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Forgiveness and Healing

An examination of one of the most beautiful aspects of Christian life

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In all of Scripture, arguably the most challenging teaching of Christ is the command to forgive our offenders, a command that typically coincides with the call to love our enemies. As difficult as it may be to observe, we see the chilling effects of its opposite in the gravely shattered condition of today’s culture, filled as it is with division and bitterness.

The only pathway to healing a wounded world is treating the broken hearts that lie within it. Forgiveness, when practiced authentically, brings us to confront the interior brokenness that perpetuates the cycles of brokenness all around us. As ministers of God’s mercy, we as priests must also be among those who labor most ardently to practice it well.

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In technical terms, unforgiveness falls formally under the category of hatred; it denotes a will bent upon the harm of another. When unforgiveness reigns in the human heart, we are locked in a posture so contrary to charity that we exclude ourselves from the gift of the Father’s mercy: “In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father’s merciful love” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2840).

When Jesus speaks of forgiveness in Matthew’s Gospel, he refers to forgiveness from the heart, which targets something much more than easy, superficial words. Inevitably, we touch here upon the emotions, the fragile and even daunting arena of the inner sanctum. The difficulty of forgiveness arises from the complexity of the emotions provoked by injury, and so a grasp of forgiveness requires a preceding study of the structure of the relevant and typically intense emotions.

Emotional Wounds

In the schema of divine revelation, love bears an inherent relationship with justice: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another” (Rom 13:8). It may seem a bit strange to speak of love as a matter of justice — after all, love is a free gift, is it not? Indeed, it certainly is. However, we also recognize that for the perfection of our nature in the divine likeness, we need to both receive and give love. In our stories, wherever the love we have needed is withdrawn or the love we were owed by others was withheld, we react painfully and passionately. What we react to — the injury — is taken under the aspect of interpersonal injustice.

Among the passions, anger serves to protect the order of justice. When we perceive an injustice, framed in terms of needed and deserved love, anger arises. The perception of injustice invokes a form of debt, and the passions move to restore justice and inflict punishment. For example, an attitude that says, “How dare you! Give me back what you took … and you’ll suffer for it, too.”

To complicate things, we tend to replay an injury, processing and reprocessing it as we plot our imagined revenge. As we ruminate, we experience a re-feeling that deepens anger’s complicated state. Rightly do we call this resentment, as re-sentire literally means to “feel again.” Resentment cycles downward until what started as righteous anger becomes the type of bitterness we call grudge, rancor and even hatred. The viciousness of resentment allows us to formalize its status as a habitual disposition against the good.

Anger’s Subtle Substructure

St. Thomas Aquinas offers a rich insight here: Anger, he says, is a complex emotion, one composed of multiple simpler passions. Along with the desire and hope for vengeance, anger is constituted by sorrow. The passion of sorrow laments a present evil, in this case, the perception of an unjust and injurious withdrawal or withholding of love. If, and only if, the passions rise to eliminate the cause of sorrow, then we have anger.

The pastoral implications of this fact are remarkable. In a sense, sorrow sits beneath and ontologically prior to anger, even if we may not feel or observe the sequence. Beneath every enraged heart is actually a broken heart, and within every bitter and hateful outburst is an inner sense that something has gone gravely wrong in the order of charity.

Understanding sorrow’s place within anger helps liberate the heart to grieve beneath the places of anger toward our offenders. Not only are we angry about what was done to us, but we are also sad to learn that the relationship is not what we thought or hoped. Grief and lamentation, in this fashion, actually serve to drain anger’s power as they also remind us that the heart is alive and suffering.

Recognition of sorrow as causally precedent to anger also offers us a pathway to kindness, even toward those who have crushed us. “Hurt people hurt people,” as the saying goes. We can eventually see, with the help of grace, that those who lash out to injure us typically do so from their own (often hidden) brokenness.

Now, here’s a crucial consideration: Each wound has this structure. In lived reality, we all bear dozens upon dozens of layered injuries. When we struggle with forgiveness, it is often the case that there are multiple offenses that complicate our emotional stance toward the offender. The good news is that with some careful examination, we can gain an understanding of exactly what happened, injury by injury, beneath what can feel like a tortuous and tangled inner mess.

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The Seven Features of Forgiveness from the Heart

Deep forgiveness has seven overlapping and interwoven features. The more completely we can observe the presence of some, and ideally all, of the following elements, the more sincere and lasting will be the freedom we experience through forgiveness.

1. Forgiveness is a virtuous process, first and foremost, one that unfolds within the heart and may or may not issue outward into interpersonal interaction.

2. Forgiveness entails the intellectual activity of taking a full inventory of the wrong done, a clear articulation of the object of the injustice and the debt invoked.

3. Forgiveness requires a willful departure from the quest for revenge, an end to the battle posture.

4. Forgiveness requires, again at the level of the will, the choice to no longer emotionally demand repayment.

5. Forgiveness requires that the one offended leave the pursuit of justice to another authority.

6. Forgiveness, as a virtuous process, is phenomenologically observable as the shift from ill will to goodwill, or from curse to blessing.

