The Fifth Spiritual Work of Mercy:
To Forgive Offences Willingly
By Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
It’s hard enough just to forgive; how do we forgive willingly?
Yet another layer is what some people call “face”—the dignity we feel we deserve from the community around us. We all live knowing, with varying awareness, that the eyes of others are looking at us constantly. What do people think of me? Do I have their respect? How are they treating me? Are they treating me differently than they treat other people? In a diverse culture like the United States, waves of immigrant people have come, each seeking acceptance by groups that came earlier. How were our grandparents made to feel? How were our nationality characteristics joked about, over emphasized, dismissed, imitated? How have “minorities” in culture been made to feel because of the color of their skin?
These layers inside of us all come into play when we are deeply offended. Like a volcano spewing rock and ash from deep inside, feelings that we can barely describe rage within us. We stand shaken so hard we cannot even find words to state the depth of the grievance. Why did that remark cut me so deeply? Why can I not stand to even be in the same room with so-and-so? Why did I start trembling? Why was I gripped with a rage that, even years later, feels ever fresh?
Yet is it not precisely because of the emotional depth that we have to consciously decide to take a different approach to someone who has offended us? It is not exactly because we cannot debut all the levels of feeling and shame we have that we have to find another way to work around things?
We are endless puzzles to ourselves. For that reason, we can get caught in emotional entanglements that tie us in ever-complicating knots. And these emotional entanglements do not offer us a promise of relief and freedom; rather they spin and twist, weaving a shroud that ultimately stifles us. We think of Lazarus, Jesus’ good friend, coming from his stony grave: “Untie him,” says Jesus (John 11:44); Lazarus cannot get back to life unless the burial robes are untangled and he is set free.
So if we cannot resolve things on the feeling level for a long time—precisely because of the depths of those feelings—we will continue to be trapped by our anger unless we deliberately choose another direction. That is, unless we forgive offenses “willingly.”
Here many devout people feel caught because they cannot get over their feelings. But here people have to acknowledge that it is not on the level of feeling that forgiveness begins, but on the level of choice. Almost in spite of the feelings that are raised inside of us, we have to decide to take another course.
What course? Simply this: to show the person who offended me the love that Christ asks. And Christs asks us to choose what is good for the other person for the sake of the other person, despite what feelings might grip us. We are called to exercise our will—“willingly”—to treat another person with the dignity, respect, and kindness that Christ would show that person. Doing this, since it springs from our decision, makes us put our feelings into proportion. No matter what I feel, I can still choose to treat another with the love that they merit because they are loved by God.
The value of forgiving offenses does not mean, of course, that we give others permission to continue abusing us. To help others know how they are behaving, and what harm they are causing, is a way to love them. (How we help them know that is another issue, of course.) It’s not Christian virtue to “enable” the evil of others.
Yet a decision to treat another with love and respect may actually help bring about some of the emotional healing that we need to ultimately deal with. When we are offended, we often irrationally connect some act with our core identity; as a result, we react against the offending person from the energy of our core identity. But often it is just that connection—making an offense into a radical attack on our person—which is the mistake in the first place. We overinvest in being offended, and therefore we are trapped by the emotional overlay within us.
So be being willing—by consciously deciding to let the feelings not control us—we can begin to get outside ourselves and the narcissistic self-pity that often accompanies our sense of being offended. This may allow us even to glimpse the person who offended us more deeply—to at least see the limitations and the humanity which our rage often will not let us observe.
True, the feelings will be there. And there is no point in denying them or repressing them. But we can bring these to prayer, use them to explore parts of our inner souls we rarely think about, and keep them from throwing the rest of our life into disorder.
Who knows, at some point the person who offended us may let us talk with her or him. Who knows, because we acted out of decision and will—and not out of the pettiness that anger brings—maybe a future encounter may bring about a reconciliation that no amount of ranting could ever do.
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