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The healing power of forgiveness

Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ." (Eph 4:32)

Imagine if our bodies did not have the power to physically heal; if every cut, bruise and blemish stayed with us forever. After just a few years of going through life with its inevitable injuries and accidents, we would all be monstrosities; unbearable to look at and unable to function. Thankfully, God has given our bodies this beautiful power of restoration. We are sometimes left with scars, and things take time to heal, but all in all, our ability to regenerate is truly miraculous.

Our ability to heal after spiritual and emotional wounds is just as wondrous, but it is a subtle and complicated process. In many ways, our bodies heal up on their own, needing minimal intervention from us much of the time. However, to heal from emotional wounds requires effort and intention on our part. Unlike our physical injuries, we must choose to be healed from our emotional wounds. In order to choose healing, we have to be able to forgive.

We can contrast the healing power of forgiveness with the poison of resentment. Forgiveness is the releasing of hurt, while resentment is clinging to hurt. Anger can be a natural and healthy reaction, but holding on to it is cancerous. When we choose to hold onto resentments, it is also choosing not to heal. Refusing to heal from our emotional wounds creates just as much suffering and ugliness as if our physical wounds never healed. In this way, forgiveness is just as much for ourselves as it is for other people.

Forgiveness does not mean that we must forget that pain we experienced and repress the reality that our dignity has been violated. … Rather, forgiveness is a culminating part of the process of mourning our wounds.

Psychologists and theologians can all define forgiveness in many different ways, but at the heart of each of these definitions is the need to set aside our anger — even when it is just — at a wrong done unto us. Many of us have experienced the beautiful gift of forgiveness. In the confessional, we get to experience the freeing joy of being forgiven. But offering forgiveness, while not sacramental, nonetheless brings its own experience of freedom for ourselves just as much as for others.

Forgiveness does not mean that we must forget that pain we experienced and repress the reality that our dignity has been violated. In fact, unless it is a supernatural gift, doing so is actually quite unhealthy. Forgiveness does not mean that it is okay for our boundaries to be violated and our souls hurt. Rather, forgiveness is a culminating part of the process of mourning our wounds. The processes of grief and mourning, as painful as they are, actually lead to healing and joy. We go through a similar process when healing from the grief of our emotional wounds. All of our emotions have a valid place in this process, even anger.

When we are hurt, it is important to acknowledge that pain and allow ourselves to feel it. This doesn’t mean wallowing in self-pity, but neither does it mean repressing our suffering. Our natural reaction to these wounds is anger. Believe it or not, this is an important part of the process, and removing it short-circuits the healing process. Anger, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, is a response to a perceived injustice. We cannot properly forgive unless we acknowledge that an injustice has been committed, and this involves experiencing anger on some level. This does not mean we can fly off the handle at someone when we are hurt, but it does mean that our desire for justice is good. The thing is, however, that in our relationships (and especially our marriages), most of our wounds need to be acknowledged, forgiven and then moved on from. There are certainly times when justice and restoration should be sought. Even in the most intimate of marriages, boundaries exist and should be respected. However, I think a classic saying that should guide our home life is, “Our homes should be more of a confessional than a courthouse.”

Another way that our emotional healing mirrors our physical healing is that we often have to experience re-healing of old wounds. If you were in a car accident when you were younger, there is a good chance that one day you’ll reaggravate that injury and need even deeper healing for wounds you thought were taken care of years ago. I can tell you that in my own life I’ve recently had to ask God for healing and intentionally forgive childhood wounds I thought were already addressed and moved on from. Forgiveness is often an upward spiral; it can be frustrating to keep coming back around to the same wounds to forgive them again and again, but this is what it takes. We may need to forgive the same wound many times throughout our lives, but this is okay because each time, our own healing is deeper, and we learn more about ourselves.

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Following an attempt on his life in 1981, Pope St. John Paul II met with his would-be assassin in prison, Mehmet Ali Ağca, and forgave him. Years later, Mehmet converted to Catholicism. (Photo: L’Osservatore Romano)

Fortunately, forgiveness does not require anything of the other person because forgiveness doesn’t have to entail reconciliation. You might recall the powerful moment when Pope John Paul II visited Mehmet Ali Ağca in prison after he attempted to assassinate the pontiff. While the pope forgave him, Ağca still had to carry out his sentence; forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting the pain or erasing the consequences of injustice. This story also highlights the real power of forgiveness, as Ağca converted to Catholicism in 2007. Forgiveness is the releasing of anger and choosing not to hold onto resentment, and we don’t need any rectification or any apology from the other person in order to do this. Remember, Jesus said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

Do an inventory of the wounds you have experienced in your own life. If you go through your life, year by year, you can list out hurts you have experienced and ask yourself if you have truly acknowledged the pain of them and yet been willing to let your anger go. Visualize your resentments as chains holding you in place — chains that you are voluntarily clinging to. Reflect on the cost of holding onto these chains; the pain it causes, and the ugly scars they leave on your beautiful heart. Now, picture the freedom of simply choosing to let them go. Remember, as sons of God and brides of Christ, Jesus longs for our hearts to be without burden.


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