A Catholic-themed opinion blog about various topics, including theology, philosophy, politics and culture, from a Thomistic perspective.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Practice of Forgiveness

What does it mean to forgive? Too often, forgiveness is seen as a mere change of feeling towards someone. Because of this error, when our brains continue to feel something, as they usually do regardless of our rational desires, we think we have not forgiven someone, that the resentment or grudge we once held for someone remains. We cannot easily control what we feel, however; the activities of our brain are not immediately subject to our wills, as anyone paralyzed by fear or overwhelmed by a tragic event can attest. When we think of someone who once wronged us, or who is wronging us in the present, our brains often react with negative feelings simply because that is human nature. Our psyche is driven by fear in many instances, and feelings of anger and a desire to be rid of whatever is harming us, whether by avoiding it or removing it from our lives, is the brain trying to preserve us from that which we are afraid. To truly learn what it means to forgive, we must learn to look beyond our feelings and to focus on what we really can control: our choices.

To forgive someone is not simply to feel differently about them; as I have established, that is rarely something under our control. Rather, to forgive is to think about someone differently, to change our attitude and disposition willfully and voluntarily towards someone, both in our thoughts and actions. When we think of someone who has wronged us, how do we think about them? Do we focus on what they have done to us, on the frequent reality that little punishment has come to them for their wrongdoing, that they rarely repent of what they have done and that we the victims tend to suffer more for someone else's wrongs than they do? Do we even go so far as to think that, by hating them or resenting them, we are punishing them, dealing out justice where it may otherwise not be done?

We must examine ourselves closely to determine how we think about someone. From my own experience, when I retain grudges for people or think about them with contempt, I am truly covering up my own disappointment in them: I cared for them and wanted what was best for them, yet they betrayed that and so, rather than feel the tragic pang of disappointment, I distracted myself with anger and judgment. Or, I am afraid that what they did or said to me reveals a flaw in myself that I would rather ignore or that I cannot fix, and so rather than feel the sadness and regret for my own limitations, to examine myself and strive to correct my own problems or at least to accept them, I replace it with contempt for that person, focusing on their faults so as to avoid acknowledging my own.

These are only a few of the wide range of substitutions our human nature offers for forgiveness. But if we wish to overcome all this and truly, genuinely forgive someone, we must think about that person with "disinterest": not based on our personal bias, subjective feelings, or even our own memories. We also cannot think about them as if we have more authority than we do, as though it is our place to punish people for their sins. Rather, we must learn to view people with the objective, truthful love by which God views them. The severity of the wrongdoing someone has done against us cannot determine how we objectively view them. Just because someone hurt us very deeply and even irrevocably does not excuse us from the need to view them with disinterested, charitable love. We also cannot see it as though we are ignoring or lying about what they have done to us; it is not our place to record and preserve other people's sins. They occurred, forever imprinted on that person's soul, and only God can truly erase their sins or bring them to justice. Even what that person has done to those we love, including our own family, cannot affect how we see them.

We must learn to see people as human persons, created in the image and likeness of God, bearing the infinite, immutable dignity of sharing the humanity of Christ. This dignity cannot be lessened or removed. While some may deserve more of our love, whether from close affection or an admiration for their great accomplishments or holiness, all deserve love as human beings. We must love all as God does. He does not abandon anyone; nothing can separate us from His love, even when we separate ourselves from Him by our sins. God never loses this vision of people, no matter how far they remove themselves from Him. Nor should we. We must see everyone, even those who have hurt us or our loved ones, as the loving artwork of God, His treasure. "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." (Rom 5:8, RSVCE)

When we think of those who have wronged us or those close to us, we must see beyond the bias of our past experiences with them and resist our negative feelings, choosing instead to think positively about that person, to wish them the best, to hope and pray, with all sincerity, that they will repent of any sins that have committed and grow ever closer Christ. We cannot wish that they repent simply because we deserve it; it is far less important that they ask our forgiveness than that they ask for the mercy of God. We must also strive to never view ourselves as superior to them "since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Rom 3:23) The worst sinners and the holiest saints all rely on the grace of God. None can save themselves, despite our delusions to the contrary. We must see ourselves as being in the same boat as those who offend us - for truly, they did not offend us, but God, just as we offend God when we sin, and we are all created and designed to be with God. This purpose is not lessened by our sins, and so our desire for everyone to reach their destiny in this way must not be lessened either, even by their most severe wrongdoing.

To truly come to know Christ and to be ever closer to Him, we must learn this truth of the value and worthiness of forgiveness. It, like all other virtues, is not easy, just as the Passion of Christ was not easy; but it is certainly worthwhile. I truly hope and pray that all of us may grow in mercy and thereby grow ever close to God.


God bless.