In my life as a priest I have often pondered the question: "What is the meaning of forgiveness in the life of a Christian?"
To the Christian's belief system forgiveness is essential. Without forgiveness I believe that there is no Christian life. As Christ lay dying on the Cross, in his human pain and suffering, he sought forgiveness for those responsible for his Crucifixion: "Father forgive them, they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34).
However, we often fail to understand the difference between forgiving and forgetting. Forgiving the person who hurt us and forgetting what that person did are quite different; but we often wrongly consider the two the same.
We think that if our forgiveness is genuine then our forgetting should follow automatically. As a consequence there can be unnecessary emotional and spiritual conflict. This conflict can cause unrealistic guilt which in turn can cause great turmoil within ourselves.
We know we are willing to forgive, but we have those unforgiving negative feelings, we feel hypocritical. The act of forgiveness is just that - an act. It is a choice, a decision based on Christian conviction. It is a reaching out to a person inviting him or her back into a former relationship.
The act of forgiveness can be a fact but the feeling of forgiveness may come only in time. When we confront these "unforgiving feelings" we must deal with them honestly, and work through them. Then the forgetting process commences. The process of forgetting is just that, a process that involves our feelings, which we must respect and understand.
We have no control over how we feel, only over how we act and handle our feelings. So we are faced with the question: "Do we allow our feelings to control us or do we control our feelings?" They control us when we act negatively towards another person, with meanness and hostility.
Christ confronted such a situation on the Cross with the two thieves. One was so full of anger and resentment that he treated Christ with bitterness and taunted him. The other thief controlled his feelings and sought from Christ acceptance and forgiveness. He was rewarded with the promise of Paradise.
In regard to feelings, people are often confused with what is sinful. Sin is not our feelings but our behavior. One person who has forgiven the other must allow his or her negative feelings to subside and warm feelings to return. For even when we forgive, resentful feelings are often still present and this is all right; but, if we act in a resentful way, this can be sinful.
The negative feelings of anger and resentment that result from being hurt are not only normal, but we would be less than human if we did not experience them. The question is: What do we do about these feelings?
People often feel hypocritical and guilty because, while they profess to be Christian and want to forgive, they have great difficulty in coping with the negative feelings - "If I have forgiven this person, then why am I still bothered with these terrible feelings of hate and resentment?" The person reasons, "I have not truly forgiven."
The truth is that we can genuinely forgive even though time is required to forget and to heal our negative feelings. We have to live with these feelings for a while.
The divorced, the bereaved, parents hurt and rejected by children, children neglected and mistreated by their parents, the elderly who are overlooked - all who suffer hurts, misunderstandings and the insensitivities of daily living - can forgive, but forgetting will take time. We cannot program ourselves into a set time frame for forgetting. Each one of us has a unique and different healing ability. We have to use all the mental, emotional and spiritual means to help us to heal and to forget.
As we give ourselves time to forgive, we should also be ready to give time to those whom we have offended. Even though they have forgiven us, we must allow them space and time to be affectionate and to trust us again. Often this is not understood enough in married and in family life. We grow impatient, we can sometimes expect relationships to return to normal immediately. Frequently hurts and subsequent forgiveness can be the basis for strengthening relationships, but at times, sad to say, some relationships are never the same again.
Another aspect of this subject is this: forgetting does not necessarily mean forgiving! Without the experience of forgiveness, forgetting can be a way of avoiding dealing with the pain and hurt of being offended. By burying our hurt feelings we prevent ourselves from truly arriving at forgiveness. Forgetting will never be possible until we first experience and acknowledge hurt, and then go through the struggle and satisfaction of forgiving. Beware of people who too quickly say, "Forget about it!" They leave us hanging, unsure of how they truly feel.
The ministry of Jesus was one of forgiveness and healing. He knew the pain of human hurts: he was rejected by his people, betrayed by a trusted friend, denied by a very close friend, abandoned by his chosen ones and condemned by those he helped and loved as a common criminal.
Fr Dennis Byrnes is the parish priest of All Saints' Church, Kempsey, in the Lismore Diocese.