Rita, very astutely pointed out in the comments box of my last post that really forgiveness cannot be taught or learned in isolation from the virtuous life. We should be learning to live the seven virtues and in so doing we will come to understand what forgiveness is and how it is woven into life. I think she is right to say that chances are the separation of forgiveness out of the foundation of the virtuous life has lent towards the confusion over what it is and how it works. That certainly made a light go on in my dull brain.
It seems very much to grow out of charity and from there temperance and fortitude and in for many examples, courage too.
I thought I would start by looking at how Jesus forgave during His Passion.
The Church in her wisdom has given us a whole library load of names of those she knows are in heaven. The list of saints, Blesseds and Venerables are long indeed and there’s plenty of those who may likely be declared so as time goes on. She has never named anyone as being in hell. On those names she remains silent.
There is only one person in history that I am aware of where we could say there is a high possibility they ended up in hell, and that’s Judas and the suspicion is based on Jesus’ stark words “It would be better for that man had he never been born.” But even then we are not told definitely that Judas is damned. He is, however put to us as the image of a man who despaired rather than repented and is juxtaposed against Peter who denied Christ and repented in deep sorrow. Jesus forgives Peter and he then goes on to get the Church under way.
From the cross Jesus asks His Father to forgive the men who were crucifying Him because, He pointed out, “they know not what they do.” They cannot in justice be condemned for doing something for which they had no intention of evil. They thought, presumably, they were executing a criminal and in doing it in such a horrible way were offering punishment, justice and a warning to others, all for the common good. It’s difficult to imagine they didn’t have some idea that what they were doing in some aspects was utterly evil, but we don’t know.
Then Jesus has a man on either side of him. St. Dismas repents and asks for forgiveness. Jesus gives His promise that Dismas would that day be with Him in Paradise. Gesmes doesn’t get any such promise. He hasn’t repented and so there is no evidence that he is going to make it to Paradise (although again, we can’t be sure as we don’t know his exact situation at death).
From this it might be assumed that Jesus only forgives those who are sorry. But is this true? We are told He died to save Mankind, and although the shedding of blood for the many (pro multis) implies that plenty of other people are not going to receive God’s forgiveness. Is this because God is a big meanie or that Calvin was right after all and there are the elect and the rest?
The answer seems to be that God offers the gift of His forgiveness for every single human being, and all we have to do is turn around (repent) and receive it.
Jesus gave the apostles the authority to bind and loose. “Those sins you forgive are forgiven,” He said, “And those sins you retain are retained.” So we see priests and bishops can retain – not forgive sins. The time this might happen would be if the person goes to Confession and says some sin he has no intention of doing anything about, which is not the same as habitual sin the person is working hard against of course.
So, down to the ordinary person like me. Can I say, I don’t need to forgive everyone because look at Jesus He hasn’t? Er, no. He has forgiven everyone, just everyone hasn’t accepted forgiveness. In accepting forgiveness we accept healing.
So does this mean I have to tell everyone I have forgiven, just as the priest in Confession does, or can I forgive someone without them ever having to know I have forgiven them? I think all forgiveness is essentially between me and God, so if He is forgiving me, then I have to actually receive the forgiveness and He does this through the Sacrament of Confession which has the added wonderfulness of grace to help with healing and avoiding the sin in the future. But I can’t give grace so when I forgive I might not have to tell anyone other than God? Is forgiveness is as much for my sake as the other person? In fact if the other person doesn’t even know they are forgiven, then it’s all for my sake.
In practical terms what am I to do then, if this forgiveness is going to happen? As Shana said in the previous post, we really are not expected to stay in contact with people who have seriously abused us, aren’t sorry, will continue to do so and may very likely do so to our children. There is nothing in forgiveness about putting yourself and children in the way of other people’s malice. In fact surely by removing the temptation to malice you are doing them a service.
Should we always tell the other person they are forgiven? Shana wrote to her relatives to say so. I think that is probably a good thing to do in many cases. In my personal case, I did once but never again.
The forgiveness is letting go of anger, resentment and on a very basic level knowing that you really do not want to see them damned. It might often mean letting go of any hope of justice this side of death and handing it over to God completely. That is not a feeling. It’s a terrible spiritual battle and requires a massive act of the will. It is not a short process, for most of us, and can sometimes be a repeated exercise. Just when you think you have forgiven them, that old nightmare comes back and you wake up with all the old feelings and have to start again.
Clare, rightly points out that it is easier to forgive others when we realise how much we have had to be forgiven, and this goes back to Rita’s point about forgiveness stemming from the virtuous life.
I do wonder though, if this has a limitation. It does seem easier to forgive the things we are also guilty of, or at least could imagine getting up to on a bad day. The big wall gets hit when someone does something so truly horrible we can’t get our head around it. Or even just amazingly selfish and neglectful.
I think it is much harder to forgive something we truly don’t understand, than to forgive something, even horrible, that we “get” in some way. I did work with a counsellor for a while trying to work out the “why” of what had been done to me, before I could get on with the process of forgiving. However, there were no answers to that question so I had to do the forgiving without ever getting to understand how someone could do that.
Interestingly, once I had really made the act of will of forgiveness, which was a bit like climbing a sheer rock face with a thin rope in a blizzard: thank God for God and His grace – then some of the extraneous problems such as nightmares actually stopped. Brilliant! Is that the same for everyone I wonder?
I don’t remember feeling anything other than relief that the spiritual battle was over (for now) and a bit of trepidation that I might have to ever fight it again. So I didn’t “feel” I had forgiven anyone. It was, very much an act of the will, with the heart being dragged along I think. Thankfully, despite the odd moment, I never have had to fight it like that again, and like Shana I did get some good advice when I needed it, thanks to Providence. I really do recognise that there is no way I could have done this alone. God had to be there, or I would still be angry, resentful and worse I am sure.
So, I think on this first point, Rita is right. We need the grace for the virtuous life, which doesn’t mean being without sin before we can forgive (thankfully) but does mean that in charity and temperance we don’t dwell on or actually try to commit revenge and we truly do not want the person to end up in hell.
Just in case you struggle with not hoping they end up in the fire, read some of the saints on hell. St. John Bosco’s visits there and St. Teresa of Avila should give you a good sense of just how much you don’t want to hope anyone ends up there. This is where Clare’s excellent point that judgement is God’s comes in. When Jesus said don’t judge, this is what He was talking about. If we start deciding who we think should be in hell, chances are we’ll end up there ourselves, for after all, what could be worse than wishing eternal damnation on someone else?
But is there more to forgiveness that hoping and praying the person who has done the evil doesn’t end up in hell?