The Insanity of Forgiveness

Forgiveness. Great word. Great concept. We believe in it. We love it. We live it. Right? Right! AMEN! Alleluia!

There was a man who loved dogs. He served as a speaker in various civic clubs to benefit the SPCA. He was known far and wide as a dog lover. One day his neighbor observed as he poured a new sidewalk from his house out to the street. About the time he smoothed out the last square foot of cement a large dog strayed across his sidewalk leaving footprints in his wake. The man muttered something under his breath and smoothed out the footprints. He went inside to get some twine to string up around the sidewalk only to discover dog tracks in two directions on his new sidewalk. He smoothed those out and put up the twine. About five minutes later he looked out and the footprints indicated that the dog had cleared the fence, landed on his sidewalk and proceeded as he desired. The man was mad now. He trowelled the wet concrete smooth again. As he got back to the porch he saw the dog come over and sit right in the middle of his sidewalk. He went inside got his gun and came out and shot the dog dead. The neighbor rushed over, “Why did you do that?” he inquired, “I thought you loved dogs.” The man responded as he cradled his gun in the crook of his arm. “I do, I do like dogs. But that’s in the abstract. I hate dogs in the concrete.” (Taken from The St. Paul’s Pulpit)

I wonder if it might not be the same with forgiveness. We love it in the abstract, but when we really have something to forgive, we hate it in the concrete.

Two real-life stories

This is why these two real stories are significant.

One picked from a newspaper. It speaks of Chris Carrier of Coral Gables, Florida who was abducted in 1974 when he was ten. His captor burned him with cigarettes, punctured his skin win an ice pick, shot hi m in the head and left him to die in the Everglades. The boy survived though he lost sight in one eyes. No one was ever arrested. The paper continues: “Then, recently, a man confessed to the crime an Carrier went to see him. He found David McAllister, a 77 year-old ex-con, frail, blind and living in a North Miami Beach nursing home that reeks of excrement. And Carrier befriended him. he began dropping by every day to visit, read to him from the Bible and pray with him. No arrest is forthcoming; the statute of limitations on the crime is long past. “When I look at him”, he told a reporter, “I don’t stare at my abductor and potential murderer. I stare at a man, every old, very alone and scared.”

Is Carrier crazy? Maybe!

A personal incident. I come from Malta where passions can run high, where emotions can be very raw especially if someone touches my partner. So you can well imagine the emotions which went through when my friend coming home early found out that his wife was having an affair in their own home. Many friends counseled my friend not only to divorce his wife but to find ways and means how to get even. To punish her. ‘A trust once broken can never be repaired.’ ‘How can you possibly count on anymore? She is not dependable.’ ‘She did it one, she will do it again. Be a man!’ ‘Give her the lesson she deserves.’ This man approached me. What could I tell him?

I told him what I believe in. “Understand her. Forgive her. Love her,” I said. A risk obviously. What is amazing is that when I met again this woman, she remarked to me: “You know what, Father?! He never mentions it. He never pulls it out in an argument. It is as if he has completely forgotten it.”

Again, is this craziness? Maybe!

Jesus Christ speaks about this insanity when he answers Peter : Mt 18:21-22 “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

We must give Peter credit for his answer. Seven times is a LOT! The most I have arrived to forgive someone is four times! “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!” This is what the world teaches. Even the rabbis taught that three times is sufficient. Peter was doubling that and adding one for good measure. But Jesus says, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Jesus was never good at math. Just as there are no limits to God’s forgiveness, so there must be no limits to our forgiveness.

Why is it so difficult?

We live with people. None of us lives in a vacuum. And hence at one stage or another we hurt people or they hurt us. It may be something trivial – a word, a glance, an attitude. At work, at home, in your own family, at a party, in a Church. It may be something more serious, an adultery, a calumny, an injustice at work, problems with inheritance, gossiping…

Why do we hurt each other so much? Someone put it very graphically. He said that we are like porcupines – these rodents who have long, sharp, pointed quills interspersed with coarse hair – living in a cold place. We try to warm ourselves by coming close together but the moment we are very near, we scratch each other. Body heat does not work and yet keep trying because it is very cold around us. Intimacy however always leads to pain. That is why marriage is called a union between two forgivers. This is why for a relationship to survive in an honest, healthy, and meaningful way, the individuals must involve themselves in the process of forgiving one another on an ongoing basis.

Because when someone hurts you, instinctively you feel angry. You want to get even. The moment you feel slighted there is a reflex action in you of revenge and of retaliation. It is a natural thing to want to respond to an injustice.

Jesus or Barabbas

What do you do? Just follow your impulse? A choice immediately opens up to you. The same choice which Peter presents to the crowd in his first preaching. In Acts of the Apostles, chapter 3, Peter says : “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” They has killed Barabbas and crucified Jesus the Nazarene.

