The Art Of Forgiveness

Pentecost is not simply a feast. It is an event. THE event in the life of the Church. Unfortunately few Christians really celebrate it. Few Christians see its relevance to their everyday life. Here are some insights on this feast which I have gathered from various sources.

Two Irishmen, neighbors, had a lifelong quarrel. One of them was seriously sick, his wife called the priest and explained to him, "Father, Pat has been fighting with Mike Murphy for years. Pat is going to die. Can't you come and patch up their quarrel?" After much persuasion, the priest induced the dying Pat to call in Mike for a reconciliation. In a few minutes, Mike was at the bedside. He suggests. "Let's make up, Pat. Let bygones be bygones." Pat agreed rather reluctantly. Mike prepared to leave. As he approached the door, Pat raised himself on one elbow in bed and shaking his other fist at Murphy, he shouted, 'Remember Mike, this counts only in case I die.'

Forgiveness is beautiful if it is real. Why is it beautiful? Because it is so like God. There is no Gospel without forgiveness. There is no relationship with God without forgiveness. There is no relationship with others without forgiveness. It is what makes relationships move. Imagine having a fantastic Lexus, with all the new fads and luxury - CD player, eleven speakers, powerful engine, latest style, on board computer ... and then when you ignite the engine and press the accelerator, the engine just sputters and dies out. The problem? You have no gas in the tank.

Ridiculous, no? This is exactly the problem in many marriages, in many Churches, in many community lifestyles. We have all the apparata, all the contraptions but we lack the fuel. The fuel that drives any relationship is forgiveness. Mahatma Gandhi was right when he said that if we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless. Strict justice alone cannot keep us going.

The experience of the Pope

When on December 23, 1983, the Pope walked in a bare white-walled prison cell in Rome and sat knee-to-knee in front of his would be assassin, the Pope made a step forward in his life. He went beyond the hurt and the pain of that terrible shot and saw a man who was suffering. This is what forgiveness is. He did not just forget or pretend that the assassination attempt never happened. No, he simply looked into the eyes of this unshaven, blue jeans convicted man, leaned forward and took the man's hand in his own hands and they spoke. We do no know what was said. Nor can we imagine. He went beyond the hurt and tried to understand.

Forgiveness is not saying that 'everything is OK', 'it doesn't matter', 'no big deal'. Forgiving does not negate what was done and condone what has been done. Forgiveness goes beyond the injury and sees the person.

This is what God does. He does not forget in the sense that He obliterates things from his memory. He can not do that because He is omniscient and knows all things. What He does is He doesn't hold our sins in a mental grasp to use at a later time. He simply chooses not to remember it against us or bring it up to us again in order to condemn or punish us.

Forgiveness is an act of release-and-let-go. When we forgive, we are saying, "What you did was not fair. It hurt me deeply. But I will no longer hold it against you in our relationship. I will not carry the grudge or harbor resentment. I will absorb the pain, and release you. I choose to let go. I shall try to understand. After all I realize that I am not faultless. "

A catechism class teacher once asked her students to write a one-sentence definition of forgiveness. One answer has stuck with her. "Forgiveness is like meeting someone for the first time." She asked the young lad what he meant. He replied, "Well, if you meet someone for the first time, there is nothing he could have done or not done to make you mad. So forgiveness is like meeting someone for the first time." Cool, no? Do not constantly wear the dark glasses of the past hurts when you view the person.

Seven suggestions

How do we go about forgiving someone who has hurt us? That's a million dollar question. I can only give hints because every situation is different, every hurt is different. Sometimes the hurts are so deep that you may even need an outside help - a priest, a counselor, a friend.

Hint 1 : We have to remember that forgiveness is a process. It will take time. You have to be patient with yourself and with the other. There will panic. Emotions are what they are, neutral. If someone pinches me even if I am in front of the Pope, I shall cry ouch! It is what I do with these emotions which count.

Hint 2 : Ask God to help you NOT to take a superior stand. Ask God to open your eyes to your own sin and His forgiveness to you. Many times the real problem with unforgiveness is that of self-righteousness. We think, "How could he or she have ever done this to me?" forgetting that we also have sinned against the other many times. We can't see the plank in our own eye which definitely distorts the view of our husband's or wife's sin.

Jesus said, "First, remove the plank from you own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother's eye" (Matthew. 7:5).

We are no better than anyone. If you have never committed adultery, it is not because you are better than those who committed adultery. If you never committed murder, it is not because you are better than those who are in prison!

Really, the quickest way to become a person who forgives easily is to ask God to reveal to you your own sin as well as the magnitude of His forgiveness towards you. Once you have seen the plank in your own eye, your attitude toward your mate will change dramatically. No one is faultless. This is how Jesus taught Peter to forgive seventy times seven. He told him the story of a man who was required by his lord to repay an impossible debt. He asked his lord if he would have patience so that he could repay everything. But his lord, instead, was moved with compassion and chose to release him by forgiving the entire debt. This servant who had been forgiven then went out and refused to forgive another man a very small debt. His lord returned and asked him, "Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?" (Matthew. 18:33).

