How to forgive
“The Holy Spirit always encourages. Never discourages.” That’s a golden rule in discernment of spirits, and it’s not a bad rule in life.
People of the Holy Spirit — people who model themselves on Jesus — choose words and actions which encourage.
Today’s Gospel is a great example of that. The Lord is halfway through his public ministry. The apostles have been living with him, learning from him, for more than a year. They’ve watched Jesus perform miracles. They’ve learned how to pray and minister so that miracles happen through them too. They don’t tire of learning more. Of becoming better disciples. So they say to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” Change us.
St Luke doesn’t give much detail about our Lord’s reply. But I imagine him smiling. “Were your faith the size of a mustard seed . . .” In other words: “You don’t need to change. You’ve already got the means. Your faith is small, but God does the rest.” The Lord encourages the apostles, and he encourages us too, because we’re in exactly the same boat.
The context of today’s Gospel is important. The apostles have just been challenged by a doctrine which challenges us too. “If your brother wrongs you seven times a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I am sorry,’ you must forgive him.”
To forgive as Jesus forgives. Easier said than done! But only two things are needed. The first is willingness. The second is faith. How much faith is needed? Faith the size of a mustard seed. God does the rest.
When we find it hard to forgive, seek out the Holy Spirit! Ask for divine help. I propose five steps to forgiveness, which are in fact similar to the steps in the sacrament of reconciliation. And why not, if we are to model our behaviour on God’s?
Pray with someone else. Our Lord tells us: “When two or more are gathered in my name, I am in their midst.” So find someone you trust to pray with you.
And — this is important — we need to pray out loud. Why? The spoken word has power. The spoken word can change reality in ways that silent thinking does not.
Begin my praising God, and thanking God. Invoke the power of the Holy Spirit.
Pray for forgiveness. Make an act of contrition, just as we do at the start of every Mass. None of us can give what we have not received. So to forgive others, first we have to be forgiven.
Situate yourselves at the foot of the cross. Place the person who has hurt you there, beside the priests and scribes and soldiers at Calvary. (You and I stand in that company too.)
Contemplate our Lord’s prayer from the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Isn’t that a powerful prayer? It’s powerful in what it says. And it’s powerful in what it does not say. How often, in the Gospels, does Jesus directly forgive others? “Go. Your sins are forgiven.” But he doesn’t do that at Calvary. Why?
We can’t speculate on our Lord’s inner thoughts and then declare them gospel truths. But we can imagine. Remember, Jesus is all things to all people.
I’ve heard a story told of a young Christian woman, a university student, who was violently attacked by thugs in a park. For days after, she was in a coma. For weeks after, she was told by others, “You have to forgive your attackers. Until you forgive, you won’t heal.” But she couldn’t forgive. Her assailants were never identified, let alone arrested. The injustice was too great. She tried, but she could not forgive.
Until she contemplated our Lord’s prayer from the cross. “Father, forgive them . . .” Maybe, at that place, in that hour, Jesus felt what she felt. He couldn’t say, “I forgive you.” So instead, he prayed to the Father.
That insight may or may not be an historical fact. Regardless, it brought spiritual healing. So, in the same way, we pray to the Father too. Repeat the words of Jesus, directed now at the people who’ve hurt you. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Think of the person who hurt you, and what that person did. Feel the pain. Forgiveness takes a deeper hold when we forgive from the place of pain. Once you’re in touch with the pain, say: “In the name of Jesus, I forgive so-and-so for such-and-such.” Be specific, and pray it out loud.
The person praying with you may be able to give words to your pain. For example: “I forgive so-and-so for humiliating me and rejecting me and making me feel worthless.”
That’s it. Two things are needed to love as Jesus loves. The first is willingness. The second is faith. The tiniest faith. Faith the size of a mustard seed.
And let’s not be too proud of ourselves for adopting a supernatural outlook. After all, “we are merely servants; we have done no more than our duty.”