Dear Fr. Joe: I am really confused about forgiveness. I know we are supposed to forgive everyone, but does that mean I have to stay in the relationship? My marriage counselor is telling me something different. Please help.
Wow, great question and tough issue. The amazing thing is, I just had this discussion with some of my students and they were so relieved by what I am about to tell you. I hope and pray this helps. I am going to take you through three steps in this answer, and they look something like this: 1. We are to forgive always and everywhere. 2. While we are always called to forgive, we may not be called to reconcile. 3. Forgiveness is a process, not a moment.
OK, we must always forgive. Jesus, by his word and example, demands this of us; he doesn’t suggest it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us some great words on this subject in sections 2840 and 2845. In it, the church reminds us that if we don’t forgive others, we harden our hearts to the ability to receive forgiveness. Interestingly enough, we also learn in this section that something that can help us be more forgiving is to receive forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation ourselves, but we’ll get into that later. Section 2845 reminds us that God’s power to forgive is without limit, which should give us hope. When we have trouble forgiving, we can call upon the strength from heaven that is being offered to us each moment by God. Now, while we are called to forgive, we may not always be called to reconcile. To forgive someone means, in one sense, to let go of her power to control us. Reconciliation is a restoration of the relationship. It works like this: When we forgive someone, we let go of the power of his hurtful actions or words over us. We acknowledge that it happened and that it hurt, and we call on God to help us let go of the power of that event. We don’t need the other person’s cooperation to do this; we only need our desire to forgive and our ability to call on God. That is it. Reconciliation requires two people and God. Reconciliation starts when the other person asks our forgiveness. Reconciliation occurs if and when we recognize that the person who hurt us was acting out of character and will not attack our dignity again. This is big here. If someone asks our forgiveness, but continues to live and act in a way that is harmful to our human dignity, we must forgive him, but we cannot reconcile with him. We have to remember this – each person has to protect her God-given human dignity. Any pattern of behavior that contradicts our knowledge that we are worth God’s last breath is not something with which we can be reconciled. You are called, always and everywhere, to protect your human dignity. Finally, we must remember that forgiveness is a process, not a moment. The first step in the process of forgiveness is the desire to forgive. It is quite possible to be so hurt by someone that we don’t even want to forgive her. If this is the case, then we can pray for the desire to forgive. Either way, whether we have the desire to forgive, or are praying for the desire to forgive, we have started on the process of forgiveness. The next step takes place in our daily prayer. Here, each day, we ask for the grace to forgive the person; to let go of the hurt and pain and to move on. We keep this up until we know we are free. Along the way, it is good for us to keep two things in mind: First, we don’t have to pretend that we are not hurt. That is not forgiveness; that is lying. If someone hurt us, and we are trying to forgive her, then we don’t have to pretend that we have already. Now, if we hurt someone and need his forgiveness, then we need to be sure and give him the space and time he needs to work through it himself. Second, we need to be vigilant. Whenever we remember the pain or the moment that hurt us, we need to be strong and speak to it with the power of the Holy Spirit. For example, we can say “Jesus, help me to let go,” or whatever we need to do in order to live free. This process may take a long time; or it may not take nearly as long as we think. The important thing is not that we “complete this task”, but that we are faithful in our efforts to try and forgive. I will pray for you. Keep in mind that there will come a day when we recognize that, through God’s grace, we have gotten stronger and are ready to move on. Now, here’s a cool thing: God’s forgiveness of us is effortless and instantaneous. Enjoy another day in God’s presence.