In one of his lesser-known yet very moving parables, Jesus told the story of a servant whose master had forgiven him a huge debt of money (Matthew 18:23-35).
But when the same servant confronted a co-worker over a much smaller debt, he refused to be as generous. He had this fellow thrown into debtors’ prison. When the master found out about this, he grew angry and threw the first servant in jail. Jesus ends the parable by saying, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart” (18:35). Jesus made it clear that he expects us to treat each other with the same kind of mercy he has for us.
It’s traditional during the season of Lent to focus on our need to repent. But this year, let’s look at the other side of the coin: forgiveness. We know what it’s like to be hurt by someone. We know what it feels like when these hurts remain in our memories. They wound us over and over again and cast a shadow over our thoughts and actions. That’s why forgiveness is so necessary. When we find the grace to forgive, we allow God to free us from the resentment, anger, and guilt that have bound us up and have led to even more frustration and sin.
These truths are easy to repeat, but they can be difficult to live out. So to help us out, let’s follow one woman’s journey from bitterness to peace.
Exterior Peace, Internal Turmoil. Linda was always a delight to be with. She was smart, pretty, and outgoing—a steadfast friend and a hardworking student. As a teenager, she was active in her parish youth group. At college, she attended Mass regularly and organized many of the activities at the Newman Center. Not long after graduation, she married Brad, her high school sweetheart, and threw herself into her new life as a wife and soon-to-be mother. By their fifth anniversary, Brad had become a successful businessman, Linda was a beloved schoolteacher, and the couple had two young children, a dog, and a beautiful home.
But these external markers masked the unease that they were beginning to feel. Between their jobs and the kids, they barely had time for each other. Brad began working extra hours, and Linda would fall asleep on the sofa just after she put the kids to bed. Resigning himself to watching television alone, Brad began to grow resentful that his wife was too tired for him. For her part, Linda wished Brad would take more time for the children. They began to let petty disagreements fester, and an atmosphere of negativity and cynicism began to develop in their home. The tension mounted until Linda suggested that they seek professional marriage counseling.
As the counseling sessions got underway, Linda felt that she and Brad were headed in a better direction—that is, until the day when he told her, “I’m not in love with you anymore.” He went on to say that he had been seeing another woman and that he wanted a divorce.
Linda was devastated. This once outgoing, upbeat woman was now a depressed single mother struggling just to pay her bills. She kept swaying between hating Brad and thinking about how much of a failure she was.
But that’s not the end of Linda’s story. As time went on, she began to rebuild her life. She found the strength to put aside the guilt, shame, and failure that had dominated her and to move forward. She even found a way to forgive Brad for what he had done to her and to put aside the hatred and resentment that had consumed her. The crowning moment came two years later when she was able to meet Brad, tell him that she wished him well, and welcome him to spend time with their children.
How was Linda able to let go of her pain and forgive her ex-husband? If you ask her today, she’ll tell you it was God’s grace. Over the course of the next three articles, we want to trace Linda’s steps toward healing and forgiveness so that we can get a sense of how we too can find the same kind of freedom.
Steps toward Freedom. The first thing we need to know is that no matter what our situation is, God is generous and loving. He is always with us, always eager to give us the grace and strength we need to travel the road toward forgiveness. Though each situation is different and each person is unique, there are generally four steps we need to take—four steps that God will help us take—on the way to freedom and forgiveness.
First, deal with the situation that hurt you instead of running from it or burying it deep in your memory.
Second, talk about your pain, whether alone or with a friend. Get it out into the open so that God can heal you.
Third, learn that no matter what has happened, God loves you deeply.
Finally, when you are ready, speak words of forgiveness for the person who hurt you.
Don’t Lock It Away! As you can see, forgiveness doesn’t come all at once—at least not when it comes to serious hurts. Our memories have to be healed, or at least healed enough, so that we can face the situation that caused us the pain in the first place. As long as the situation remains unaddressed, we’ll find it so much harder to forgive.
You may be telling yourself, “If I can just push this experience to the back of my mind, it won’t hurt me.” But the problem is, the more we lock up our hurts like this, the more space they end up taking. The “vault” gets larger and larger, and we become more and more numb—unable to trust people, reluctant to reach out for fear of being hurt again. We settle for superficial relationships and miss out on the joy, freedom, and security that come from close friendships or a healthy marriage.
This isn’t how God wants us to live. Jesus urged us to love one another, to forgive each other, and to resolve our differences as fully and peacefully as possible. The world may tell you that what hurts you will only make you stronger. It may tell you to toughen up and ignore the pain. But if you take this advice too far, you will end up with deep wounds that will continue to hurt you until you can find the way to forgive.
So try to open that vault a little bit. Let some of these memories out so that you can deal with them.
The Mural of Your Life. One way to do this is to imagine your life as a large mural stretching out from the day you were born up to this very moment. Take a good long look at that mural. First, try to picture some of the positive things you have experienced: family vacations, your first job, your wedding day, special reunions with friends, the birth of your first child, and all the rest.
Now, take a look at the more painful situations you have experienced: those times when you lost a loved one or when you were hurt by someone close to you or when you lost a job or when you made a serious mistake and felt like a failure.
Be careful, though. Any time you look at situations that you have locked away, you risk opening yourself to painful memories. Always remember that the Holy Spirit is with you. Give him permission to soften the pain of these memories. Ask for his help so that these memories lose some of their sting.
“How Could He?” This is what happened with Linda. Her healing began when she started to take account of the pain that she was keeping inside of her. Either by herself or with her mother sitting next to her for support, she started giving voice to her pain. “I hate Brad for what he did to me,” she said. “I tried my best to be a good wife and mother. How could he betray me like this? Who is going to be a father figure for my children?”
It took Linda a few weeks of day-after-day sessions like this before she felt that she could get it all out. Each time, when she was done, she opened her Bible to Psalm 23, her favorite, and prayed: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.” She tried to let these words sink into her mind and heart. Then she would open her prayer journal and write down a few sentences describing how she felt. Over those few weeks, she saw that she was slowly losing the sense of desperation, anger, and pain that had resulted from keeping these thoughts bottled up. She was beginning to feel more free.
Invite God In. These first two steps—facing the issue and verbalizing the pain—are essential to forgiveness. They may sound like nothing more than psychological methods, but when we invite God into the process, as Linda did, new and powerful things can happen. Faith grows. We find God’s comfort. And best of all, we get closer to forgiving and finding true freedom.