Is Forgiveness A Process or a One-Time Event?

Perseverance in the battle against ‘unforgiveness’—as is the case with fighting any temptation—is the stuff of which saints are made.

John Macallan Swan, “The Prodigal Son”, 1888
John Macallan Swan, “The Prodigal Son”, 1888 (photo: Public Domain)

I think most of us think of forgiveness as a one-time event. For instance, when someone wrongs us, we forgive him, and this is the end of the story. Everybody moves on. Thus, forgiveness is an action, or event. Sometimes, however, things are not quite so simple.

Depending on the circumstances and the personalities involved, forgiveness may be a process. Though we may have forgiven someone for a past offense, for example, the temptation to un-forgive him can creep into our hearts if he wrongs us again. Thus, we are required to forgive him again. This cycle can continue for years.

A person can be so deeply hurt that forgiving another for inflicting that injury can be a lifelong struggle. A person may forgive, but soon find it necessary to forgive again. In many cases, it is too dismissive to conclude that one is simply failing to forgive. It would be more accurate to say that the wound keeps reopening, and it needs to be restitched with the thread of forgiveness. For many people, that’s no easy task.

In terms of the path of forgiveness, Sacred Scripture offers us many examples, but for this discussion, one stands out in particular. Most of us are familiar with the passage in the Gospel of Matthew, when Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” In a homily on this passage, Saint John Chrysostom suggests that Peter considered the notion of forgiving his brother seven times to be enormous. Seven times seemed like so many!   

Considering the way in which Peter asked his question, the response of Jesus must have been shocking to Peter: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Peter knew what the response of Jesus meant. Jesus was not giving a mathematical formula, as though we should forgive someone precisely 490 times. As John Chrysostom explains, Jesus was “not setting a number here, but what is infinite and perpetual and forever.”

The nature of sin and forgiveness is such that while we must be prepared to forgive multiple sins, we must also be ready to forgive a single sin multiple times. Sometimes, it is a single transgression that needs to be forgiven seventy times seven. Either way, we must pray for the grace to forgive. We must pray for the will to forgive from the heart.

My dear departed friend, Father Constantine Belisarius, used to say that the will to forgive is enough. If you have a hard time forgiving someone, start with willing—start with wanting—to forgive. As in: “Dear God, I am having such a hard time forgiving. Please help me want to forgive.”

One way to develop this will to forgive is to turn to the paragon of forgiveness: God Himself. Specifically, we can look at a crucifix and consider the passion and death of Jesus. Medical experts have observed that largely because of the positioning of His arms and shoulders, it was extremely difficult for Jesus to gather oxygen into His lungs as He hung on the cross. In order to draw a breath to speak, Jesus likely pressed down on the nails in His feet and simultaneously pulled His arms from the nails toward His body to gather oxygen to say these words: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

When we find it difficult to forgive another, we need to ask Jesus for the grace to gather oxygen into our souls and cry out to God: “Father, I forgive him!”

Whether forgiveness involves a process or event, the important thing is that we need to keep working toward peace of heart and mind, which resembles what the world today calls “closure”—the kind of closure that only forgiveness can provide.

The refusal to forgive is a temptation that we must fight against. And it’s important to recognize that perseverance in the battle against unforgiveness—as is the case with fighting any temptation—is the stuff of which saints are made. We need to practice not only perseverance in prayer, but perseverance in forgiveness.

Keep fighting the temptations of unforgiveness.

Keep forgiving.