The Freedom of Forgiveness
+JMJ+ There's been a lot of talk of forgiveness in the news lately. A video showing a young man named Brandt Jean forgiving and embracing his brother's shooter (a female police officer who was off-duty) has left many people with varying emotions of admiration, disbelief, surprise, confusion, and maybe even anger. How could this young man possibly forgive, encourage, and even embrace the woman who killed his brother?
Mr. Jean's actions to go against our human inclination to hold onto bitterness, resentment and the desire for revenge, don't they? Most of us would probably say that he would be well within his rights to tear the shooter down, shake his fist at her, scream at her, and wish evil upon her. Yet, his reaction is just the opposite. In his victim impact statement at the sentencing, Mr. Jean encouraged the disgraced police officer to turn her life over to God, he stated that he wished no harm upon her, and even went so far so say that he loved her as a person.
In a world where, more often than not, people strive to "get even" and wish harm upon those who have hurt them, this young man's willingness to forgive goes against "the norm" and serves as a beautiful and inspiring reminder of what it means to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
My Dad has always reminded me that there comes a time in everyone's life when love becomes, not only a feeling, but a decision. Sometimes you don't feel like loving someone but you choose to, and it is the same way with forgiveness. Forgiveness is not always a feeling but a decision. In its noblest form, forgiveness means forgiving those who have wronged us in the same way that Jesus forgave His murderers as He hung on the cross. We are human and so that kind of forgiveness does not always happen right off the bat. Forgiveness often starts as a decision that you make for yourself–a decision to free yourself from the chains of resentment, bitterness, and hatred.
The decision to forgive does not mean that someone's bad actions are immediately relieved. Far from it! In serious cases, justice is necessary. Suffice it to say that rape (for example) is one of those cases in which the perpetrator deserves to be punished. In the case I mentioned earlier, the shooter absolutely deserves to be punished for her crime. Whatever the circumstances, she was careless in her actions and her carelessness cost an innocent man his life. We can argue about the punishment she "deserves" but she does deserve to be punished.
A long time ago, I made the decision to forgive the priest who raped me. I can judge his actions–they were obviously wrong and sinful. However, I cannot judge the current state of his soul. I may never know if he has made his peace with God and I will most likely never know. However, the burden of painful memories will forever haunt me and, from time to time, I feel anger towards him for what he did to me and to many others.
Hands down, forgiveness is one of the toughest virtues to practice. It requires humility and complete trust in the Lord. Even faithful and committed Christians struggle with forgiveness especially when the guilty party has not asked for it. Yet, by forgiving others just as Christ forgives, we ultimately experience freedom.
Forgiveness is a deeply individual journey which requires us to fight against our natural human inclinations to hold onto anger, resentment and fear. It can be intimidating! Some people may be afraid of forgiving because somehow it equates to letting the bad guy off the hook and not demanding justice, but nothing could be further from the truth. Being able to forgive does not in any way release the guilty party from their sinful actions. The fact that a guilty party has been forgiven does not mean that they should not be punished for their offense.
“Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice." (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI)
I still hold my rapist accountable. However, I no longer have any expectations about what he “owes” me. Anything he owes is to God alone. Would an apology be nice? Sure. I have sometimes wished that he would publicly admit to his sins. Is that realistic? Probably not. Life isn't like a Hallmark movie where the bad guy sees the errors of his ways and weepingly apologizes to those who he has hurt and turns his life around. It's up to my rapist to repent of his sins. It's up to him to ask God for forgiveness. I have no control over whether or not that ever happens. What I do have control over is whether or not I pray for him. If he does not need my prayers, then God will give the graces to someone who does need them. No prayer, no sacrifice, and no good deed is ever wasted!
Has it always been easy to pray for him? Of course not. There was a period of many years when I was filled with such hatred and resentment that, as far as I was concerned, he could rot in hell.
It's difficult to explain a victim's feelings especially when their rapist was someone they trusted, someone they considered to be a confidant. I remember being on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, one day feeling anger towards my abuser and the next feeling compassion. During the two-week trial, my emotions were all over the place but, when the time came to give a victim impact statement, I made the decision to forgive him. At that moment, I was certainly angry (not a bad thing!) but, at the same time, I also felt compassion. Not too long afterwards, (once the adrenaline from the past year had died down) the bitterness and resentment kicked in again with a vengeance and they remained for a long time.
Although I had already publicly forgiven him, I had to make the decision to work past these more intense feelings of hatred that developed. There came a point when I recognized that this hatred was so strong and powerful that it was in the front of my mind almost constantly, taking all of my attention and energy. It was creating a barrier between me and God and between me and my relationships. I just couldn't give of myself to others when I was so full of hate and bitterness all the time. I was not the best version of myself. Slowly, I realized that whether or not my rapist chose to respond to God's grace and love was between him and God. I couldn't control his response, but I could control my response. Giving into my hatred and bitterness was not freedom. Hatred was making me a slave to my human emotions.
Although I hesitated at first, I began to follow in the footsteps of my parents who had been having masses offered for my rapist for several years. That was not easy for them-not easy at all- but they, too, were struggling with hatred and knew they needed to let go of it. Slowly, I started to pray for him and for anyone who I felt betrayed by (his supporters). Sometimes it was a prayer as simple as, “God, help him.” Initially, forgiving the man who hurt me was about me taking back the control that had been stolen from me. Forgiving him was not about pretending he wasn't responsible. It was initially about “me”-not him. The bitterness- the darkness growing in my heart-was hurting me, not him. For my own sake, I had to let go of it. Yes, forgiveness can be self-loving!
Whatever things happened in his life that caused this man to become who he was are beyond my knowledge. He absolutely bears responsibility for what he did to me (and to others) but there will always be a level of understanding about him that is beyond my ability to grasp, nor do I need or want to grasp. The decision I made to forgive was not a "feeling." It was about accepting the past and choosing to move forward. There was, I slowly realized, nothing to be gained by hanging onto hate.
I've realized that forgiveness is often ongoing and a conscious decision I need to make whenever bitterness rears its head. After all these years, forgiveness has become for me more about trying to imitate Jesus. Quite simply, if Jesus could forgive the people who hurt Him, then that's what I should strive to do. In the beginning, I forgave my rapist for me – now I forgive because it's what Jesus would do.
Forgiveness doesn't happen in a moment, but there comes a morning when you wake up and realize that the hatred has subsided and the darkness no longer permeates your heart. You no longer wish evil on the person who hurt you, and you realize that you would not rejoice if you heard that something terrible happened to that person.
Forgiveness leads to peace, healing and, ultimately, freedom–freedom from the chains of hatred that bind you and keep you from truly living in peace. The ability to forgive starts with a little bit of faith. That little bit of faith allows you to surrender yourself to God and to put complete trust in Him. All we need is "faith the size of a mustard seed" and God will take that little bit of faith and multiply it, and we will experience His love, grace, mercy, and goodness that is beyond measure. When we allow ourselves to be filled with His grace, we can't help but want to extend that grace to our brothers and sisters in Christ, even those who we might consider to be the least worthy.
Jesus was put to death on a cross. The cross itself is a reminder that we cannot have love of God without love of neighbor. Love of neighbor means offering forgiveness even when no one is asking for it. In the words of St. Mother Teresa, “If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive.”