Forgiving 77 times
Our readings today invite us to be merciful toward others as God is merciful toward us. Indeed, to forgive is one of the most difficult virtues to live out. Fr. Bill McGary once shared when we were young scholastics that the mark of a genuine Christian community is not the absence of conflict, but the ability of the members to forgive one another. Some reflections about the virtue of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not an emotion but a decision. Some of us only consider forgiving after the hurt has dissipated. However, we cannot program our hearts what to feel or not feel. We cannot compel our hearts to no longer hurt. And the deeper the hurt the longer it lingers. Nonetheless, while we cannot choose our emotions, we can choose how to deal with them. We can choose to transcend the hurt and forgive an offender, which alas does not necessarily result in the disappearance of the pain or anger. Nonetheless, this manifests the power of forgiveness – the graced capacity to treat my offender with respect and charity, notwithstanding the lingering hurt and memory of the wrongdoing.
Second, forgiveness, while a decision made at a moment in time, is often a long-drawn process. We need to recognize where we are in this process of forgiving. Initially, because of the intense hurt and anger, perhaps the most I can do to forgive an offender is to keep my distance, knowing that any confrontation may exacerbate the situation. As the hurt and anger abate perhaps I might be capable of engaging in conversation, discussing everything under the sun save the reason for our conflict. Still later on, I might be willing to initiate a dialogue about our conflict and offer to reconcile.
God does not coerce us to forgive beyond our readiness. And just as God does not force us beyond our readiness, neither can we force the other to reconcile with us. To respect the other is to respect his or her decision to reject my offer of renewed friendship. And to respect myself is to recognize where I am in this long process of forgiveness and my readiness to forgive or reconcile with the other.
Third, forgiveness, while an offer to renew friendship, does not necessitate restoring the original relationship. A woman, after years of being hurt by her husband’s philandering, can decide to separate from him definitively. Later on she can decide to forgive him without necessarily cohabiting with him again. Or one can decide to forgive a friend his debts yet determine not to loan him again in the future. Nonetheless, one can be friends with him again despite his unpaid debt and one’s decision to desist from lending him money in the future.
Fourth, forgiveness, while an act of charity toward one’s offender, is also an act of charity toward oneself. For as long as I do not forgive an offender, I am burdened by the weight of anger and hatred. And as long as I choose not to forgive my offender paradoxically wields power to make my life miserable. Hence, while forgiving my offender is an act of charity toward him or her, it is at the same time an act of charity toward oneself. For in forgiving the other, I free myself from his or her influence to make me miserable. In forgiving the other, I allow myself to move on. And occasionally, when I finally decide to forgive my offender, mysteriously the hurt suddenly dissipates, resulting in a lightness of being.
Finally, forgiveness, while a free human act, is ultimately a grace. Forgiveness is the grace of God working within us. To forgive requires herculean efforts to process the anger and hurt within, to tame the compulsion to seek vengeance, to curtail the tongue from spewing toxic statements. Ultimately, I can only forgive another through grace operating within me. And many times though I may want to forgive I find myself incapable of doing so. Then unexpectedly grace indwells me and I am filled with magnanimity to forgive without counting the cost.
And so the Lord today invites us to forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times, which in Aramaic numerology means an infinite number of times. Just as the Lord does not tire forgiving us, especially when we come to him with a contrite heart, so too are we invited to forgive our neighbors and embody God’s tender mercy for the world.