As a Bible-loving Christian and practicing Catholic, I have many reasons to believe in the importance of forgiving others. But even if we put aside “theology”, I believe our common human experience gives us several reasons why we should all forgive people who offend us.
If you knew all your transgressor has been through, you would probably feel more pity than anger. When a person does lash out, deliberately intended to hurt another person, it usually means they themselves have been deeply hurt. This does not justify their behavior, but it can make it easier for us to understand their behavior and recognize that they are deeply in need of healing and holding a grudge against them doesn’t help. Anger begets anger and violence begets violence. Refusal to forgive perpetuates the harm done. The void created by one injury will never be filled with more emptiness. Forgiveness breaks a cycle of conflict, thereby at least opening the doors to future healing and reconciliation. Whether accepted or not, forgiveness sends the message that the other person has a dignity and is worth something. Many people desperately need to hear this message.
Forgiveness frees us and prevents us from being a victim twice. If someone has hurt us, we have already become a victim of their behavior. Refusing to forgive them makes us a victim again, this time to our own hatred, bitterness and desire for revenge. Whether or not the other person accepts (or even knows about) our forgiveness, the act of forgiving them frees us from ourselves and enables us to move forward.
We also need to be forgiven. Whether intentionally or not, we all at times offend other people. In such cases, we need forgiveness. It is only fair to offer others what we ourselves would hope to receive.
When we struggle with forgiveness and it seems impossible, it’s good to remind ourselves what forgiveness really means.
It doesn’t mean:
- Forgetting the past. Contrary to the popular adage “forgive and forget”, we do not need to forget in order to forgive. In fact, it is because we remember and continue to feel, yet still forgive, that forgiveness is so powerful.
- Continuing a relationship with a person regardless of how they have wronged us. When an offense has caused a breakdown of trust in essential matters that can’t be easily fixed, we don’t have to act as though nothing has changed. We can forgive a person even if, to be prudent and avoid future abuses we need to change the extent and circumstances of our dealings with the other person.
- Enabling a person to continue offending you or others, or removing the just consequences of their behavior. We do not need to shield or cover up for the offense in the name of forgiveness, or allow someone who has done something wrong to “get away” with it without logical consequences. We can forgive a person while upholding justice at the same time (for example, you can forgive someone who has stolen from you while still regaining your property and allowing legal processes to proceed).
It DOES mean:
- Letting go of hatred and the desire for revenge.
- Commending the person to God’s mercy.
- Freeing the person from their debt to us (this doesn’t mean justifying the wrong; it rather means acknowledging the wrong, but not holding it against the person).
- Think of a time when you offended someone and received forgiveness. Remember the gratitude you felt. Try to pass it on.
- Avoid thinking too often about what occurred that upset you. Acknowledge the wrong, but don’t wallow in it.
- If you have a personal relationship with the person who hurt you, try to talk about it. Reconcile if possible (reconciliation on the personal level can help heal the hurt).
- Allow yourself to grieve. Talk to someone you trust about what you have lost. Allow yourself to process the pain and sadness in order to let go of it.
“If we really want to love, we must learn to forgive.”
~ Mother Teresa of Calcutta