For Christmas, one of my sons gave me a book by Martha Nussbaum called Anger and Forgiveness. It is a thought-provoking book. I didn’t always agree with her arguments, but I appreciated the opportunity to think more seriously about both anger and forgiveness. What follows is not so much her position on forgiveness as my own, informed by, and sometimes over against, hers.
The main thing I have come to believe about forgiveness is that the forgiver should not wait for an apology before forgiving the offender. Partly this is because Christians are called to forgive. But it is also because anger is a heavy burden to carry. And if we insist on receiving an apology before we put that burden down, we are, in effect, giving the person who hurt us the power to determine whether or not we will ever be free of it.
So forgiving, as I understand it, means letting go of our hostility and hurt so that we can seek healing and move on with our lives.
I have not had to forgive many people. But I did work hard at forgiving one man who did me wrong. I prayed about it. And I prayed for him. And gradually God lifted the burden of my hurt and resentment. I never did tell the man I forgave him—I haven’t had an occasion to do so. I suppose I would if I ever saw him, but I don’t feel any need to cultivate that relationship. Still, I am grateful to God for easing my burden by helping me to forgive.
That is what I think forgiveness is. What forgiveness is NOT is pretending the offense never happened. What that man did to me really was wrong. Indeed forgiveness is something closer to the opposite. Forgiving someone means identifying what the person did as an offense in the first place, and then refusing allow oneself to be defined by the bad thing that happened.
Forgiving also does NOT mean putting oneself at risk. A woman can forgive a man who attacks her without exposing herself to future attacks.
Ultimately forgives itself is a gift that God gives us. But it helps if we work at it too. I am grateful to Nussbaum for reminding me once again of that, even if that was not her main point.
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Fr. Harvey Hill
This blog is my occasional reflections on life, God, Christian faith, and the Church. I hope you find it helpful!