Five steps to forgiveness (3 of 3)

Benjamin Human Relationships, The Loving Life

This post is the third in a series on forgiveness:
Part 1, Why should I forgive?
Part 2, Jesus makes forgiveness possible

It is best to read those before reading this one, because we need to have a strong foundation for forgiveness. That foundation is the reality of God’s love, a reality in which we stand to gain instead of lose by forgiving. This should be seen as a path to walk, a direction to travel. Forgiveness comes from little steps made every day, and after a while you find you have come to a place that is more peaceful.
I have decided to present the process of forgiveness in five steps, but keep in mind that these are not stages we complete but steps we climb again and again and again until we are over the mountain that has been blocking us.

Step 1: Strengthen your faith in God’s love.
Before setting out on this journey, seek Baptism if you have not been baptized, and beg for the Sacrament of Confirmation. If you have received these sacraments already, a good starting point would be prayerful reflection on your life followed by an honest confession. Next, go to Mass every Sunday and holy day, and as long as you are in the state of grace, receive Holy Communion. If you are not in the state of grace, return to Confession. I cannot emphasize enough what power these sacraments have to transform our hearts and souls and at the very deepest depths. Forgiveness is a long journey, and the Eucharist is the food which gives us the strength for that journey.

Next, seek God’s love in prayer and in scripture reading. Through the scriptures, especially the Gospels, we begin to see the world from the truest and most reliable perspective, the perspective of God’s love. When we are finding things especially difficult, we need to make a deliberate choice to see our life and the whole world from the perspective of the cross.

The understanding and companionship of a person of strong faith is also very helpful as we seek to know God’s love. This companionship is a sensitive issue, because the person helping needs to Step 1: Strengthen your faith in God’s looking for nothing for themselves, because sharing our pain puts us in a vulnerable position. There is a temptation to show your heart to the first face that is willing to listen, but that can mean exposing yourself to the wrong person. Patience is important, and trust that God will eventually bring someone into your life who will help.

The companionship of a person who is strong in faith can also include the Saints. We can form deep bonds of friendship with the saints and seek their guidance in the witness of their lives and the way they have written of their own discovery of God’s love. St. Augustine, whose Confessions are still in print, speaks of how God caught his attention and drew his stubborn soul from a sinful life to a life of faith. St. Thérèse of Liseiux in her Story of a Soul speaks of her discovery of God’s love. Mother Theresa is a courageous, selfless witness of what it means to live as a daughter of God, the list of saints is very long there is certainly a friend here for anyone who looks. It is especially important, when the wounds deal with a mother or a father, to seek friendship with Mary and with St. Joseph. Seeing oneself as a child of these two amazing parents is often the key for moving past family wounds.

When the question is one of forgiving God, this first step is the most crucial. The path to healing and forgiveness comes from recognizing our dependence on God and acknowledging that everything we have comes from God as a gift. He gives His gifts in different measure to each person and we are in no position to protest or complain about what He gave us or did not give us.

Step2: Ask forgiveness of God for your sins against His love.
As our sense of God’s love becomes deeper, we being to feel a sense of regret and sorrow for our sins against His love. The sacrament of Confession is very important for truly and deeply seeking forgiveness. It can also be very painful to recognize our habits of sin, and realize we keep doing something which is hurtful to others or offense to God, and we have trouble stopping it. Through these struggles we begin to personally see with our own eyes how great God’s mercy is. It is exactly God’s mercy that goes in search of the sheep that is lost and leads it back to Him.

When the struggle is a struggle to forgive yourself, for the bad choices you have made, the process of forgiveness centers around these first and second steps: recognizing God’s great love, and accepting that God loves the complete disaster that is me. One prayer might be helpful: “Father, although I don’t deserve your love, I accept it gratefully.”
It can be helpful here to reflect on Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well (John 4:1-42), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11), and the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Many of the saints, like Mary Magdalene and St. Augustine, are excellent witnesses.

