Updated: Aug 22, 2019
When we pray the Our Father we say ".....as we forgive those who trespass against us......". If you're anything like me, you may periodically have a fleeting thought that it might be a good idea to pause here and reflect on whether you really do forgive those who have hurt you in some way. Usually the urge to pause passes as quickly as it came and I move on. It's not clear to me why I breeze past this part of the prayer, but I suspect it has to do in part with my mixed emotions on this topic. Perhaps I could expand on this.
As Catholics we know that only God, or those whom He empowers, can actually forgive sins. So what do we mean when we talk about us forgiving someone? In broad terms, we usually mean that we will stop nurturing the associated hurt (do our best to move on), that we will try and let go of whatever anger or animosity has been induced, forego the desire to somehow "get back" or retaliate in some way, and finally, perhaps if we are really on the path to sainthood, actually wish the person well who has offended us. On this latter point, I have a long way to go.
As we all know, it's impossible to pass through this "vale of tears" without experiencing pain at the hands of others. Whether it's the casual though cutting slight of being ignored in a social setting or at work; being bullied at school; being deeply hurt by someone we trusted; or being a victim of abuse, forgiveness can seem like an overwhelming task. Yes, Jesus forgave those who crucified Him, and told us that we must forgive but He also recognized that we would usually fall short of this ideal. So what can we realistically hope for ourselves?
Generally speaking, in addition to the ill will we feel about the other person, there's also a tendency to see those who've offended us through the lens of the thing that they did to us; to see them as less than a whole human. But while our anger and hurt can be very real and justified, and in some cases may take a long time to truly heal, it has the unfortunate side-effect of diminishing us as a person, and negatively affecting our relationship with others and with God.
God has created a universe of naturally interconnected relationships and is constantly calling us to oneness. Resisting this call to oneness takes effort. If you want proof you might want to try this experiment: next time you have an argument with a significant other or friend, take and hold their hand, then try and sustain your anger. Not so easy! So how might we begin this journey to wholeness?
First off, even if we could bring ourselves to say the words of forgiveness or reconciliation, there's little purpose in it until we begin to have a change of heart. However, as mentioned earlier, that can be far from easy. But perhaps we can begin by praying for God's grace to help us want to have a more forgiving heart. Once we feel ready perhaps we can graduate to asking for the strength to want to forgive certain people. And ideally at some point, maybe we can even offer a prayer of forgiveness for those who have hurt us, even if we can't or are unable to bring ourselves to forgive them in person.
It is worth mentioning however, that while we struggle with forgiveness, God may well have forgiven those whom we have not, if they've taken any steps towards repentance. For example the Prodigal Son is forgiven by the father even before he gets to say he's sorry. Similarly the woman caught in adultery is forgiven by Jesus before she requests it (John 8). The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God "Will forgive their sins and will no longer remember their wrongs." And so while we struggle to forgive, we need to try and not end up like the elder brother of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), standing outside in anger and refusing to come into the party.