Navigating the Faith: Forgiveness

by Fr. Phil Michiels, Pastor, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish

From the Middle Ages comes this legend about a nun who claimed that she had had a vision of Christ.  The bishop asked, “Sister, did you talk to him?”  And she said, “Yes, I did.”  He continued, “If you have another vision, ask Christ this question: ‘What was the bishop’s great sin before he became a bishop?’”  He knew that only God and his own confessor would know.

About three months later, the nun made an appointment to see the bishop.  When she came in, he said, “Did you see our Lord again?”  “Yes,” she replied.  “Did you ask him the question about my sin?”  “Yes, I did.”  “And what did he say?”  She smiled and answered, “The Lord said, ‘I don’t remember any more.’”  (Stories and Parables for Preachers and Teachers, Paul J. Wharton)

Obviously this story is one of myth and only symbolic. How could God forget anything?  For me the point of the story is that God always acts toward the repentant sinner as if God forgets.  Such is the intensity of God’s mercy and compassion.  So much so that in Jesus, God died for the sake of mercy and compassion.  The Church celebrates this in a special way in the Sacrament of Penance.  The Church also celebrates God’s mercy and compassion at every Eucharist.  This happens as we call to memory in sacred ritual and sacrament the Real Presence of Jesus, who poured out his blood for the forgiveness of sins.  Having celebrated our reconciliation with God in the Mass through sharing Christ’s paschal mystery, we go out to a world waiting for the touch of Christ’s mercy and compassion.  Such is our call to be a person of forgiveness.

Personal experience tells us forgiveness hardly comes easy.  Sometimes we find it hard to not only forgive another person, but also to forgive ourselves.  The one thing that pulls me personally out of this dilemma is that if God always forgives, why not let God’s grace move me to forgive?

There are no magic answers.  You may find helpful the following information I stumbled on several years ago (Miller and Jackson, Practical Psychology for Pastors, Prentice Hall Publishers, Englewood NJ, 1985).  Often people fail to forgive because they confuse forgiveness with any of five other things, which it is not.  It can be useful to distinguish between forgiveness and these other processes.

First, forgiveness is not the same as AMNESIA.  Forgiving and forgetting are different acts.  Forgiveness does not require forgetting.  In fact, one can hardly forgive that which has already been forgotten!  Forgiveness is given in the face of remembering, and if anything it is forgiveness that enables forgetting.  Certainly forgetting is no prerequisite, nor does forgiveness require the promise to forget (which may be much more difficult).  However, forgiveness is the only cure for resentment, a negative attitude that continually pulls us down and causes one to be a miserable person to himself/herself and others.

Secondly, forgiveness is not ACQUITTAL.  Forgiveness does not mean that the person is found blameless and without responsibility.  To the contrary, forgiveness is only required when responsibility of the individual is recognized.  One need not deny responsibility in order to be forgiven, nor does forgiveness require later denial by either party.  Forgiveness is given in the face of responsibility.

Thirdly, forgiveness is not an AWARD.  It is not earned, or given to those more deserving.  Forgiveness is given freely, without regard for merit.

Fourthly, forgiveness is not APPROVAL.  To forgive an action is not to approve of that action or agree with it.  It does not require that the forgiving person say, “I think what you did was OK.”  In fact, forgiveness is needed only when one does not approve.  It is given in the face of disapproval.

Finally, forgiveness is not ACQUIESCENCE.  It is not a license to go and do as one pleases in the future.  It is not a moratorium on values, a suspension of rules.  It is not permission to stay the same, but rather in a very mysterious way, forgiveness itself inspires and enables change.  Forgiveness is given in the face of knowledge that the future may or may not be different, but also with the enabling hope that it will.

Forgiveness is none of the above.  Miller and Jackson point out that forgiveness is most definitely something else.  Forgiveness is an affirming acceptance of the person as distinguished from his or her actions.  This kind of unconditional love is the kind of love God gives when God forgives.  Forgiveness becomes the alternative to anger.  Better still, forgiveness is a response to anger.  I repeat, forgiveness is the alternative to holding on to one’s anger!

There is so much more to say about forgiveness and its power in our lives.  For sure, we need to start with the fact that the only cure for anger and revenge is forgiveness.  As Catholics, we believe we live up to our human potential with the help of God’s grace.  Through grace, may you always receive, and in turn give God’s gift of forgiveness!

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