Forgiveness: both a choice and a grace


Part of a series of articles on forgiveness in the Jubilee of Mercy.


As I had written in my last article, injuries evoke anger in relationships. Anger is the typical — and appropriate — emotional response to a wrong. It is a response that defends one’s self-worth and esteem. Yet once we have been wronged, how do we morally — humanly — respond to the person who has injured us? The question is key because the response ultimately reflects one’s character, a character that is ideally formed by legal, ethical and Christian standards. For the Catholic Christian, our response ought to reflect Christ’s exhortation: “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him” (Lk 17:3; see also Mt 18:22). Our response ought to put into practice the words of Jesus’ prayer: “forgive us [Father] our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Mt 6:12).

Humanly speaking, forgiveness can be a very tall order to fulfill. It might even seem impossible. Yet for the Christian, the person who strives to live like Christ, forgiveness indeed is possible — if only we want it. Two important factors come into play if the Christian ever wants to achieve forgiveness: we have to choose it and forgiveness ultimately comes to fruition through the grace of God.

Forgiveness sprouts only when it springs from a conscientious choice. One has to want to forgive or forgiveness will never happen. For the Christian this choice becomes an explicit desire to live out Christ’s teaching on forgiveness and to put into practice the words of his prayer. Yet forgiveness can be a very daunting task. Therefore, one needs to ask for the grace to bestow (or even accept) forgiveness. One needs to fall on one’s knees and ask the Father who willingly and daily forgives us to help us to forgive those who have harmed us.

Real and life-changing forgiveness does not derive from a simple feeling nor is it a simple exchange of words: “I’m sorry. That’s OK.” Forgiveness is not for weaklings or wimps. Forgiveness requires character, strength, and virtue in proportion to the injury. Michael McCullough, the renowned researcher on forgiveness, says that forgiveness is “a brawny, muscular exercise.” Forgiveness requires conviction of mind, interior strength, and openness to God’s grace which enlightens, guides, encourages and strengthens us. In the end, forgiveness is an act of love — possibly even heroic love!

Sometimes a simple gesture of contrition or words of sorrow might evoke forgiveness. Yet, forgiveness often takes time because the wound and pain are deep. Thus forgiveness, in order for it to take full effect and bear good fruit, needs to be fostered and practiced over time. Forgiveness is a choice that one might have to renew again and again (see Lk 17:3); it is a grace that one might have to plea for day-in and day-out, most especially when the anger is rekindled or the wound re-opened.

In the end, forgiveness is an act of virtue. Virtue derives from a firm and habitual desire to do the good. By choosing forgiveness, the offended seeks the good of all: oneself, the offender, and any other who might be affected. Choosing forgiveness helps the injured person to grow in virtue and holiness and sows seeds of healing and peace in hearts of all involved. Forgiveness (especially heroic forgiveness) is not easy; yet, the unwillingness to forgive is, in the end, harder on us; it is a continuous burden that weighs down our minds and hearts and saps our energy.

As we strive for forgiveness, let us pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and strength and seek the counsel and support of others. Forgiveness, as a choice, is not something we need to do on our own.