During the pandemic, there were thousands of deaths from COVID alone, plus the “usual” deaths due to other causes. In my field, we face a tsunami of complicated grief. One cause of complication is the inability or, due to the suddenness of the illness, lack of opportunity to forgive. Dr. Ira Byock, a medical doctor and researcher of dying patients, labeled “I forgive you” as one of the four most important things people need to give and receive when they are dying.
I admit I’ve sometimes had trouble forgiving those who hurt me; I am struggling with one brother right now. I’ve also met people who held grudges for so long they no longer remember what the grudge was about in the first place. In a world ruled by revenge-fueled cries of eye-for-an-eye “justice”, forgiveness remains one of the thorniest aspects of discipleship. Yet it is precisely what Jesus calls us to.
Note the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Reconciliation is mutual. Each party admits their wrongdoing, each repents and asks forgiveness, and both forgive. Then both sincerely engage in the difficult process of repairing the relationship and rebuilding damaged trust. Both people must want it, and the relationship must be worth it. Reconciliation isn’t always possible, especially in cases of abuse or dysfunction.
Forgiveness, though, can be unilateral. I can forgive even if the other person isn’t sorry. Forgiveness doesn’t condone the wrong or say it’s OK. Forgiveness doesn’t pretend it didn’t hurt, sometimes deeply. In serious cases, it doesn’t mean I give up on pursuit of justice or due consequences for the action. What forgiveness does is free my heart from being imprisoned by someone else’s bad actions. I let go of the need for revenge, the need to hate, the need to “get even”, the need to see that person suffer as I suffered. It releases the hold they have over my emotions, sleep, appetite, and life. I take back my power, free my heart, and allow the Spirit to flow freely through me.
The more grievous the hurt, the longer this process takes. Even after forgiving, something may happen that brings old hurts up again. Then I have to repeat the process and reaffirm the forgiveness, over and over again.
It’s tough stuff! But Jesus says not to come to the altar unless I’m doing it. And, as we’re finding out, if we don’t do it every day of our lives, death may rob us of the chance. So, this week I pledge to work harder on forgiving my brother. Because of his history of hurting me and likelihood of doing it again, I will never have a close, trusting relationship with him. I will, however, work through and then let go of the pain, hurt, and anger so he doesn’t control any part of my heart. Then perhaps I can go on to forgive someone else.
Is there someone you need to work to forgive? Is there a grudge or hurt that holds your heart bound? Perhaps along with me, you can bring that to Jesus and ask for the grace and strength to forgive. And do it now.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.