The Illusion of Control
"I don't want to forgive! Not forgiving makes me stronger!" I can still see her sitting there wearing unforgiveness as a mantle of protection, a look of distaste on her pinched face, a stiff manner contradicting her polite smile. She was like a turtle stuck during the vulnerable process of pulling itself back into its shell: not yet fully protected by the tough shell, but now unable to move away from the danger.
Sometimes we may feel the same way - that forgiving will make us weak. We may hold onto anger and bitterness because they give us the illusion of control over the uncontrollable – other people. The surge of emotion that comes from nurturing our anger, dwelling on our humiliation, or plots of revenge can make us feel powerful. We create a wall of negative emotions around ourselves like a hard shell, protecting us from further harm; keeping us safe. So we think.
That hard shell of protection distances us from others, not just the one we who did us wrong. In his book Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” When we lock ourselves away from hurt and vulnerability, we also lock ourselves away from love. Our hands are so full of bad feelings towards the perpetrator of our wound that we cannot reach them out to receive God's love and mercy into them. He longs to pour Himself out for us, but we have to approach Him with empty hands in order to receive such a precious gift.
It's Eating Us Up Inside
Holding on to unforgiveness poisons our souls. Even our secular society is realizing that unforgiveness really can "eat us up inside." Modern psychologists have studied both the positive effects of forgiveness and the negative effects of unforgiveness on physical and mental health. The Mayo Clinic website even has an entire article devoted to forgiveness. They report that forgiveness can lead to: healthier relationships; greater spiritual and psychological well-being; less anxiety, stress and hostility; lower blood pressure; fewer symptoms of depression; stronger immune system, and improved heart health.
See, God in His infinite Goodness has so much to give us in return for what we are willing to give up and hand over to Him! He won't send us away empty handed when we surrender our pain to Him and forgive.
Ummm…God Kinda Says To
At every Mass, we pray the Our Father. At least once a week we are asking God to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Jesus taught this prayer to his disciples, it is a gift from Him to us. Shouldn't we try to live it in our daily lives by forgiving those who hurt us?
Jesus was kind of big on forgiveness. Even from the cross He forgave those who had crucified Him and those who were mocking Him by praying, "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34) What better example of forgiveness could He have given us to follow?
Forgiving others is part of how we live our faith. It is one of the ways we try to imitate the One who gave His life for us; a gesture to return our love to the God who loves us so abundantly; a token of our affection for our Creator, Father, and Savior. It's a little thing, but it can feel like a big thing when we are the one who has been done wrong! It can feel impossible, but we must remember that all things are possible with God who loves us. He wouldn't ask us to do the impossible.
We Wanna Be Like Jesus!
I've had a lot of time to think about forgiveness while I've been home recovering from post-concussion syndrome. We all have a choice. God gave us each the gift of free will and the power to forgive or not to forgive. We can choose to wear unforgiveness as a mantle, to withdraw into a protective shell isolating ourselves from God and love or we can choose to wrap ourselves in God's love and forgive.
We love God; we want to please Him. We want to respond to our Lord's admonition, "You must therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) We are created to be like Him - perfect. Jesus wouldn't have said it if it wasn't possible. He wasn't laughing behind His hand at the impossibility of our perfection. No, He was informing us as of our incredible calling, the calling to love as our heavenly Father loves. Forgiveness is part of this love. So although the words have sometimes stuck in my throat, not wanting to come out in prayer, I say them anyway. I choose to surrender my pain, indignities and hurt feelings to God. We can choose to forgive, even when it's hard to give up that mantle of imagined protection. We can choose to set ourselves free from the prison of unforgiveness.
In my next posts I will talk about the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, common objections to forgiving, how to forgive, and moving deeper into forgiveness. I'm no theologian, so have no fear of treading too deeply into theory; we shall just continue walking together along the way.