7. Forgiveness culminates in and is expressed by the offering of an undeserved gift. It is perfected when one’s suffering is united to Christ as an offering for the salvation of the one who inflicted it.

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Forgiveness from the Heart

Into this framework of the emotions, I would like to propose a theological definition of forgiveness from the heart. This definition of forgiveness represents a synthesis of the theology of the Catholic moral tradition and the psychological work of Dr. Robert Enright, and it consists of seven overlapping and interrelated component features.

Forgiveness as a virtuous process

In moral terms, forgiveness is a particular exercise of the virtue of mercy. Mercy, taken broadly, looks upon another’s misery and, in compassion, moves toward its alleviation. What makes forgiveness so demanding, even emotionally ambivalent, is the moral status of the other toward whom it moves.

freedomIn the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, we exercise kindness and compassion toward those who suffer a lack of spiritual or material goods. In forgiveness, the other toward whom we move is a highly specified other: someone who has hurt us. Forgiveness is thus utterly demanding. It requires a full about-face of our most complex emotions, a turn from hatred and ill will to kindness and compassion.

Definitionally, this means that deep forgiveness is a movement of compassion toward the alleviation of the misery of our enemy. When that feels like a lot to ask, we recognize Christ as the condition of possibility; from the cross, he chooses mercy rather than vengeance.

Because forgiveness is a virtuous activity, it requires practice, to become a good habit, replacing the vice of resentment. “Seventy times seven times” suggests that it may be a long road of repetition and practice. What we know of the virtues reminds us that as we grow in virtue the virtuous acts become both easier and more enjoyable.

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Forgiveness — Practical Details

Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Do we have to reconcile with those who hurt us? The answer is absolutely not, and sometimes it’s dangerous or harmful to do so. Forgiveness is a component of reconciliation, but also stands on its own.

What tends to confuse us here is the fact that whenever God forgives us, we are reconciled to him. This is so because God’s will is always turned toward us, open to our return. The same is not always true with our offenders. Reconciliation’s etymology is pedagogical; cilia means eyelids in Latin. Reconciliation is the action of returning to the eye-to-eye status of communion, one that was broken by sin and injury. For interpersonal reconciliation, both wills must be open to a restoration of relationship, which includes the re-establishment of trust and security. That’s a long process, even if it is built upon forgiveness.

Forgiveness of Self: Strictly speaking, forgiveness is of injuries, and injuries are interpersonal injustices. However, Aquinas reminds us that we stand in a metaphorical relationship with our younger selves as we remember things we have done in the past. We can be metaphorically angry and metaphorically merciful toward our younger selves. The very same forgiveness process can unfold within which we actually view the “enemy” as our younger selves.

Proceed Reasonably: Because forgiveness requires the stabilization of virtue, we start small and build slowly. It helps to start with a single offender, observe all of the ways their behavior has provoked the passions and then work through them from minor to serious. With practice, forgiveness actually becomes a familiar process, often becoming easier over time. Daunting as it can sound, full forgiveness requires that we forgive our offender for each of the ways they hurt us before we can have a sense, overall, of having truly forgiven them from the heart.

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Forgiveness requires we take a full inventory of the injustice

The parable of the unforgiving servant recounts a debt scenario, and Christ’s subtle instruction confirms the passions’ framework. A key step in forgiveness is the intellectual activity of grasping, in truth, the debt invoked by the injustice. Such a grasp must be both objective and subjective.

prayObjectively, the actual status of the injustice — what happened to corrupt the order of charity and justice — allows consideration of what can and should be done to restore justice wherever possible. If something can be restored, replaced or replenished, it ought to be, and such restorative activity will significantly reduce anger’s surging force.

But the subjective dimension is equally important to the forgiveness process. What exactly happened within the heart as the injury occurred? Has the pain settled, deepened or diminished? What did the injured person begin to believe about themselves, the offender, other people in general, God, human life and so on? How has the injury affected the whole of one’s story and the direction of their life? As difficult as these considerations may be, they help illumine the landscape of the deeper heart where pain still twists and binds.

An end to the pursuit of revenge

comfortNext, to forgive, we must address several questions. At the level of the passions, the preliminary posture is toward revenge. Would revenge truly satisfy? As attractive as the punishment of our offenders can be, the passions provoked also lament what was lost. Can that be restored? In cases of murder, abuse or grave slander, the answer is often no.

Furthermore, the weight of the debt over time means residual intensified passion that is no longer in proportion to the wrong done, and thus justice is no longer a direct solution to the emotional storm within. With a somewhat level sense of the landscape, if we wish to forgive, we make an act of the will to set aside the pursuit of revenge.

Leaving justice to another authority

In the case of a civil crime, a judge and jury are assigned to offer unbiased judgment. Principally, this is because the victim is unable to see clearly enough to determine the requirements of justice. Yet, how often do we ourselves play judge and jury? A key part of forgiveness is the humble admission of a limit to one’s ability to reason within the pain, followed by a choice to leave the pursuit of justice to another authority.

