There are multiple things I wish to impart to my children. I’m sure this is true of any mother. Primarily, my heart desires for each of them to personally know Jesus and follow Him throughout their life. That’s the main task I’ve been gifted as the mother of these beautiful, rambunctious souls: to get them to Heaven. There are specific disciplines that go along with this, of course. Things like teaching them how to pray, how to sacrifice, and how to lead others to Christ.
The list goes on. I’d like my children to learn to play an instrument, have an appreciation for nature, and be avid readers. I do want my children to be valuable, contributing members of society, all the while recognizing that their ability to be such has absolutely zero reflection on their worth and dignity.
Another Vital Skill
As I’ve walked through some challenging times in my own life, however, my experiences have shown me that there is one vital skill needed for any life lived in relationship with others. It is something I find most people do not feel equipped to accomplish. Something they have never really learned: the ability to concretely forgive another person.
Not as a construct. Not as a conceptual idea. But as a practical tool that accomplishes the reality of freeing you and cancelling all debts another may owe you.
That is something else I desperately want to impart to my children—how to forgive.
Jesus Calls Us to Forgive… (But How?)
We must all recognize the reality that Jesus calls us, very distinctly, to forgive those that have wronged us. We pray the Our Father at every Mass asking that he would forgive us as we have forgiven those around us. In Matthew 7, we see that the measure we forgive will be the measure we are forgiven. These are quite pointed remarks that make me a little uncomfortable when I reflect on my own proclivities to extend forgiveness to those in my life that have hurt me. But recognizing the need for forgiveness in our own hearts is only the first step. While it is an incredibly important one, it must be followed with action.
So how do we do this? How do we actively forgive someone?
This is something I still struggle with in my life. It can be so much easier to hold onto bitterness and assert my own self-importance. Many may have heard the saying, “Lack of forgiveness is a poison you drink hoping the other person will die.”
It truly costs our own self the most. Recognizing this, it is important to get practical.
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How to Forgive (for Real)
At a specific point in my life, I began to really dive into the topic of forgiveness in order to gain the active skill to accomplish it. In doing so, I came to realize some misconceptions and realities regarding forgiveness that greatly aided me in moving forward to freedom.
1. Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation.
We often think that in order to forgive someone, we have to be restored in our relationship with them. There must be a meeting of parties, a communication of hurts, an apology, and a reconciliation between us.
While this is an immense good and something we all ought desire, it is not necessary in the path of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not require both sides. You do not need an apology from someone to forgive them, and you do not have to communicate your forgiveness in order to accomplish it. We do not have to recommit to a relationship with someone in order to extend true forgiveness (certainly there are select encounters where this may be unsafe or inappropriate).
Reconciliation takes two people. It takes an apology, an admission of wrongdoing. Forgiveness does not, it only takes you choosing to move forward with God’s grace.
2. Forgiveness does not mean what happened to you was okay.
Forgiveness is not saying the wrongs done against you were just. It does not excuse what the person did, or indicate that they were in the right. Nor does it let them off the hook from God’s justice. We all will have to answer to the Lord for the wrongs we have done in this life.
Instead, forgiveness stands in the truth that what happened to me was unfair, is unfair, and will always be unfair. Despite how I feel regarding the situation, I am choosing a new response to it.
There is some area of your life that you lost unjustly. Recognize what you lost, and grieve it. Recognize that you were meant to have a safe and happy childhood, and you didn’t. You were meant to have committed relationships stand by you in the fire, and they left. You were meant to be protected from the abuse in your past, and you weren’t. God wanted better for you, and it didn’t happen. Grieve that. Because it is not okay. Recognize that forgiveness is a characteristic of the brave. It is not the easy way out, it is not giving up, it is not giving in. It is a strength that must be cultivated.
3. Forgiveness does not make you forget.
It is a common saying that we ought to “forgive and forget.” But forgetting is not necessarily innate with forgiveness. We certainly don’t drift towards amnesia of the wrongs experienced in our lives. It is human to remember, even sometimes when we wish we could forget.
However, a verse in Jeremiah challenged me to approach this reality with God’s perspective. Jeremiah 31:34 states, “. . .for I will forgive their iniquity and no longer remember their sin.”
God no longer remembers our sins. He chooses to look on them no more. Forgiveness is a daily, volitional choice. It is responding to the grace that God gives us to even approach forgiveness in the first place, and discipling ourselves into no longer meditating on the wrongs done to us. You very well may have to choose, multiple times a day, to forgive the people who have hurt you. Deciding in those moments to remember their sins no more. To cancel all debts owed to you. To not let it control you.
4. Healing does not come with time. Healing comes with forgiveness and grace.
This is another colloquial phrase that misinforms our culture: “Time heals all wounds.” That is simply false. People can, and often do, hold grudges for years. Healing only come when forgiveness happens with the aid of God’s grace.
Now, it should be stated that some small infractions may heal with a little time and a little distance. We cannot function in emotional health if every time we are cut off in traffic we have a deep, overwhelming process of forgiveness. These are not the wounds I am referencing. I speak more to those deep wrongs, the ones that have shaped us, confused us, ingrained lies in our hearts, and cemented fear in our minds. Those must be dealt with, exposed, and healed.
I would submit to you that forgiveness is an absolutely integral aspect of this process. Yes, that may take some time. But forgiveness is an act of the will, not a hope of progress in passivity. The Catechism states, “Now—and this is daunting—this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us” (CCC 2840).
This will not innately happen over time. It will happen when we decide to forgive and heal–to receive that peace, love, and mercy that God is so ready to pour out on us.
Learning to Forgive is a Process
If forgiveness is something you are struggling with, I encourage you to pick up your Bible and meditate on the story of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph suffered grievous wrong at the hands of his own brothers, and walked through an incredible journey of forgiveness. His story shows that a heart willing to fight towards forgiveness experiences profound freedom and peace. He states to those that have greatly betrayed him, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
May we find the same courage and freedom, and see the redemption God will lavish us with as we actively commit ourselves to the process of forgiveness.
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Sarah Scarbrough is a wife, mother of three, and registered nurse. A convert to the Church, she found her way home with the help of the early Church fathers, Saint Teresa of Avila, Chesterton, and Dorothy Day. She’s committed to transparency and truth in living: we’re all messes, striving for Heaven together.