In London a recent spike in crime is causing local and national politicians a headache. More importantly, those deaths are leaving behind shattered families and communities. We don’t know all the details of each incident but, out of those scraps of information we get from the media, it seems there’s a common factor that features in reports. Apparently, those deaths are the final outcome of spats between individuals or local gang members. It’s worrying when people decide to ‘sort things out’ by intentionally hurting or killing those they disagree with. At the heart of such a disturbing approach lies an inability or unwillingness to forgive. In fact, it’s quite often a mixture of both.
In today’s gospel Jesus gives his Apostles immense powers: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’ This is a classic passage regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but it can also be applied broadly in a non-sacramental sense. Jesus taught his followers many times that they should forgive others. The best-known example of this command is when Simon Peter asked Jesus whether he ought to forgive as many as seven times. In response Jesus instructed him to forgive seventy-seven times; in the biblical sense that means ‘always’. We declare our own willingness to forgive every time we say the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ But we know that in practical terms we are only paying lip-service to the readiness to forgive.
The difficulty with forgiving stems from various misconceptions or misunderstandings regarding the attitude and/or the process. In no particular order, the first important problem each one of us faces is a belief that when I have forgiven my perpetrators, their wrongdoings are nullified and somehow they are declared innocent. And that goes against our sense of natural justice. But that belief isn’t true. My act of forgiveness doesn’t revoke a perpetrator’s responsibilities. Such an act sets the hurt party free! When you’re hurt in one way or another, and then you go on to hone your resentments, hatred, or vengefulness – you name it – that creates an extremely strong bond between you and the person in question. Such a bond is extremely toxic for you. You can see that whenever you carry out never-ending disputes with that person in your mind, or whenever you feel negative emotions every time that individual is mentioned. Your act of forgiveness breaks that shackle and gives you a chance to get your life back.
It is a common mistake to focus on the emotional aspect of forgiving. But your emotions actually have nothing to do with forgiveness. Forgiving is an act of the will; it’s taking a decision to reject hatred, vengefulness and what-have-you. Carrying-out such an act can be emotional for the person doing it, but subsequently those negative emotions will become gradually less painful and eventually will fade away. Similarly, your painful memories will not be completely erased as a result of forgiving, but they will become a relatively neutral, harmless part of your life story. The last but not least common misconception is that you have to tell the perpetrator that you have forgiven them. Occasionally that might be the case, and an important one particularly in a domestic environment. But most often forgiving is about your own freedom, regardless of your perpetrator’s knowledge of your act.
So, whom to forgive and how to forgive? Well, to start with, you can follow the latter part of the example of the now infamous doctor Martin Watt, recently jailed for twelve years for illegal possession of firearms in conjunction with an assassination list! What I mean is that you can draw up a list of individuals that have hurt you; names on the list might include God as well as your parents. But then you take a different path from Dr Watt’s. Instead of pouring out your vitriol in conversation or on social media (a modern common platform for doing that), instead of fantasising about arson, stabbing or other ways of causing harm, take the list to church – it’s open daily. Usually it’s empty so first of all you can ask God for strength to forgive, and then recall the person in question and say out loud: ‘I forgive you for this or that’. Perhaps a short prayer for him or her can follow. It might be hard, it might prove to be very emotional for you. But if it’s done with conviction, it can be surprisingly liberating. Sometimes it can be so hard that you might need some help. If so, let me know and I will be happy to assist.
Today’s gospel concludes with the words: ‘Jesus is Christ, the Son of God, and by believing this you may have life through his name.’ Forgiveness is the way towards having such life.