In the Gospel of Matthew, Peter asks Jesus if seven times is enough to forgive someone. Jesus responds, “Not just seven, but seventy times seven.” In other words, a lot! Pope John XXIII says essentially the same thing by summarizing the entire Christian message in six words: “See all, overlook much, forgive all.”
I submit that “forgive all” is the most difficult of the challenges, because it’s not something that happens easily. Forgiveness is a process and this process can take a lifetime.
It can take a lifetime to forgive your abuser, or to forgive your betrayer or even your assassin. Forgiveness isn’t supposed to be easy. Anything worth doing isn’t meant to be easy. We also have our memories, which can get in the way. Our memories have a tendency to remind us of things we would like to forget, but sometimes we use our memories so that we don’t (or to ensure that others won’t) forget.
Many times this is played out with the seemingly small and insignificant things in our lives. How often do many of our petty hurts and slights go into syndication and we replay them or binge watch them whenever we feel like it? Our minds are the screens and we sit down to watch the show, hoping for a different ending. Isn’t that the definition of insanity? It’s the same show, all the time, and the characters never change, and nor does the ending.
Living like this renders us spiritually paralyzed. We don’t allow anyone in and the “beware” or “keep out” sign lights up and life stands still.
What do we do when we’re messed up like that and our resentments toward those who have hurt us still linger? The answer, in one word, “forgive.” Hard thing to do — life’s most difficult challenge.
This is not a “how to” manual on forgiveness. I struggle with this very same thing, holding on to things for far too long, with a stubborn pride preventing the release of my captive self.
We’ve all heard people say, “I don’t get mad, I get even.” Unfortunately, ours is a culture that promotes this way of living. Ours is a society of continual retaliation. When someone hurts us deeply, our initial response should be anger, but what do we do next? Do we look for ways to get even? Do we look for opportunities to pay back the hurt and fantasize what it’s going to be like?
It’s a common human reaction to say that, when we’re hurt, we want to hurt back. When we’ve been unjustly wronged, victimized, betrayed, then it would only be human to seek to pay back a measure of the same hurt we were given. But by acting this way and even thinking this way, we perpetuate the violence of the world. We keep the cycle of violence alive. Revenge is a hungry beast with an insatiable appetite.
Sometimes the biggest obstacle to forgiveness is the expectation that we must forget: “forgive and forget,” as the saying goes. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. The Baptist minister Dr. Bradley Braxton says that “the slogan ‘forgive and forget’ is a recipe for denial, not a formula for forgiveness. Forgiveness does not require us to forget. What it does require is ‘release,’ the release of the negativity and hostility associated with being messed over. By letting go, our desire for revenge will not poison us.”
Simply put, what is forgiveness? It is to let go of our need for a different past. We can’t control what happened to us, but we can control how we move forward. Those who have been victims of violence, yet don’t respond in violence, are the people who take their hurt and do something else with it. They don’t expand the darkness, they instead spread the light.
In our own hurting lives, when we’ve been the victims of betrayal, violence and pain, may the Prince of Peace deliver us, take our painful experiences, and hold them, purify them, so that we might release love, beauty, forgiveness and peace. Let us transform the pain of our personal worlds in order to help make this world a more peaceful and loving one.
Saretsky is a teacher and chaplain at Holy Cross High School in Saskatoon. He and his wife, Norma, have two children, Nathan and Jenna.