Transform the Past Through Forgiveness
Br. Peter Trinko
It is not difficult to see that we live in a wounded world. Broken families, civil unrest, anxiety, wars, social injustice... the list could go on and on. We are made for the unconditional love of God, and yet what we see and face each day seems so far from it, leaving us all badly wounded. While wounds can be just (discipline for a mistake), imaginary (insinuating an offense that didn’t occur), or disproportionate (one exaggerates the level of offense), many wounds are in fact ‘real’, meaning they are an act of injustice. If left untreated, these wounds, like a thorn in one’s body, will cause one to become infected with the disease of resentment.
We all desire to heal from these wounds, but how can we do so?
There are three commonly perceived paths one can take. The first is denial, where we claim that nothing affects us, that we are tough, that we are ‘better than the attacker’. However, this denial doesn’t take the thorn (resentment) out of us, and hence no healing can occur. Another route is to react, either passively or aggressively, but this response leads only to further reactions, shame, hardened hearts, and the like. While many may think reacting will release the resentment, we can recall the old but true saying of ‘he who seeks revenge ought to dig two graves’. With denial and reaction being insufficient means of freeing us from the wound of resentment, what is one left to do?
...forgiveness is not to forget, but it will change the way we see the past.
There is only one path out of resentment, and it is that of Christian Forgiveness. While there are many psychological proofs for this, perhaps the best reason is that forgiveness conforms us to the Great Forgiver, Jesus Christ.
Forgiveness is a not a popular idea these days; one need only look at the current ‘cancel culture’. If you make a mistake, there is only one option: you must be wiped out of the public sphere. There are many reasons our culture frowns on forgiveness today, but much of it is due to a misunderstanding of what forgiveness really is.
To help define forgiveness, we can first say what it is not. It is not a simple acceptance of the event, which would still allow us to be cold and bitter towards the attacker. It is not the cessation of anger (although this is a step). Perhaps most importantly, we can say that it is not to excuse the offender (which is closer to a form of denial). Lastly, we can say it is not to forget, but it will change the way we see the past.
Positively speaking then, what is forgiveness? First, it is the abandonment of resentment to those who have hurt us unjustly. Secondly, it is a renunciation of revenge (which human justice entitles us to). Thirdly, it is to respond kindly to the aggressor.
We see many examples of forgiveness in the scriptures. Peter asks our Lord how many times to forgive his offender and is told ‘seventy-seven times seven times’ (Mt. 18:21). Jesus tells us to ‘love our enemies’. (Mt. 5:43). The only verse of the Our Father that Jesus explains in more detail is on forgiveness. Joseph (a type, foreshadowing Jesus) forgives his brothers who had sold him into slavery in the Old Testament.
In our own times as well, we see many amazing examples of forgiveness, such as St. John Paul II forgiving his would-be assassin, or Brandt Jean forgiving the killer of his brother. We must remember though that forgiving is not excusing the act but abandoning resentment, renouncing revenge, and responding seeking the good of the offender.
Forgiveness is the (1) abandment of resentment...(2) a renunciation of revenge...and (3) to respond kindly to the agressor.
Once we realize the only way we can be healed is through forgiveness, we can begin our journey. In his book The Way of Forgiveness, Fr. Miguel Fuentes outlines several steps in this process including learning to control our anger, learning to be grateful for what we have been given, practicing compassion, and correcting our perception of myself, my neighbor, and God. The road to forgiveness requires extensive work, prayer, docility in spiritual direction, and above all, a great trust in God that He can and will heal us and free us from the wounds of resentment.
In the end, forgiveness allows us to see our painful events in the light of God’s providence. We can find a great example of this in the book of Genesis (chapters 37-50), when Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery. He undergoes much suffering in Egypt, including a wrongful imprisonment, before interpreting the dream of pharaoh and helping the country preserve food in the time of abundance for the later time of famine. Many years later finds himself face to face with the same brothers who had sold him, as they come to him begging for food and help. Joseph is now in a position of power and has an opportunity to give his brothers the punishment that mere human justice entitles him to. Rather than asserting his dominance, he forgives them and rejoices in seeing his brothers and in God’s providential care. “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen 50:20).
-Many of the points in this article are taken from Fr. Miguel Angel Fuentes' The Way of Forgiveness [El Camino del Perdón]
-For the 9/26/20 Voces Conference on this topic, see here
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