The pain of betrayal, injury, reproach, condemnation and the like is real, and it invades our being like a cancer. We must “treat” it as we would any malignancy–early, often, and until every sign of it is gone. And God, in his mercy, has given us the perfect “treatment”: forgiveness!
First: “Forgive” God for Not “Helping” You
Life isn’t fair. The reality is that few of us experience life as perfect. We may wish for a better job, home, or spouse, or for better health. And not only may we complain to God about all of this, but we may even be tempted to hold God responsible for the suffering, sadness, and failures we have experienced.
Alicia was struggling with alcohol and sex addictions. She believed that all of her problems were the fault of someone else, even God. She was angry with her parents, who were both alcoholics. She had often prayed this way: “If you really loved me, Jesus, you would take away all my addictions. But you don’t!” Then she stopped praying and going to church—until one day a friend challenged her with these words: “I stopped blaming God for the husband that I have a long time ago. Why don’t you stop blaming God for your addictions?”
The next week Alicia joined a twelve-step recovery group. Slowly, she began to accept the consequences of her actions and her addictions, and over time she was able to admit that she was angry with God for “watching” her mess up her own life. She forgave her parents for being alcoholics and gave up the rather naive misconception that she, as well as her parents, would magically get better. And finally, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Alicia admitted her own wrongdoing and sorted out all the serious consequences of her behavior.
Second: Be Willing to Believe in God’s Unconditional Love and Mercy
Sometimes you may not believe that God the Father, through Jesus Christ, is willing to forgive you. Henry had cheated on his wife, Cynthia, many times, until she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. When this happened, Henry gained a new compassion for her. He stopped cheating, took care of her around the clock for a year, and then visited her daily when she needed nursing-home care. All the while he worried about his sins against Cynthia. He would drive up to his parish church every Sunday and mull over his situation. “I know I need to come back to church,” he reasoned, “but then the roof might cave in.” So he would leave without going inside.
Then a friend invited Henry to a Bible study for caregivers. And over coffee, this friend suggested that Henry ask God daily to make him “willing to be made willing” to return to Jesus and the Church. As he prayed this way, Henry experienced the voice of God’s Spirit whispering about the mercy of Jesus that was meant for him too. Now Henry attends the Bible study occasionally and has made a few more friends in the parish community. Even more people are praying for Henry’s return to Sunday liturgies.
Pope Francis talks often about the great mercy of God. We ought to believe what he tells us:
God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22), has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew.
Third: Admit Wrongdoing and Turn toward Jesus
To know and share forgiveness, you must choose God as your Father and see yourself as the prodigal son or daughter. Admit to yourself that you are a sinner and have wounded your relationships with God, with yourself, and with others. Turn yourself inside out and repent. This gift is already yours; all that remains is for you to surrender your life to the Holy Spirit in prayer and renew your baptism by celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Interior repentance, according to the Catechism, is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. As a teenager, Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916) lost his faith. He served in the French military in North Africa and, after resigning and returning to Paris, underwent a profound conversion. He wrote, “How many are your mercies, O God— mercies yesterday and today, and at every moment of my life, from before my birth, from before time itself began! I am plunged deep in mercies—I drown in them: they cover me, wrapping me around on every side.” His words remind us that conversion is not just a once-and-for-all experience. As we grow in Christ, we are called to deeper and deeper levels and kinds of conversion. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offers us still another description of conversion:
Conversion is the change of our lives that comes about through the power of the Holy Spirit. All who accept the Gospel undergo change as we continually put on the mind of Christ by rejecting sin and becoming more faithful disciples in his Church. Unless we undergo conversion, we have not truly accepted the Gospel.
This is crucial: we must be converted—and we must continue to be converted! We must let the Holy Spirit change our lives! We must respond to Jesus Christ. And we must be open to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit who will continue to convert us as we follow Christ. If our faith is alive, it will be aroused again and again as we mature as disciples.
Fourth: Seek Forgiveness from Those You Have Wounded
One night Sheila led a special meeting of St. Bart’s parish pastoral council. She had been asked to present plans for an upcoming evangelization project. During the meeting, she was repeatedly interrupted by Frank, who had many questions. At one point she lost her patience and told Frank, “Sit down and shut up!” Others in the room were stunned. Afterward the president of the council spoke to her about her behavior. When she got home that night, Sheila called Frank and asked if she could come over to his house to apologize. When they met face-to-face, she admitted her abusive behavior and wrongdoing; she had embarrassed Frank and did not want to treat him like that again. Sheila asked his forgiveness for the pain she had caused him.
To make restitution for her behavior, Sheila went to the next council meeting and apologized to Frank again and to the entire group. The act of seeking forgiveness connected each person and the whole group to Jesus. Her willingness to repent and ask forgiveness freed the parish council at St. Bart’s to move forward in joining eight other parishes in offering an evangelization event. Hundreds of unchurched people and inactive Catholics were brought closer to Jesus Christ through the new unity and peace that prevailed on the council and in the parish.
But what if you repent, seek forgiveness, and try to make amends, and someone still won’t forgive you for the hurt you have caused him or her? Then it may be time to step away from the relationship for a while. Stop asking for forgiveness and turn this person and your relationship over to God in prayer as often as needed. Forgiveness is something we enter into according to the graces that are given to us over time.
Fifth: Decide to Forgive Others Who Have Wounded You
At one point after his father’s death, John realized that he was holding a lot of things against his dad. He was “stuck,” emotionally and spiritually. John’s spiritual director suggested following these seven steps to allow God’s healing and forgiving love to flow:
1. Admit your anger, resentment, and hurt; then put it into God’s hands.
2. Pray daily for the person who hurt you and wish the best for that person.
3. Whenever you become conscious of the pain between you and the other person, decide to forgive him or her.
4. Pray the Scriptures each day, especially those passages that speak of God’s unconditional love and mercy.
5. Whenever you receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, picture Jesus laying his healing hands upon you and also upon the other person.
6. Thank God for one good thing about this person every day— for example, maybe that person’s generosity to the poor.
7. Even before you have any feelings of forgiveness, act in a forgiving, loving, and compassionate way toward the person.
Our resistance to forgiving others often flows from patterns of behavior that block God’s mercy. Here is an exercise to help you consider patterns of behavior in your life that surface when something goes wrong.
Imagine that someone has done something that makes your blood boil, whether it is serious or trivial. You find yourself wanting to react in a very physical way. Now imagine reaching for an imaginary tool that you might use as a weapon. What would it be?
• a saw (to cut off the relationship)
• a hammer (to insist on what you want)
• pliers (to hang on for dear life)
• a screwdriver (to pin down the other person)
• another tool
Which imaginary tool would you find yourself using? What is it like for you to consider responding this way?
Lift up your imaginary tool (or get a real one and lift it up to God) as you pray: “Lord Jesus, I have harmed others with this _________. I am sorry, and I ask your forgiveness. I trust in the Father’s mercy, and I promise to seek forgiveness in whatever way you lead me. Amen.”
—excerpted from Mending Broken Relationships, by John and Therese Boucher, The Word Among Us Press, 2015. Available at wau.org/books