I cannot think of a greater spiritual pain that I have witnessed in the life of people than when the necessity of forgiveness comes up. Maybe the individual has been deeply hurt by someone close to him or her. They hear the Lord say (through so many different ways): “You must forgive”. Their anguished reply is “How?” They simply don’t know how to do it since the hurt is so deep and the emotions are so uncontrollable.
Yet it is central. Even in the ‘Our Father’, it says clearly “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” For many, this seems like someone just asked them to climb Mt. Everest without equipment.
I would like to look at this experience very carefully since it has important consequences.
One must first define what we mean by forgiveness. It is not as simple as it looks! When a killer attacked the children of the Amish in Pennsylvania a number of years back, he murdered in cold blood five young girls who were in a classroom learning. The killer was then interrupted in his cruelty and committed suicide. The Amish parents of the girls took their faith in Christ very seriously: they refused to hate back; they not only reached out to comfort one another, they reached out to the widow of the killer and to his two children. They attended the killer’s funeral and set up a trust fund for his children to help them financially now that their father was not there to support them!
Of course, the public wanted to know more about the Amish and their serious attempt to live radical Christianity. The Amish, however, made certain distinctions concerning three words that often are inaccurately lumped together as meaning one thing: Forgiveness, Pardon and Reconciliation. By Forgiveness, they meant the letting go of the evil done and accepting the plea for forgiveness from the perpetrator. By Pardon, they meant submitting the crime to the Law, for if the killer had survived, they would feel he should not be pardoned but had to suffer the consequences that the community stipulated for such a horrendous act (i.e. they had to be sure that he was kept off the streets). By Reconciliation, they meant a complete healing of the situation so that the killer, chastened by suffering the consequences of his actions, would be re-admitted into the community just as he used to be before the horrible action. This reconciliation was the hardest experience to realize, but had to be done after the process of forgiveness and pardon was complete.
Unfortunately, we lump these diverse experiences together into one act of what we term ‘forgiveness’.
But even if we limit ourselves to just this one experience, I think we need to make another important distinction: that of what it means to forgive and what it means to let go of something. For this, we need to investigate what the Church requires for forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance. In studying our Catechism, we know that forgiveness has some requirements that are necessary to be fulfilled. They are: 1) Sorrow for the sin committed, 2) Request for forgiveness, 3) A firm purpose of amendment, and 4) The doing of some compensatory Penance. Only then can the priest say, “I absolve you of your sins…”
Part of the anguish I have witnessed in my life, and in the life of well-meaning Catholics, is that in our interpersonal doings, we cannot seem to get to forgiveness no matter how hard we try. That is because we forget that the giving of forgiveness is a process that involves two people: the sinner, and the one person who is sinned against. Often, the one who has committed the hurtful act does not feel sorry for doing the action, is not even aware that they have hurt someone, and consequently is not asking to be forgiven. I often ask someone who, in anguish tells me that they cannot forgive or do not know how to forgive the other, “Well, have they asked for forgiveness? Have they said they are sorry and will not do that sin again? Have they attempted to do something for you that will help the situation in the future?”
Most of the time when I present the necessary steps toward forgiveness, the aggrieved person says that they would willingly forgive the person but that the sinner is in no way even sorry for what they did and is not, in fact, asking to be forgiven. Most of the time when someone says they can’t forgive, what they are really saying is: the person who did this to me shows no sign of wanting forgiveness and is still doing what is very hurtful, and I am having a hard time in letting this go and moving on with my life. Forgiveness in this scenario is not the issue, it is moving on when so much remains unfinished. This is primarily a psychological issue and not a moral one. The best that one can do is ask God to help them let go of the situation until a time comes when the sinner is ready for repentance and conversion. Only then can the process of forgiveness begin.