Hint 3. Ask God for a willing heart. Many times this is one of the simplest reasons why you refuse to forgive. You just don't want to forgive; you would rather nurse the resentment and punish the other for his offense.
Once you see your own sin, you now need to ask God for a willing heart to forgive. He will give it to you if you will just ask.

Hint 4 : Remember that you will never know the facts and circumstances that led the other to act as he did. You will never know the whole story. Never.

There is a very cool Persian fable which helps me. It may help you. There was once a wise king of Persia who had four sons. He sent his oldest son on a long journey to see a mango tree. He dutifully journeyed to the farthest reaches of the kingdom, saw the tree, and returned. Some time later, he sent his second son on the same journey, and so on until all four sons had seen the tree. He then called them together and asked for a careful description of the tree. The first thought that it was nothing more than an old stump. The second disagreed, describing it as covered in light green leaves. The third declared that the tree was covered with lovely flowers, while the fourth described it as full of fruit that looked like a pear. Then the brothers decided that their father had sent them to see four different trees. But their father explained that they had merely seen the same tree in a different season.

It is the same in our relationships with others. When it comes to people, we seldom have seen the tree in all its seasons as the fable would remind us. If judgments must be made, let us take care to err on the side of mercy, knowing that we have not learned, and can probably never know, the whole truth about another. Let us take care to apply that judgment as we would have it applied to us. If we were in the same circumstances, we may have done the same.

Hint 5. Pray for the one who has injured you. Jesus Christ himself suggested it. "Pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5,44) Pray good things for them - that their family may blossom, that they may win the lottery, that they may prosper materially and spiritually. The amazing thing is that when you pray for your enemies, the resentment inside you melts down like ice in an oven.

Hint 6. Make the choice to forgive. Forgiveness does not just happen! Jesus spoke about forgiveness "from the heart" (Matthew 18:35). Out of gratitude for the forgiveness you have received from God and others, you may now choose forgiveness. Before you ever come to seek reconciliation with your mate, you must first deal with it at the heart level. Once you have chosen to forgive in your heart, then you are ready to talk about the offense with the other.

This choice within your heart does not depend upon whether you feel like forgiving. In fact, your choice to forgive will probably be contrary to your feelings. If you are waiting for some overwhelming sense of forgiveness before you actually make the choice to forgive, you will never do it. The feelings of forgiveness normally come after you have made the choice to forgive, not before.

We struggle with this concept of action-before-feeling because our culture is so feeling-oriented. People today only want to do what feels good. However, Jesus taught that we should do just the opposite when it comes to forgiveness.

Hint 7 : If possible, speak with the one who has hurt you. "...If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone" (Matthew. 18:15). Verbalize your forgiveness with the motivation of seeking reconciliation. Jesus also said in another place that once you have spoken to the person who has offended you, "...if he repents, forgive him" (Luke 17:7).
The other person may not respond. The other person may not change. Do not be upset. Do not let the reaction of the other person determine your actions. You forgive. Reconciliation may follow and may not. At this point, this does not depend on you.

The Real Freedom

Once you have forgiven, stick to these three points :

A. Promise yourself never to condemn the other again with his/her past faults; do not bring these issues up again unless sentiments are boiling within you - in that case, speak with humility;

B. Promise yourself not to recount or mention his/her failures to anyone else; this would constitute gossip; "love covers all sins"

C. Stop brooding over these issues in your own mind. If you dwell on these offenses, anger and resentment will return. Stop chewing past events. We all have a tendency of showing continuous replays. No, leave the past to where it belongs - the past. Twice I had a light bout with food poisoning and every time it came when I ate food which was cooked the day before. The lesson? Never eat food of yesterday.

The Apostle Paul associates tenderness of heart with forgiveness. He said, "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you" (Eph. 4:32). This is how God has forgiven us : completely and repeatedly. And this forgiveness has made us new. It can make others new.


Forgiveness is so powerful it can transform a person's life. Forgiveness is an act of faith born out of our love for the well being of others. In the book Les Miserables, Victor Hugo speaks of a man, Jean Valjean, whose only crime was the theft of a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. Valjean served nineteen years for this crime before being turned out penniless on the streets. Hardened and unable to find work as a former convict, Valjean finally makes his way to the home of a good old bishop, who gives him supper and a bed for the night. He serves Valjean using his best silver platters and candlesticks, which Valjean recognizes as being highly valuable. Yielding to temptation, Valjean steals the bishop's silver plates and slips away from the bishop's home, but is soon caught and returned by the watchful police. When shown the silver plates, the bishop says to the apprehending policeman, "Why?, I gave them to him." And then turning to the thief Valjean, he adds, "And Jean, you forgot to take the candlesticks." A shocked and eternally grateful Valjean accepts the candlesticks as more than valuable silver pieces, but as expressions of love beyond measure. The bishop's compassion gave freedom back to Valjean. The real freedom.

One act of forgiveness can have a tremendous impact not only on us but also on the life of the person receiving it. It ignites the divine in us. Let us never be afraid to risk...

(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.