Fortunately for us, forgiveness is not a feeling. But why doesn't God take away our feeling of rage and hurt?
Forgiveness isn’t optional in the Christian life. We bind ourselves to forgive each time we pray the Our Father, the one prayer Jesus taught his people. “Forgive us our trespasses,” we pray, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Most of us, if we’re being honest, find such a prospect terrifying. What fate might befall me if God in his mercy chose to forgive me only as fully as I have forgiven those I hate?
Fortunately for us, forgiveness is not a feeling. Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness is a refusal to define another person by his sin, a prayer that God give us a merciful heart whenever we’re inclined to rehearse yet again the list of another’s faults.
Most of us know this, that forgiveness is a decision we may have to make over and again for years. But it can be awfully discouraging to find that after decades of seeking to love like Jesus a certain name still elicits feelings of rage and shame and vengeance.
Perhaps that too is a product of God’s mercy.
It would, of course, be far more pleasant if with the act of forgiveness came an absolute release of all negative emotions and a complete healing of all painful memories. But if God chooses not to work in that way, it must be for our good. “All things work for good for those who love God,” St. Paul tells us (Rom 8:28), so certainly the inner workings of a heart surrendered to God must be a result of his grace. But what good could possibly come of feelings of anger and pain and betrayal that are dredged up again and again, sometimes for a lifetime?
The Catechism explains it this way:
It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession. (CCC 2843)
Those last few words, so easy to miss, can be life-changing if we take them to heart. Forgiveness, we’re told, doesn’t necessarily change our memory or our emotions. Forgiveness transforms hurt into intercession.
The heart that is longing to forgive may frequently find itself reminded of a past injury. But rather than brood over the offense or become discouraged by the lingering anger, a Christian takes the pain and offers it as an intercession for the offender.
This is the miracle of forgiveness: not that it makes us feel good about past trauma or happy to spend time with a former enemy, but that it turns our suffering into prayer, a heroic act of supplication on behalf of the one who has hurt us.
What if this is the reason that God sometimes allows even minor wounds to remain open? So that we can become instruments in the salvation of the ones we want to hate. So that our hearts might gradually be healed of hatred by being offered daily—hourly—as a living sacrifice for the last person in the world we want to see saved, so that if we should meet one day in glory we can rejoice.
Nothing is wasted in God’s economy. The devil wants to convince us that our ugly feelings are unforgiveness, proof that we ourselves are unforgiven, unworthy of mercy, unable to be saved. What if instead of believing those lies we took those moments of bitterness and shame and anger and pain and turned them instead into intercession?
When we remember a slight or an assault or a lie or a betrayal, let’s take the opportunity to pray (even if through gritted teeth): “Jesus, pour your blood over the one who hurt me. Make him a great saint. Make her a great saint. Give him a heart that longs after you. Give her joy in knowing you. And help me to forgive.”
In the end, this prayer that “turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” might just make us saints, too.