forgiveness: it works if you do it right
By Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D.
Forgiving can be hard, but there always comes a time when you have to settle accounts and move on. How?
Well, ancient wisdom is popular with self-help gurus these days. So, without getting preachy, let’s take another look at the Sermon on the Mount ― Matthew, chapters 5 through 7. It’s ancient. And it’s a timeless, practical guide explaining that forgiveness works the same way at every level, across the whole universe.
Start with “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When somebody hurts you, you handle it the way you want God to handle it when you trespass against him.
You can’t just presume that you’re forgiven: sin is sin, and Christ never stood up and said, “All of your sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven.” So that sort of blanket oblivion isn’t expected of us when we’re called upon to forgive, either. Forgiveness can’t be one-sided.
As an offender, you have to come forward and ask God’s forgiveness. That’s why Christ deputed his power to forgive sin to the Catholic Church, through St. Peter and his successors (Mt 16:18-19). The sinner has to come forward and ask forgiveness of Christ through the Church, just as sinners had to come forward to ask forgiveness from him directly while he was walking among us (Lk 7:36-50).
In that same way, the person who’s hurt you needs to come to you and ask your forgiveness. If you’re lucky, the offender may come to you to apologize, or you may be able to approach and prompt an apology by explaining the hurt. You may have to just back off and wait. But in any case, your obligation is to do for the offender what God does for you: stand ready to grant that forgiveness.
While you’re waiting, use good common sense. Being ready to forgive doesn’t mean setting yourself up as a target. Give the person every possible chance to earn your trust again, but don’t give that trust until it’s earned ― Don’t cast pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you. In other words, be ready to forgive the offense and forget the hurt, but remember the lesson.
Waiting also gives you time to examine your own behavior and your conscience. Take the beam from your own eye before you worry about the speck in somebody else’s, as the Sermon says. After all, a rebuke may sting, but maybe you deserved it ― in which case you should come forward, yourself, and reconcile with somebody who cared enough to rebuke you in the first place.
If you really didn’t deserve that sting, look to the Sermon again: Do good to those that hurt you. After all, people who hurt others have a problem. Look at that offense as a cry for help. Don’t let resentment boil inside of you; turn that energy into prayer for the offender. That’s the best thing that anybody can do for anybody else, in any case.
Of course, once hurt, you might be tempted to punish the person. But remember what St. Paul told the Romans: Vengeance is mine, says the Lord; I will repay. Leave it to him. He knows what he’s doing. And anyway can you imagine a worse torment than being a person like the person who hurt you?
[One-run serial rights are granted provided that the publication carry the following credit line: Kevin Orlin Johnson is the author of Why Do Catholics Do That?, now in its twenty-fifth anniversary expanded edition.]
[Picture: Bartolomeo Esteban Murillo, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Wikimedia Commons.]