February 24, 2021
Have you ever considered that forgiveness is a Spiritual practice? Forgiveness starts with a decision to begin a process that may continue for years, even a lifetime. Forgiveness releases resentments that fester inside us. It means we stop fixating on ourselves – our image, our reputation, our woundedness and our victimhood. Forgiveness requires major reductions in the size of our own ego, which seeks revenge and self-preservation.
“Every step away from the ego gets us closer to authentic, enduring forgiveness.” Albert Haase, OFM
The etymology of the word forgiveness is to go beyond giving. It is easy to give to someone we perceive as innocent, such as a young child or a victim of injustice. But we often have difficulty feeling compassion for someone who has hurt us or others. Forgiveness is giving beyond because the person who forgives has been hurt unjustly.
What does the Christian New Testament tell us about forgiveness?
- Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
- For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (Matthew 6:14)
- Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)
These verses tell us that we must forgive, so that we ourselves may be forgiven by God. Do you notice what’s happening here? Forgiveness is not about bringing someone else to redemption. Forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves. There is no chart to tell us what sins are unforgiveable. Our God of grace and mercy does not tell us that we need to bring others to repentance for their sins. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he said, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Jesus did not ask God to bring redemption to those who persecuted him. Jesus forgave all who had betrayed him, so that he himself could be forgiven by God. Jesus practiced forgiveness even in his last breaths and showed us how we are to forgive.
The great faith traditions teach us to forgive
The process of forgiveness is not unique to the Christian tradition. In Judaism, if a person causes harm to someone, he/she must sincerely apologize. Then the wronged person is bound to forgive. The name Islam is derived from the word salem, which means peace. Forgiveness is a prerequisite to having peace. Buddhism teaches the importance of a peaceful mind and life and forgiveness is a critical step to achieving this.
Despite being a universal process that is vitally important to finding peace, forgiveness is very often misunderstood. Forgiveness is not saying the correct words. It does not ignore the hurt or put a bandage on it. It is not passive. Forgiveness is not running away or avoiding conflict. It is not weak, simple-minded, or unsophisticated.
Forgiveness is an action that breaks the cycle of hurt and changes history. Forgiveness allows us to claim our power and strengthen the wisdom of our own hearts.
“Forgiveness is memory enshrined in mercy.” Albert Haase, OFM
How do you forgive someone?
- Decide that you want to forgive. I will do this.
- Create space from the person or the situation so you can disrupt dynamics and calm your emotions.
- Examine the tender spots. What does the hurt feel like? What would it feel like to get rid of this hurt?
- Pray honestly.
- Speak your truth to the person who hurt you. If this is not possible it may be helpful to write your truth and share it with a trusted friend.
The act of forgiveness is often surprising because it is not an instinctive process. When we are hurt our instinct may be to fight back or to focus on protecting ourselves. We may want to pretend that we are strong and cannot be hurt. Our culture frequently encourages retaliation, sometimes cloaked as justice, instead of forgiveness.
When we do not forgive, we allow that pain to control and to continue to hurt us. We harbor resentment. We surrender our freedom when we decide not to go somewhere or change our words because someone who hurt us might be present or may challenge us.
When we do not forgive, it affects all our relationships. It becomes difficult to trust others because the pain we carry remains strong and we want to protect ourselves from ever being hurt again. We may not form new friendships. We may not trust others. We may be reluctant to fall in love again.
“If we don’t transform our pain, we transfer it.” Richard Rohr, OFM.
Who might we need to forgive? The obvious answer is anyone who has hurt us. We also need to learn to forgive those who disappoint us. How often are we angry when a child or relative who makes a decision that we don’t agree with? A loved one struggling with addiction. Or an unreliable friend.
Make the decision to forgive
Making the decision to forgive is a great start, but sometimes we may need to spend a little time taming our own ego first. This practice helps us access our freedom to forgive.
- Sit comfortably and close your eyes or soften your gaze. Take several deep breaths.
- Picture a person in your life who has hurt you. Start with a small hurt. Visualize the actual event or events that caused you pain.
- Observe the feeling of hurt. Where does it hurt in your body? What emotions are you feeling? Is there a predominant sense of anger? Or is it sadness?
- Become aware of your thoughts about this person. Notice if there are thoughts of hate or spitefulness. Feel this burden from the past that lives inside of you. How much does it weigh? Where do you carry this burden?
- Now ask yourself, who is suffering? Are you willing to forgive and release the burden? If not, it is perfectly fine. Perhaps this is not the time.
- Continue with this practice by breathing in to acknowledge the hurt and pain inside you. Breathe out to forgive and release this burden you are carrying.
How to forgive yourself
Frequently we need to learn to forgive ourselves as well. We are the experts on our personal history, and we often cling to all the mean, thoughtless and shameful actions in our own past. We forget the good things we have done and the healthy relationships we built. This “CPR” practice can help with self-forgiveness.
Confession. Admit the mistake or fault to a trusted friend, family member or clergy.
Press the stop button. Leave the past in the past. If you must dwell in the past, focus on good things.
Relaxation. Acknowledge your humanity and imperfection.
How to forgive God
We may also need to forgive God. Are you surprised at this? It sounds awful, to be angry at God, to feel that God has hurt us or abandoned us. But just like the friend who unintentionally hurt me by making a decision I didn’t agree with, I can feel hurt by a God who did not answer my prayers the way I wanted. This is really only my ego that’s been bruised, but the ego can stay really angry for a long time.
- Settle into a comfortable, seated position.
- Notice that you are in the presence of God, who is a personal, loving and compassionate mystery. Marvel in God’s presence for as long as you like.
- Do not analyze your difficulty or try to find meaning in your suffering. Do not ask, why me?
- Slowly inhale as you pray the word acceptance. Exhale the word surrender.
Forgiveness is a process. It is a gift we give to ourselves. Sometimes, the most we can ask of ourselves is to start the process. The end of the journey is not its beginning.
Certified Spiritual Director
Becoming an Ordinary Mystic, Albert Haase, OFM
The Freedom to Forgive practice by Elisha Goldstein, Mindful Magazine, Winter 2020.