There is nothing that says more about love than the ability to forgive and be forgiven. It is the very heart of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He died to save us from the power of sin and death, an act of forgiveness and reconciliation born of His deep love for each and every one of us. To forgive is the greatest act of love that anyone can give. It frees both the offender and the one who has been hurt. It frees us from the weight of the burden of hurt or guilt or whatever it is that keeps us apart, especially that which keeps us distant from God. It is the most difficult act of love to give, therefore it is the greatest. Forgiveness is the heart of love.
There is much to be said about forgiveness, but I will share only a few thoughts about it. When we are hurt or betrayed it is so difficult to forgive the one who hurt us. Therefore it is important to realize that we need to be ready to forgive. If we say we forgive the other too soon, we may have said the words while still being in bondage to our feelings of hurt and betrayal. Sometimes we need to begin by praying for the desire to forgive before we try to actually forgive. On the other hand, we do not want to hold onto a hurt for so long that we cling to it, not wanting to let go at all! It takes more energy to be angry and hurt than we realize; it colors everything we do when we hold onto anger. It is like swallowing a live hand grenade: it will not take much of a jostle for it to go off and for the explosion to be with an innocent person who has nothing to do with the original hurt.
It is important for us to turn to the Lord and ask Him to help with our pain and hurt when we need to forgive. Quite often we try to handle it ourselves and discover we simply cannot let go. If we let Him help us we can gradually let grace soften our hearts, heal our wounds, and give us the strength to face the one who hurt us and say "I forgive you." When we do this, we discover that the ones who are most released are ourselves. I realize that not all hurts are as easy to forgive as others, but forgiveness is part of loving, and it is what will set us all free. Loving does not always mean liking, and it does not mean we condone what was done. But it is essential to being loving.
The word in the New Testament for this heroic love is agapè, (ah-gah-pay). Agapè is defined as unconditional love; loving those who are hardest to love; loving the way God loves us. Jesus taught that this is perfect love and that we should aspire to it. However, we need His help to love this way. Therefore God gives us the grace to love with agapè when we need it or ask for it. This kind of love is expressed in deed, not just in word. He made it clear that it does not mean we have to like everyone we meet since that is impossible. But we are to respond to them lovingly. We often paraphrase His teaching with the saying: "Love the sinner, hate the sin." This kind of love originates in the Old Testament law in which we were instructed to love the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien in our midst. Clearly it is not about liking everyone and agreeing with everything. It is about doing the right thing, the charitable thing, the loving thing. And this is often somewhat difficult. But with His help we can do it.
There are times when we need to be the ones who seek forgiveness from another person and God. Further, we need to allow ourselves to be forgiven. Sometimes it can be harder to forgive ourselves or to accept forgiveness from others for our transgressions than it is to forgive others. The Good News is that forgiveness is already waiting for us. God will never withhold forgiveness from us if we are truly sorry. In fact, if we ask for help in whatever area of weakness we have, God will give us that, too. It does not surprise me that Jesus left us the Sacrament of Reconciliation, since God has been forgiving us since the day people first sinned and will do so if we seek it until the end of time.
One of my favorite passages in the Old Testament is contained in the writings of the prophet Zephaniah, one of the Minor Prophets. (There are many passages about how God offered to forgive His very wayward children in the prophetic books.) The people had betrayed God terribly. He had warned them of what would happen to them should they cast Him aside. It was not that He wanted to punish them. It was that if they rejected Him, He could do nothing to help them because He does not force Himself on His people ever. The people did not listen and the worst had happened. As always, they learned a tough lesson and began to beg forgiveness. Zephaniah was writing at a time when they were just out of exile. This is what God said through Zephaniah:
"Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear. On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals... At that time I will bring you home and at that time I will gather you." (The entire passage is Zeph. 3:14-20.)
God was forgiving them! He was calling His sinful, but atoning, people back to Himself. If you read the whole Old Testament up to this point, you will see that the people had rejected God time after time after time. And yet rather than abandoning them and finding a new people, He forgave them over and over. Jesus taught that same message, especially when He told Peter to forgive “70 x 7” times; in other words, do not stop forgiving.
What I love most about the passage from Zephaniah is that God did not just say He forgave them. He said He would sing joyfully over them as one sings at festivals! God was overjoyed that He forgave them and that they accepted it! I love the image of God rejoicing to the point of singing and dancing! And He wanted them to share in it, too: "Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!" "Be glad and exult with all your heart!"
Forgiveness is something for which to be grateful. That God has forgiven us and will continue to do so is a gift beyond measure. Better still, He enables us to give that gift, too. Jesus said: "What you have received, give as a gift." I believe that is true of many things, but especially about the type of love it takes to forgive. We have received it, so let us give the gift of forgiveness when we can. We can rejoice at the freedom forgiveness gives.
May we be empowered with the courage to forgive those who have hurt us. May we accept the grace to forgive ourselves when we have failed. May we be enabled to accept the gift of forgiveness from the Lord. And may we rejoice and shout for joy, exulting with all our heart at the great gift of love offered to us by our God. Let us meet in the Heart of our singing and dancing God. Peace!
Some links to excellent resources about forgiveness:
Left to Tell and Led By Faith, are both books by Immaculee Ilibagiza. She hid for over 90 days in a tiny bathroom with 7 other women during the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990's. Her witness to the power of forgiveness is one of the most amazing examples I have ever read.
A song I like is Matthew West's new song, Forgiveness. West said that this song was inspired by a story of a woman who forgave a drunken driver who took the life of her daughter. She said forgiving him gave her great freedom.