This does not mean justice is disregarded, and a misunderstanding at this level is often the chief impediment to the entire forgiveness process. Justice will be served. It may be the case that the pursuit of justice can be handed off to a higher and unbiased authority. In all cases, the final judge will be the Lord, and no injustice whatsoever eludes God’s omniscience. This element of the forgiveness process entails the interior decision to no longer stand as the arbiter of justice and to formally recognize another as such.

Emotional release of the demand for repayment

The one who seeks to forgive thoroughly then must address the deeper framework of the passions that have settled into place over time. The passions provoked by the injury surge toward repayment and requisite punishment.

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If forgiveness is to be a sincere and authentic exercise of mercy, there must be a shift in the perception of the other. In the revenge posture, the other is seen as an enemy. In the stance of mercy, the other must be seen as someone in misery toward whom we move in compassion.

To forgive, we must endeavor to understand the back story of our offender, to ponder the pain they carry and thus also transmit. Unresolved brokenness typically lies beneath the irrational and unreasonable acting out that culminates in interpersonal injury.

Even in the cases where one does not know an offender’s backstory, the Lord does. At this phase of the forgiveness journey, then, the forgiver invites the Lord to reveal whatever they need to know; they ask for the sentiments of Christ’s own divine and merciful heart. As the Lord longs for the conversion and salvation of the sinner, the one who seeks to forgive asks that God teach them to share in that longing. Here, an act of the will that touches the passions must take place, as we choose to no longer demand repayment from the one who hurt us.

From ill will to goodwill

As a development of the preceding elements, we then undertake a sort of process within the process. In forgiveness, we grow in likeness to God as we commit to the pursuit of not only our own salvation through upright living but also the salvation of our offender. At the level of the will, we observe the cessation of the curse mindset and the shift toward that of blessing.

In simplest terms, this step requires the choice to no longer seek the suffering, or even destruction, of the offender; such a shift represents the end of ill will. Gradually, this may grow from the cessation of ill will into actually willing the good of the offender. Typically, this begins with small movements of intercession and perhaps even forms of sacrificial offering for the offender. In cases where it is both prudent and possible, this movement may eventually even lead to reconciliation.

Offering an undeserved gift

Because forgiveness is a virtuous activity and charity has no upper limit, in some sense we are always in the process of perfection in mercy. The practice of forgiveness increases our likeness to Christ, and through it we are gradually divinized.

prayThis does not mean, though, that forgiveness has no measurables. In specifically difficult and even tragically broken relationships, one who forgives will notice the gentle but steady dispersion of the tightly bound emotional tension throughout the process of forgiveness.

As a specific exercise of mercy, forgiveness culminates in the offering of an unmerited gift. To achieve a degree of confidence and certainty about the accomplishment of forgiveness, even in its seminal and delicate early forms, one must be able to name and articulate the gift they have given. In forgiveness, the gift given to the offender, along with one’s ability to articulate the gift, embodies the act of forgiveness and assures the forgiver of the objective reality that has come to pass.

Perhaps at the outset the gift is the simple choice to no longer pursue revenge, which has — for the forgiver — the “feel” of kindness where there previously was only vice. Flowing out of the previous definitional element, the gift may include intercession, offerings of prayer and sacrifice, or acts of charity, be they manifest or hidden.

The gift of forgiveness reaches its most beautiful form when the forgiver is able to unite their pain to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Here, forgiveness and redemptive suffering coincide. Such a union is, in itself, a superb pathway to divine intimacy. It reaches its perfection as the suffering is offered, in union with Christ’s consummate sacrifice, for the salvation of the very one who inflicted it.

Beautiful Aspect of Christian Life

It may seem strange to say, but I believe it is deeply true: Forgiveness is one of the most beautiful aspects of the Christian life. We expect revenge, a slap back, insult for insult. Sometimes we long for it. Forgiveness is disarming, almost unsettling, even as it is also captivating.

Our world simply cannot continue on the path it treads so treacherously. Christ has established for us a way that he himself chose, and deep forgiveness is a graced participation in the heart of God. Perhaps the most effective way we might learn to insert the power of Christ into the entire temporal order is to labor, constantly, to interrupt cycles of bitterness and rage with the powerful ripples of grace, flowing forth from the cross, in the form of forgiveness.

FATHER JOHN BURNS is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and author of the bestselling book “Lift Up Your Heart: A 10-Day Personal Retreat with St. Francis de Sales” (Ave Maria Press, $14.95).

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Forgiveness from the Cross

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Speaking at his General Audience on Sept. 28, 2016, Pope Francis referenced the Gospel of Luke. He said, “The words that Jesus pronounces during his Passion find their peak in forgiveness. Jesus forgives: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Lk 23:34). These are not only words, they become a concrete act of forgiveness offered to the ‘good thief’ who was beside him.”

Pope Francis added: “The Church is not only for those who are good or those who seem good or believe they are good. The Church is for everyone, and even, preferably, for those who are bad, because the Church is mercy.”

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