Forgiving: Why aren’t I any good at it?

Think about each time we pray the Our Father. We renew our baptismal covenant vows to God and this Christian life: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In the Greek, the language used is a tense used for orders or commands. In other words, we are “ordering” God to forgive us only to the degree we forgive others. Yikes! When I think about it, I am soooo… tempted to pray, “Forgive me my trespasses a lot more than I seem to be able to forgive others” – and I will use the subjective mood indicating a plea or request. Otherwise, consider what might ensue if God in his mercy chose to forgive me only as fully as I have forgiven others.

Whatever the kerfuffle, argument, agitation, unkind words, harm, gossip, hurt – whatever – that someone has done to us, when they ask for forgiveness, we of course say “yes,” after all, forgiveness isn’t optional. Yet, the hurt simmers, the thoughts are less than kind, and there may be a huge dent in the relationship as I harbor, nurse, and hold onto all manner of negative feeling, memory, and thoughts. I have said “Of course, I forgive you” but my inner turmoil does not exactly match my words.

Fortunately for us, forgiveness is not a feeling. Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness is a refusal to define another person by his sin, a prayer that God give us a merciful heart whenever we’re inclined to rehearse yet again the list of another’s faults.

And forgiveness is not a “one-and-done” deal. We may have to make the same choice, the same decision, again and again. That can be discouraging and make us question how Christian we really are. And just maybe that is also part of God’s mercy.

It would be far more pleasant if the act of forgiveness came with a memory wipe of all thoughts, emotion, and residue. But it doesn’t. And maybe that is part of God’s plan: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God,” (Rom 8:28). But one has to wonder what good could possibly come carrying the burden of memory, anger, resentment, etc. that keep coming up again and again, sometimes for a lifetime?

I can imagine one of Satan’s minions whispering to us, “My, my… that really ugly thought you just had again for the umpteenth time…just goes to show you are about as Christian as I am, about as worthy of God’s mercy as I am, and about as saved as I am… so, what the heck, you might as well strike back, make them feel your pain….”

But maybe our Guardian Angel has another take on it that will be whispered in the other ear.

The Catechism explains it this way: “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.” (CCC 2843)

Those last few words need to be taken to heart. Christian forgiveness doesn’t necessarily change our memory or our emotions. Forgiveness transforms hurt into intercessory prayer. The heart that is longing to forgive may frequently find itself reminded of a past injury. But rather than brood over the offense or become discouraged by the lingering anger, a Christian takes the pain and offers it as an intercession for the offender.

This is true Christian forgiveness: not that it makes us feel good about past trauma or happy to spend time with a former enemy, but that it turns our suffering into prayer, a heroic act of prayer on behalf of the one who has hurt us.

What if this is the reason that God sometimes allows even minor wounds to remain open? So that we can become instruments in the salvation of the ones we want to purge from our thoughts and life. So that our hearts might gradually be healed of hatred by being offered daily — repeatedly — as a living sacrifice for the last person in the world we want to see saved, so that if we should meet one day in glory we can rejoice.

Nothing is wasted in God’s economy. When we remember a slight or an assault or a lie or a betrayal, let’s take the opportunity to pray for that person (even if through gritted teeth). In the end, this prayer that “turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” might just make us saints.

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