckily for us, forgiveness is an independent act and doesn’t require the one who wronged us to admit wrongdoing or even to ask for forgiveness. As Matthew Kelly from Dynamic Catholic points out, “Our need to forgive is much greater than the other person’s need to be forgiven.” Getting the other person to feel sorry and change their behavior isn’t the point of forgiveness. Forgiveness is about focusing on changing our own mindset so we can feel peace and happiness again…so we can heal.
Why is forgiveness so hard? It’s hard because it’s against our nature. We don’t like being harmed and we are built to protect ourselves. Our first reaction is to put up our invisible shield in order to keep others out and prevent further harm. Jesus didn’t promise us that forgiveness was easy; He just said that it was necessary. When I am in need of forgiving someone, I often think back to the Gospel passage in Matthew 18, versus 21-22 when Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus answered, I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Of course, Jesus didn’t mean seventy-seven times literally! It was His way of letting us know that we must always forgive.
Fortunately, as my former pastor told me, “Forgiveness is not an event; it is a process.” It’s like skinning your knee…you bleed a bit, put on a band-aid, and, over time, your knee feels better and heals. The healing doesn’t happen overnight. It is the same for forgiveness; it’s something we work on over time. Though many people view forgiveness as a form of weakness, it actually takes a lot of fortitude to forgive others. When we forgive others, we are not, as they say, “letting them off the hook” or leaving ourselves vulnerable; rather, we are taking control, loosening the grip the hurt has on us and learning how to proceed with our lives despite the offense. Afterall, we cannot change the past, but we can learn from it. How we react to what happened to us will greatly influence our future.
Though we cannot predict what the future will hold for us, the good news is that researchers have found that even when the other person doesn’t deserve or even want our forgiveness, our ability to forgive them often leads to understanding and empathy for us and, at times, the other person involved. It may also lead to reconciliation at some point in the future. Regardless of whether or not reconciliation happens, forgiveness propels us positively into the future…our future…and that is the best news of all!
Deb Egan grew up in a Catholic family. Throughout her adult life, she has participated as a church volunteer in many capacities, including teaching Religious Education, being a Eucharistic Minister and Lector, Ministering to the elderly and homebound, and Facilitating Small Faith Groups. She has been trained by Evangelical Catholic and became a member of the Build the Faith Team in April of 2017.