In our Adult Forum on Sunday, Ona Graham taught the class on “Reconciliation in Community.” She led us through an exercise of reflecting on times where we have had strained or broken relationships with people that need healing. What grudges are we carrying? What are some places healing has taken place? Who needs to be forgiven?
Despite what people think, priests are not immune to holding grudges or being unforgiving. We are hurt by others and do our share of hurting as well. While it is understandable that people hold us to a higher standard, I admit freely that there are people in my life for whom I am withholding forgiveness. I consciously know this and that’s the scary part. I don’t profess to be perfect, but I certainly am a work in progress. I wish I was at that place where I could say am free from the slavery of feeling angry, betrayed, or indignant.
But I’m not. Yet. I’m working on it.
Ona laid out a few helpful tips for working through our feelings toward reconciliation. I call them the “Four ‘For-‘s’ of Forgiveness.” These aren’t intended to be chronological in terms of a process but perhaps they can get us thinking about where we are in our relationships with those whom we are strained.
1. Forego – When we’re hurt by someone, Ona posited that we tend to replay the instance that hurt us like a bad play in an NFL football game. It plays over and over in our mind and each time it does, it brings back those feelings of hurt and pain. It keeps it fresh in our minds and souls. But if we can “forego” the replay by pushing the “stop” button, then we can move towards forgiveness. In other words, if we keep reliving the past in our mind, we’re likely not to forgive. Instead, we have to focus on a new image. What would it look like to be reconciled to that person? Simply turn the channel in our mind to something that is hopeful. Imagine what healing would look like.
2. Forbear – I had to look up the exact definition of “forbear,” but it basically means to go without. Ona suggested that in order to reach reconciliation, we must let go of vengeance. That’s a harsh word that brings up images of retaliation and revenge. Sure, it can mean “eye for an eye,” but there are many more common ways we enact vengeance when we’re hurt. We think about vengeance a lot – how can I damage that person for what they did? Maybe I’ll stop talking to them. Maybe I’ll cut them out of my life as if they didn’t exist. Maybe I’ll say something snarky under my breath. Maybe I’ll be sarcastic to them. Or maybe I’ll dig my heels in so that they can’t move on either. There are many ways to seek vengeance, but in order to truly “forbear,” we must resist the temptation of getting even with them. Instead of thinking of the ways we can continue the cycle of pain, perhaps we can think of ways we might try to mend the relationship. This might include confronting the person face-to-face and sharing your pain. This might be working on your own healing through therapy. This might be turning the other cheek completely and doing something genuinely nice for the person who hurt you.
3. Forgive – We forget sometimes that you can’t “forgive” without “give.” When we forgive, we are offering something to someone. A gift. That is the gift of grace. Grace, as we know it in the Church, is not deserved by anyone, yet God gives it to us every second of every day. I truly believe that the ability to forgive depends on how much you feel forgiven. If you’ve experienced real grace, then it’s like winning the lottery. It’s overwhelming and our “account” is full. When that happens, you only want others to experience that same grace. When our grace account is full-to-brimming, we are much more likely to dispense the overflowing grace to those who need it. When we withhold forgiveness, we are withholding that gift that we’ve received. So the question to ask is, “How full is my grace account?” Am I aware of how much grace I have? How can I give that grace to others?
4. Forget – Ona was quick to tell us that the fourth piece is not our traditional “forgive and forget” cliche. We cannot forget the very real wounds we have received. But, we can forget the pain that came with it. My wife Molly has given birth naturally to four children. She knows pain. And she remembers vaguely what it was like to push those babies out. But in the moments after each child’s birth, she remembers only the beauty of the gift that she received. The pain is a distant memory. When we choose to forget, we aren’t wiping our memory of the bad things that have happened. But we are choosing to forget the intensity of the pain that came with them. If we can forget that pain, we can certainly move forward…which leads me to a fifth “for-.”
5. Forward – We can heal. We can. It seems impossible to find a way forward sometimes, but no matter how horrendous a situation is, even dealing with addiction, physical or mental abuse, or even death, there is a way forward. This is our most basic Christian hope. This is what Jesus showed us in his own death and resurrection. If we can see this truth in our most basic human relationships, in the day-to-day slings and arrows that relationships bring, then reconciliation will be a cinch.
This is not easy work, and like I said, I’m no expert. But I believe it. Jesus talked a lot about it in Scripture, so he must have believed it too. He certainly lived it. We may say, “Well, he was Jesus, of course he could.” But Jesus was human too and showed us that we have it in us to forgive one another. If he didn’t, why would he suggest it?
Therefore is you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you; leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Matthew 5:23-24