In the mid 1980s, the university of Wisconsin-Madison in North America sponsored research on the contribution of forgiveness to mental health. The resulting studies gave birth to a new field of psychology called ‘forgiveness therapy’, and led to the establishment of the International Forgiveness Institute in 1994.
According to the Campaign for Forgiveness Research, people who forgive are physically healthier than those who hold resentments. A scholarly article entitled Granting Forgiveness or Harbouring Grudges that appeared in the journal Psychological Science in 2001, discloses that when people even just think about forgiving an offender it leads to improved functioning in their cardiovascular and nervous systems. Meanwhile, the summary of a doctoral dissertation published recently in World of Forgiveness magazine warns that less forgiving people are prone to a wide range of health problems.
In other words, modern psychology has finally caught on to something that Christians have known for the last two thousand years: forgiving others is good for us. As Catholics we should be happy that the value of forgiveness has found recognition in secular society. It is always gratifying when modern science confirms what we already know from our religion, and the more forgiveness there is in the world the better, surely.
But we also have to realise that a really Christian understanding of forgiveness involves much more than a mere ‘letting go’ of grudges and the desire for revenge. As Christians we look to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to discover what it really means to forgive others. The greatest act of forgiveness that has ever happened took place on the Cross when He prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
People were not used to hearing words like this from a cross. The Roman statesman and dramatist Seneca the Younger wrote that those who were crucified usually cursed the day of their birth and their own mothers’ wombs, hurled abuse at their executioners, and spat on the crowd. Cicero recorded that it was often necessary to cut out the tongues of those who were crucified to silence their terrible profanities.
No doubt the religious hierarchy of Jerusalem – the Chief Priests and Scribes – had predicted this sort of reaction from the agitator Jesus of Nazareth, Whose Crucifixion they had secured through manipulation of the populace. He Who had preached “Love your enemies” and “Do good to them that hate you” would surely now forget that Gospel of meekness, and in His agony reveal Himself to be no better that the ordinary run of humanity.
This was not to be. Instead of the curses and the blasphemies that they were hoping would bury the Nazarene’s subversive teaching forever, these professional religious men must have been surprised and unsettled to hear something very different: the soft and gentle prayer of pardon and forgiveness.
This act of forgiveness was no mere ‘letting go’. Rather, it was a pouring forth. This was a fruitful and healing forgiveness, one that won many souls to salvation. The Good Thief was converted at the Cross. So, according to tradition, was the centurion St Longinus, who pierced Our Lord’s side with a lance. Those same words of forgiveness that were issued from the throne of the Cross have power to heal and to transform lives today, as they have for two millennia.
When we perceive an offence committed against ourselves, what do we do? One hopes that, as disciples of Our Lord, we bring to mind those words in the Our Father: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. And so we tell ourselves that we have no choice but to forgive. And then, perhaps, we tell ourselves to “let it go”, possibly with a shrug of the shoulders that says: “he’s not worth it anyway”, or “she’s not worth the trouble of getting upset about”.
That is certainly an improvement on harbouring a grudge. But it is not exactly Christ-like. The Creator of the Universe does not look down from the Cross on His Creatures and say: “These sinners are not worth it”. He is on the Cross precisely because He does value the worth and the well-being of every one of these sinners. And He pours out every last drop of His Precious Blood and His very last breath for each of these sinners, and for you and me, because we are also sinners. Beneath all the dross and all the accumulated grime of our sin, He sees the worth and the value of each and every one of us.
All of this is can sound quite theoretic, so we probably need some practical tips before we can forgive in a way that is Christ-like. The first practical tip is that we need to relieve ourselves of every failure to forgive and every harboured resentment by confessing it in the Sacrament of Penance. Forgiving someone who has done serious harm to us or to our loved ones goes against the grain, and we need recourse to a supernatural remedy. When Our Lord appeared to His Apostles after the Resurrection, He breathed on those friends who had betrayed and abandoned Him, and He said: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.” Those sinners who knew their own need for forgiveness were themselves entrusted with the power to reconcile. That Spirit has been breathed into every Catholic bishop and priest who has ever been ordained, and the healing balm of that Spirit of forgiveness is breathed into the soul of a sinner whenever a priest says the words: “I absolve you.”
Secondly, we have to begin any serious act of forgiveness by praying: we need to pray for the divine grace we need to forgive with God’s own love. Then we need to pray for the one who has offended us. And rather than praying just for his conversion, we should pray that God will bless him abundantly in every way that God sees fit: materially and spiritually, temporally and eternally. That will show our charity in God’s eyes; and the more generous the prayer the more room we give to the Divine Physician to enter our hearts and heal us.
Thirdly, we have to remind ourselves that Christian forgiveness is not a short cut to happiness, but rather a long haul to joy that will sometimes be hard and arduous. And lastly, always remember that forgiveness is not something that we feel, but something that we do.