Step 3: Offer to others the forgiving love God has given you.
This step sounds easy but it is actually very difficult. We need to work up to forgiveness by beginning with smaller exercises, forgiving offenses that are very small (someone broke a favorite coffee mug) and forgiving those people we find easiest to love. We will find that forgiving their insults and transgressions becomes easier with time, and we begin to have a forgiving heart.

We should keep in mind that forgiveness is not the same as condoning the action – we still need to tell our spouse that something hurt us, tell a co-worker not to steal our lunch from the common refrigerator, or punish one of our children, but as we become more forgiving we can do these things in a clear and calm way and not lashing out in anger. As we grow in love, these offenses bother us less because they took something from us personally, and more because there is something wrong in the choice the person made. Sooner or later this effort to love and forgive will run up against the barrier of our pain, and the person or persons we have the biggest trouble forgiving.

Step 4: Make the choice to forgive.
Recognizing that forgiveness is a choice, not an emotion, we need to move from “I don’t want to forgive”, or “I can never forgive,” to “I want to forgive.” It often happens that, when we are happily growing in our love for God and for the people we find easy to love, the Spirit begins to draw us towards greater forgiveness, and we resist this movement with everything we have. We experience fear, sheer terror, or lose every desire to pray. We discover many good arguments why we should not have to forgive and God cannot ask us to forgive. We return to the painful details of how we were hurt as if the pain itself were proof that we should not be asked to forgive. We set up barriers that seem very reasonable, saying “I will forgive, but only after X and Y.” We will find friends who say, “You shouldn’t have to forgive what he did” or “Just move on, don’t open old wounds” or “You cannot forgive until she acknowledges what she did is wrong”.

Here, most clearly, we see the interference of the devil, who wants us to stay in bondage to the pain and will erect every possible obstacle to progress, including dumping large amounts of anger into our souls and filling us with confusion and a dislike for God, prayer, and the sacraments.

It is important to persevere in prayer and frequently approach the sacraments, no matter how we feel, in order to receive strength from God. If you cannot pray to forgive, pray to have the desire to forgive, or even pray “Lord, please give me the desire to desire to forgive.” Ask for prayers from friends, and most of all, keep your eyes fixed on God and His love. The more you are looking inward at yourself, the harder it is to forgive. The victory, which is the decision, “Yes, I want to forgive” is won through struggle, sometimes very bitter struggle.

Step 5: Let go of your hurt and anger before God.
From “I want to forgive” you can begin the process of letting go of your hurt and anger before God. This needs to happen again and again and again and again, seeking always for God’s help when it is very difficult. As the anger and hurt comes to the surface it can push you back in the direction of “I don’t want to forgive,” and you need to keep opening the door by reminding yourself that you cannot come into God’s kingdom unless you forgive.

Remember, as I said in the previous post, forgiveness is about your relationship with God and not with another person. Whether, eventually, you are called to offer this forgiveness to the person is a second question, and often God wants us to wait until the timing is right and He has prepared that person’s soul to be able to receive it.

Often, people who have gotten to this step are disappointed that it takes so long for the anger to dissipate. Remember that the essence of forgiveness is really the choice in Step 4, and Step 5 refers to the emotions which are outside our direct control. Nonetheless, as we continually turn the hurt and anger over to God we find it gets easier and easier until the anger passes more quickly and the hurt is less deep.

The process of forgiveness can be long, especially if there are many hurts in your life, or you have been holding onto your anger for a long time, or the pain is especially deep, or when the hurt is reoccurring because the person is stuck in a destructive habit, but it is clear God will not let you end the relationship. “Lord, how often must I forgive?” can come to mind, but the more we forgive, the more completely we become His children. From this perspective, having many opportunities to forgive is a blessing.

Remember that forgiveness takes time, and the grace of God is absolutely essential in every step. Finally, keep in mind the cross, and that it is exactly through our suffering that we grow in faith and love.

See also:
Part 1, Why should I forgive?
Part 2, Jesus makes forgiveness possible