On Good Friday of Holy Week, we once again hear the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them.”
How many times have we read the Passion or listened to these last words of Christ on the Cross and yet not really understood what they really mean? It can be so difficult to say – or hear – those powerful words, “I forgive you.” Instead, we toss off, “No problem!” or “It’s OK,” or “No big deal.” Too often, we walk away feeling angry, resentful, or tempted to get even or to soothe our ruffled feathers by cutting this person out of our confidence, our inner circle, or our hearts.
And yet, Jesus didn’t tell us to dismiss or deny the wrong. He certainly didn’t do this when He was suffering! He sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane as He felt the weight of our offenses. He fully entered the pain that our sins caused Him and yet still asked the Father to forgive them – us! – because we don’t know what we’re doing. In his book, The Seven Last Words, Venerable Fulton Sheen points out that if really, we did know how serious it is when we offend God and others, we wouldn’t do it! We’re called to forgive others as Jesus forgives us, and yet, so many times, we find ourselves falling short of this call.
Unforgiveness is a Poison
Unforgiveness is a terrible cancer that eats away at our lives and affects us in body, mind, and spirit. In fact, unforgiveness hurts us far more than it hurts the person who offended us. It cuts us off from God’s forgiveness for ourselves and closes our hearts to His graces. The stories we tell ourselves to justify our anger can dominate our life’s narrative and crowd out God’s story for our lives. And it can lead to unresolved resentment that smolders in our hearts like a bed of hot coals, ready to explode into flames at the slightest annoyance or offense.
People stuck in anger and resentment are less healthy than those who forgive, and face a greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. Dr. Michael Barry, author of The Forgiveness Project and pastoral care director at the Cancer Treatment Center of America, found that 61% of cancer patients struggle with unforgiveness. A man dying of leukemia once said, in profound regret, “I have poisoned my own blood with unforgiveness.” Unresolved anger and resentment cause psychological and physical stress…and stress causes inflammation…and inflammation leads to disease.
What’s in It for Me?
If unforgiveness is so bad for us, why do we find it so hard to forgive? It’s a way of protecting ourselves from more hurt by setting up a barrier between us and the other person. Kind of like, “If I don’t let you in, you can’t hurt me.” Anger is a power emotion, so anger and resentment allow us to avoid vulnerable feelings of sadness and helplessness when we’re offended. Unforgiveness is also tied to our expectations. If we expect that others will treat us with respect and fairness, we are understandably offended and disappointed when they fall short of the bar.
Unreasonable expectations can fan the flames of our unforgiveness. For instance, we can refuse to forgive a parent because they failed us in being the perfect provider, nurturer, or comforter. When a friend or spouse fails to meet our needs, fix our feelings, or be our source of happiness, we can find it difficult to extend forgiveness “seventy times seven.”
Forgiveness Is…and Is Not
The most important reason we find it hard to forgive is because we don’t understand what forgiveness really is. Father Mike Schmitz reassures us that forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re no longer hurt, or that you must be friends with the offender, or that you must trust the person who hurt you.
Although forgiving someone means paying attention to your hurt feelings, forgiveness itself is not a feeling, but a choice, an act of the will. Dr. Robert Enright, founder of Forgiveness Therapy, defines forgiveness as a free and undeserved gift we give to others. That gift might be a smile, a hug, a prayer, or another chance, if it’s safe to do that. Letting go of the anger and resentment we feel is the beginning of healing, not the result.
Forgiveness and Boundaries
But forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting the offensive behaviour or just letting another person repeat the offense. We need to set up boundaries that can prevent others from coming into our space and trampling on all our flowers. Boundaries are different from barriers. Barriers say, “Stay out! I don’t want you in my life or my heart.” Boundaries say, “I want to love you, and have you love me, and this is how it needs to look so I feel safe and respected.” Forgiveness without boundaries can be naïve or unsafe. Boundaries without forgiveness too often turn into barriers.
If you struggle with unforgiveness, whether it be forgiving yourself, forgiving others, or accepting God’s forgiveness, spend some time this Lent exploring some of these helpful resources:
ꝉ Join Fr. Charles Sikorsky on Called to Flourish from Divine Mercy University as he interviews Dr. Paul C. Vitz on the connection between forgiveness and mental health.
ꝉ If you struggle with resentment, pick up this little book by Francisco Ugarte, From Resentment to Forgiveness and discover the gateway to lasting happiness.
ꝉ Finding it hard to forgive your spouse? Join Mike and Alicia of The Messy Family Project as they talk about the importance of forgiveness in marriage.
ꝉ Do you feel imprisoned by your unforgiveness? Consider the Unbound prayer ministry to free you from the chains that stop you from being your best self.
ꝉ Looking for a proven formula for working through the forgiveness process? Let Dr. Robert Enright walk you through the steps to freedom in his book Forgiveness is a Choice.
ꝉ Join Ignatian-trained spiritual director, Kathleen Beckman for an individual or group retreat, using her beautiful book, God’s Healing Mercy: Finding Your Path to Forgiveness, Peace, and Joy.