One of the things that seems to cause the most division that people so often tell me about in confession, is bitterness in families over things like wills, where land or money has been left to someone and others in the family feel hard done by; sometimes over children who won’t forgive parents for their mistakes, or parents who won’t forgive their children, but especially over wills. It is very sad, but it is amazing how much of it exists. We decide that we can’t forgive, or won’t forgive, because we have been hurt too deeply. Unforgiveness is probably the single biggest obstacle to God’s helping us in this life. If I refuse to forgive someone, I am preventing the Lord from helping me, because this is one thing that the Lord asks us to do.
No doubt all of us here expect to be forgiven by God when we die. That’s what our faith teaches us, but I wonder do all of us feel that we also have to forgive those who have wronged us. This is exactly what the Lord tells us we must do, if we hope to be forgiven ourselves. We say it every time we pray the Our Father: ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ There are also many parables that Jesus used to emphasize this. The landlord who forgave one of his debtors a large debt which he was unable to pay, when he asked for mercy. But then that same man went out and refused to forgive one of his debtors for a much smaller amount. The first landlord condemned him for his lack of mercy and threw him in jail. And Jesus finishes with the words, ‘And that is how my heavenly Father will treat you, unless you forgive your brother from your heart’ (Matthew 18:35).
There is also a common misunderstanding to do with forgiveness, and it is this: many people have the idea that in order to forgive someone who has hurt them, they must feel like forgiving; in other words, they must have already gotten over the hurt. Forgiveness is a decision of the will, rather than a feeling of the heart. If I was to wait until I felt like forgiving, it may take a very long time, if ever.
‘Lord I forgive John, please bless him and help me to heal.’ When we decide to forgive, we are not saying that what happened no longer matters, or that it wasn’t wrong, or that we no longer feel the pain. We are choosing to forgive the person, so that we can heal. We are letting go of the resentment. We may have to say those words many more times throughout our life, but as long as we do, then we will begin to heal. If I refuse to forgive someone, I become consumed with the hurt, the resentment and anger. It eats away at me like a cancer. I am the one who suffers. You may feel that by refusing to forgive, you are punishing the other person. The truth is they may not even be aware of the hurt. You are the one who is suffering and the key to healing is in your hands.
The deeper the hurt, the harder it is to forgive and the Lord knows that. That is why Jesus spoke about it so many times. When the Apostles asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, He gave them the Our Father. The Our Father is a way of praying, not just a prayer and two lines of it are to do with forgiveness. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ If we expect to be forgiven, we too must forgive.
It is a terrible thing to meet someone in the later years of their life who has refused to forgive. You can see it in their face. They are angry and bitter and they are not at peace. That is not what the Lord wants for any of us and so He shows us the way out. The key is in our own hands.
When you find yourself angry with someone, it usually means you need to forgive them. I doubt if there is anyone who doesn’t need to forgive someone and so many of the stories people tell me are about serious injustices. The bigger the wrong we have experienced the harder it is to forgive. But remind yourself, it is not about how you feel. It is a decision.
In 1902, at the age of 11, St. Maria Goretti was stabbed to death by a man called Alessandro Serenelli, who tried to rape her. She wouldn’t give in to him and in a rage he repeatedly stabbed her. Some years after he was imprisoned for her murder, she appeared to him in a dream and gave him 15 lilies. He realized that each one represented each of the times that he had stabbed her and that she had forgiven him. From then on, he became deeply repentant, so much so that he was eventually let out of jail early (after 27 years) because of his exemplary behaviour. After he was released he went to her mother to beg her forgiveness. His mother said to him, ‘If Maria can forgive you, then I must forgive you too.’ I can’t imagine the grief and anger that her mother must have gone through, but she forgave Alessandro and I have no doubt that will have brought her peace and set her free.
When you are dying, will the injustices carried out against you still matter? Will you still refuse to forgive? We will not get into heaven until we forgive those who have wronged us and that is why it is so important. The key to healing is in our own hands, but it is a decision, not a feeling.
‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’