Once upon a time in their marriage, Andrew did something really stupid. His wife Moira chewed him up for it. He apologized, they made up. However, from time to time, Moira would mention what he had done. ‘My dear,’ Andrew finally said one day, ‘why do you keep bringing that up? I thought your policy was ‘forgive and forget.’’ ‘It is,’ Moira said. ‘I just don’t want you to forget that I’ve forgiven and forgotten.’
Forgiveness is one of those demanding challenges we must face up to if we take our faith seriously. The frequency of forgiving prescribed in today’s gospel as ‘seventy-seven times’ makes it even steeper when we realise it effectively means ‘always.’ There are two main reasons why forgiving is such a hard thing to do and both originate in common misunderstandings. The first one is measuring forgiveness by emotions, the other one is a belief that forgiveness equals unconditional and inconsequential acquittal of the party at fault. Because both are misunderstandings, let’s try to put them right. This sermon is not – by any means – an exhaustive essay on forgiveness; it’s barely touching base.
We don’t have to forgive people for doing nice things or for making us happy. It’s a truism, but the need for forgiveness comes to the fore after we have been hurt. Such pain can come in different forms, either physical or mental or a mixture of both. But whatever shape and form the pain takes, it always has a very strong emotional component. Hurt feelings can remain raw long after physical and mental wounds have healed. That’s why forgiving seems to be so difficult, sometimes even impossible. However, forgiveness has nothing to do with emotions or feelings for a very simple reason – we don’t have control over them. If I ask you to hate me right now, it’s easy – I’ve given you many reasons for that; if I ask you to love me, that’s impossible, because there isn’t a single reason for that. Emotions are our involuntary responses to certain situations or attitudes. We can’t trigger them at will, nor can we shut them down. We can only control what we do when we are under their power. Consequently, an act of forgiveness cannot be a matter of emotions; it’s an act of my free will. In other words, regardless of what or how I feel – I make a decision to forgive.
This takes us to the other common misunderstanding of forgiveness as an act of unconditional and inconsequential acquittal of the party at fault. We have this very strong sense of natural justice that malevolence must be punished. Which is absolutely right. Let me ask you a simple question: how often have you hurt people intentionally, out of ill-will? How often have people felt hurt by you because of your ill-judgment, ignorance, mindlessness or misjudgement? You see, most of the time when we hurt people, we do it unintentionally because we cannot foresee or predict the consequences of our actions. I don’t think that any speeding driver is hellbent on killing other people; it’s their ignorance, lack of imagination, selfishness and so on. This is true about most of us most of the time. How apt sounds Jesus’ prayer on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34) The parable in today’s gospel talks about honestly examining your own conscience because that puts other people’s misdeeds and misbehaviour into a different perspective. As a young priest, I was quite strict and demanding – essentially a nasty piece of work. Then, over the years, my own sins, failures and weaknesses have blunted that sharp edge; the more I have personally experienced God’s mercy the more sympathetic I have become. One of the most important rules I adopted long ago had been formulated by St Ignatius of Loyola: ‘Where there are two ways to interpret the words of another, one bad and one good, we should assume good intent.’ I apply this rule to words as well as actions. It’s proved to work miracles!
The last but not least aspect of forgiveness is that it’s good for you. Lack of it can be a massive burden negatively affecting your life. There are people who have wrecked their lives by hatred; unfortunately, quite often it’s not just their own lives. Forgiveness is the first, most important step towards a better life. When you forgive, when by a positive act of will you reject vengeance and hatred, you effectively cut off the ball and chain attached to your legs. Then you can learn to fly.