In a previous post I talked about family healing, and how the key elements to this healing are accepting the love of God and accepting our parents with all their shortcomings. When their conduct was very hurtful, the healing demands a real process of forgiveness. Forgiveness is difficult to understand and I want to spend three posts talking about it.
God has placed in our hearts a natural desire for justice and good, and anger is a true and proper response to the presence of injustice and evil. This anger takes the form of an intense repulsion, in which we literally hate the fact that the injustice exists, together with a passionate desire for that injustice to be removed from the world. It is worth saying again that anger is a natural and right response to evil and injustice. In fact, anger is a human reflection of God’s own reaction to evil, and even Jesus became angry at one point (cf. John 2:17). Our natural desire for justice is all the more intense and passionate when the injustice has been committed against us. When we have been hurt, abused, misused, or something precious was taken from us, we feel the evil very clearly and sharply. True justice will only come when the person who has done evil recognizes and repents of their evil, or that person is punished to the full extent of their crime. Nothing else will rectify the evil that has been done.
The problem is that we cannot force another person to repent, nor are we generally in any position to punish. Also, our desire for justice is so easily mixed with other emotions that come from our damaged self. We have been made to feel powerless, even helpless, and our anger includes a desire to vindicate ourselves to prove that we are not weak, even if this means hurting someone else. Our anger can also turn back on ourselves and causes us to hate the fact that WE exist, and wish that we were removed from the world. Our hatred of evil can also be misdirected against God, blaming Him for allowing this injustice to exist. If this hurt took place when a person was very young, the damage to his or her sense of self and vision of the world happened mostly at a subconscious level.
A very dramatic description of the hurt, anger, and the desire for justice we feel is given by Immaculée Ilibagiza, in her book “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.” At that time in Rwanda, the majority Hutu tribe had been encouraging discrimination against the smaller tribe in the country, the ethnic Tutsis. When the president of the country died suddenly, it touched off an anti-Tutsi riot that turned into a three month massacre, killing one million ethnic Tutsis in the country. Immaculée spent all that time hiding in a bathroom, sometimes able to hear the bloodthirsty mobs as they came again and again to search the house, wanting to kill her. She says she was filled with anger at what was happening, together with a desire to become like Rambo and destroy everyone who was doing this. The circumstances that Immaculée found herself in were very extreme, but her reaction is actually in proportion to the evil she is experiencing. What punishment could possibly be great enough to satisfy the justice that was violated in Rwanda?
In fact, it is not possible for us to do enough to remedy a serious evil, because such a thing extends beyond all human reckoning, and only God can take its measure. Usually we are able to recognize this, and see that revenge cannot bring the restoration we seek, yet despite everything we say, the anger and hurt does not go away because the evil has not been remedied. Often we hide that anger out of sight, believing it will not be a problem. Sometimes this anger comes out in frightening ways, like hatred of God, self-destruction, controlling and manipulative behavior, or lashing out against loved ones who never hurt us. At other times the anger just lurks quietly below the surface, like a dormant volcano, making noise and belching smoke from time to time, and likely to erupt one day and burn the life we have so diligently been trying to build on the slopes of the volcano.
This is the answer to the question “Why should I forgive?” Forgiveness is the only path to peace, wholeness, and freedom after we have been hurt. Forgiveness allows us to dissipate the hurt and anger in a way that is not destructive, even when the person who hurt us never repents. The path to forgiveness seems to begin by recognizing two very important and key truths.
- First, acknowledging that we have been hurt, in a deep and destructive way, and that we did not deserve to be hurt and consequently we have every right in the world to be angry. This means rejecting “easy” solutions like blaming ourselves, saying “It’s not big deal” or “I’m okay” or “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” or “I’ll just forget it and move on.” In the realm of family healing, this means fully accepting the truth that we should have been loved by our parents and their lack of love or outright destructive behavior really was very wrong and hurt us very deeply.
- Second, we need to firmly commit ourselves to not doing anything evil, either to the person who hurt us or to someone else or to ourselves. This means fully accepting the truth that this very tempting path of revenge or acting out, even against ourselves, is a false step to healing and wholeness and only leads us into a dark place.
- In a word, the path to healing begins with admitting that we are deeply wounded, and that we are powerless to correct the wrong or heal ourselves. Often this happens in stages, that is, we only gradually come to see how deeply we have been hurt and only gradually recognize and let go of our ways of hiding the pain, hurting ourselves, or damaging others, which can include bitterness and cruelty in our words, even against ourselves.
Confession is a beautiful gift to helping us recognize and turn away from those destructive behaviors, and sometimes it is only through the grace of confession that we are given the insight to see them and the grace to stop them. I will talk in more detail about this process in another post. Even without knowing the extent of the hurt, we can still make a commitment in our heart to follow the path of forgiveness.
It is worth repeating that the path to forgiveness begins with acknowledging that we are powerless to correct the wrong or heal ourselves. If we cannot heal ourselves, where does our healing come from? The healing that we seek has to be received as a gift from God. This is made extremely clear in the story of Immaculée, which I mentioned already. Hiding in the bathroom, consumed by anger, she had no other way to survive emotionally or spiritually than prayer, and so she began praying the Rosary with incredible intensity. However, she soon found she could not pray the line, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” because she was consumed by anger and did not want to forgive those who had murdered her family, her friends, and many members of her tribe. She had every right to be angry, but her anger became a barrier to her relationship with God, who was her only hope for survival. First she tried to get around the problem by praying the Our Father without that line. She soon realized, however, that she could not pray to God this way and put the words back, asking that God would help her to truly mean the words she was praying. Her story, which is well worth reading, proves that we can come to a place of forgiveness no matter how great the evil we have suffered. This grace to forgive, though, must come from God.
It is important to keep this in mind when approaching our pain. Psychological counseling, journaling our feelings, speaking to friends and family, and being part of sharing groups, can be extremely helpful in guiding us through the two steps above, that is, coming to grips with the evil that was done to us, and turning away from false or destructive ways to react to that evil. However, we need to seek the grace of forgiveness from God Himself. This puts us in a difficult place, because the hurt can make it hard to see God’s presence and it can take away any desire to seek God. We become susceptible to all the lies of the devil, who says “God does not love you,” or “God is not good” or “God has rejected you” or “God does not exist, evil is just random chance,” or even “You must hurt others before they hurt you.” Evil has a way of consuming all of our attention so that we have trouble seeing around it or getting past it, and part of our healing needs to be recognizing and rejecting these lies.
God knows that it is difficult for us to seek Him, and so in His great love and mercy He comes to find us, and He comes to us through His Son Jesus Christ.
Continued at Jesus Makes Forgiveness Possible (2 of 3)
(Special thanks to Emily for her help with this series.)
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