Who was this Barabbas? This Barabbas was a man who believed in justice. Rome was colonizing Palestine. He joined a group of zealots who wanted to overthrow the Romans and claim back their land. In an insurrection, he pulled out his knife and killed a Roman soldier. Arrested he was condemned to capital punishment. He was in prison when Jesus was arrested. Pilate offers the crowd a choice. They can choose Jesus and free Barabbas. They can choose Barabbas and free Jesus. They chose Barabbas and had Jesus killed.

Many times we face the same dilemma : Jesus or Barabbas? Forgiveness or getting back?

In front of a blatant injustice, Jesus did not resist the evil which was being inflicted on Him. He did not fight injustice. He in fact stopped Peter who tried to offer a fight when they came to arrest him. He, the innocent one, let himself be killed, forgiving those who were acting unjustly against him. He did not pay evil for evil. He did not give it back to them. He accepted it. He let himself be killed. This is the kind of love which God rose from the death. This is the only truth.
On the cross he forgave his enemies. He forgave those who were hurting him. He excused them. This was his last wish addressed to his Father in heaven.

Obviously we cannot do this.

My instincts rebel against such an attitude. If my husband is oblivious to my needs, hurting me, I must teach him a lesson. I must show him in some way that he is mean. If my wife is hurting me deeply by her attitude, I must make her realize that this is not just. Resist injustice – this is what we have all been taught. Forgiveness does not pay. They will abuse you more. They will take advantage of you. They will make of you a rug on which they step on. Be a man! Be a woman!

We have built inside us an attitude of resistance to forgiveness.

We cannot create forgiveness. But God can and wants to do it in us. The good news is that what is impossible to man is possible to God. If Jesus Christ penetrates in us, He can create us anew, making it possible for us to forgive. To take upon us the injustices of others.

Corrie Ten Boom was liberated from a German concentration camp a few days after the Allies conquered Germany. Corrie took up the difficult task of forgiveness and eventually felt that she discovered the only power that would heal the wounded people of Europe –the grace of forgiveness. She went about preaching about forgiveness in Holland and France and in Germany, too. One Sunday she preached in Munich, to a crowd of people who were eager to be forgiven. After the service was over, a man walked up to Corrie and extended his hand. “Ja, Fraulein Ten Boom,” he said, “I am so glad that Jesus forgives all our sin, just as you say.” Corrie recognized the man. He was on of the guards who had looked on, contemptuous and leering, when the women in her camp were forced to take showers. Corrie remembered. And as the man reached out his hand, expecting her to take it, her own hand froze at her side. Corrie was stunned by her own response.

What could she do, she who had thought she overcame the hurt inside her.

She, who had gone around preaching about forgiveness to others. What should she do?

She prayed, “Jesus, I can’t forgive this man. Forgive me.” At once, in a wonderful way that she was not prepared for, she felt forgiven. Forgiven not forgiving. At that moment, her hand went up, took the hand of her enemy, and released him. In heart, grace freed him from his terrible past.

In her heart, grace freed herself from hers.

Forgiveness is…

But what is forgiveness? There is a very common misconception which is translated into the phrase to forgive is to forget. And this is true if understood properly. But it is not true at its face value. Forgiving does not mean obliterating events from your memory. One simply cannot forget certain things. No, forgiving means not letting these events which have caused you so much pain determine your attitude with that person. That event cannot remain an operating factor in our life.

Forgiveness means giving up the desire, conscious or unconscious, for revenge and personal ill will toward those who deeply wrong or betray us. It means deciding not to look constantly back at the past.

In the Bible “to forgive” literally means, “to let go.” When someone commits a sin against another, they have committed an injustice against that person. Consequently, the offender has incurred a debt to the injured party. The New Testament defines forgiveness as “letting go” of one’s right to collect on that debt. In practical terms, forgiveness means deciding to let go of hurting back the person who has hurt you.

What helps me a lot in forgiving is the reminder that every person whom I meet has a heart. And this heart many times is bleeding a lot of pain. Many blows, many letdowns, many disappointments. This inside-pain many times erupts in odd behaviors which can be extremely hurtful to others.

I remember a woman who had a very difficult character. She was like a living mine. She could be nice and quiet one day and the next day become very mean and obnoxious. She came for counseling. After many sessions, she confessed all her life history. How her dad abused her physically and mentally for four years from the age of eleven to the age of fifteen. Her mother sided with her father. This created such a shame, such a trauma in her which basically destroyed her personality. The moment she felt that someone was touching this inner chord, she erupted.

When I became superior the first time, I was a young priest at the time, I remember an old priest approaching me and going this sound advice : “Remember son, when you are speaking with someone, that you never know his history, you never know what he passed through.” This is important. It helps us not to judge. It helps me to forgive.

Yes, Jesus is right. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”


(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.