Everyone can learn how to forgive someone who's hurt him.
What was she to do? Brenda’s husband of three years abandoned her two years ago and today she received the divorce notice. “I don’t want to hate him for the rest of my life,” she said of Nathan. “I want to forgive him, but I don’t know how.”
Brenda is typical of most of us in not knowing the path to forgiving. We have been hurt, we realize that our resentment could destroy us, and so we want to forgive. We even know as Catholics that Jesus, in Matthew: 6, asks us to forgive. And yet, because the Bible is not primarily a psychological document, it does not give us step-by-step instructions of how to accomplish this challenging task of forgiving those who have been unjust to us.
This is where the book “Forgiveness Is a Choice” comes in. I wrote this book as the wounded person’s guide to accomplishing the task of forgiving one person who has hurt him or her. When we forgive, we do not excuse what the person did. Nathan did wrong and so to find an excuse for his abandonment is to distort reality, not to forgive. When we forgive, we do not necessarily reconcile. Brenda very much wants to reconcile with Nathan, but he will not even consider this because he plans to “marry” (his word) another. When we forgive, we do not toss justice aside.
Brenda will do her best for a fair settlement once Nathan files for and insists on a divorce.
If forgiveness is not to excuse or to reconcile or to ignore justice, what then is it? In the book I define forgiveness this way: When we forgive, we know that what the other did was wrong and despite this, we struggle to offer an end to our resentment and to offer goodness to the one who has been unjust. It is an act of mercy. To go a little more deeply, forgiveness, like justice, love, patience, kindness, and courage, is a moral virtue.
All moral virtues start with an inner understanding of that virtue, develop internally as goodness, and then flow out to others for their good. With regard to the moral virtue of forgiveness, I would say that it is a heroic virtue, centered in mercy, because you are trying to meet the challenge of offering respect or even love to someone who hurt you, perhaps deeply. As we know, when Jesus asks us to forgive, He already has shown us the way by offering us love (agape, or self-sacrificial love) by dying for us on the cross. He was offering mercy in the face of our sins. Of course, we do not forgive sins when we forgive because only God forgives sins. We forgive people because of their offenses against us.
What then are the steps to forgiveness? In “Forgiveness Is a Choice,” I outline 20 different steps. Here is the short version. First, the person who forgives must realize that he or she was treated unjustly. This is usually easy because we recognize when others are unfair. Yet, for some it is not always so clear. Brenda, for example, kept asking herself: What did I do wrong? What might I have done differently? She had to move away from the false belief that she was at fault. Sure, she was not perfect in the relationship, but nothing she did as a wife deserved abandonment. She had to stand in the truth: Nathan acted unfairly.
Next comes an examination of the consequences of that injustice so that she can begin to heal. She realized that she was quite tired (a typical consequence when one is a recipient of injustice). She further realized that she was becoming pessimistic across the board with so much in her life. As a result of Nathan’s actions, she began to lose trust in her fellow human beings. “Everyone is just out for themselves,” was her common thought, which needed changing because it is not true. She realized that the injustice was changing her in a negative way. It was time to act to recapture her essence as a person and at the same time to recapture her understanding of Nathan as a true person.