Forgiveness Is Not Easy, but Unforgiveness Leaves Us Lost
BOOK PICK: ‘Choosing Forgiveness’
Unleash the Power of God's Grace
By Father Thomas Berg & Timothy Lock
Our Sunday Visitor, 2022
176 pages, $17.95
To order: EWTNRC.com
Although authors sometimes disagree, the audience for a book tends to be limited by its subject matter. Simply, not all topics are relevant to all people. But then the beautiful book Choosing Forgiveness comes along, reminding us that some messages are universally important. Co-written by a Catholic priest and a Catholic clinical psychologist, this book’s message of forgiveness is vital to hear.
We all need to forgive, to apologize, and to be forgiven. In our minds and hearts, we know these to be true — but as the authors explain, the struggle often lies in the will. “And if forgiveness is anything,” they write, “it is most certainly an act of the will.” This is a point the authors drive home throughout the book. Forgiveness is not passive; it must be vibrant and active. Minus the will to forgive, forgiveness will not occur.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us, “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.’”
While a literalist might start doing multiplication here, Jesus is clearly telling us to forgive every offense. But maybe Jesus is also telling us something more, namely, that some offenses need to be forgiven continuously. Maybe it is not that seven offenses require seven acts of forgiveness, but that one offense needs seventy times seven acts of forgiveness. The authors explain, “Forgiveness is normally not a one-and-done kind of thing — but rather, a process.” They assure us the process is not always quick and easy, as “forgiveness almost always requires patience, time, consistent effort, endurance, and fortitude.” Happily, God will assist us in that process: “God, by his grace, can elevate and empower forgiveness to unleash healing in your life.”
Considering the importance of forgiveness, little attention is paid to the practical methods of forgiveness. Is there a right way and wrong way to forgive someone? And how do we go about doing it? The authors give some very practical and specific advice involving a process of “uncovering” the things in need of forgiveness, making the “decision” to forgive, “proclaiming” our forgiveness to God and self, and “deepening,” which involves a continued effort to forgive. That is where the seventy times seven often comes in. The writers also recommend that we incorporate the practice of forgiveness to our daily examination of conscience.
One great strength of the book is the authors’ use of powerful real-life examples to illustrate true forgiveness. They observe, “History is full of the most unspeakable crimes to which victims responded with a dazzling heroic forgiveness, offered in the name of Christ.” They recount the stories of Immaculée Ilibagiza, who forgave the murderers of her family; St. Maximilian Kolbe, who forgave the Nazis who murdered him; they also illustrate the heroic actions of ordinary people doing extraordinary acts of forgiveness.
The writers make an important distinction here, and it is one that C.S. Lewis made many years prior; namely, that our job is to “forgive the inexcusable,” not to excuse it. The authors explain that forgiveness does not mean forgoing justice: “Forgiveness means getting to a place where we genuinely desire every good thing for the offender — which is not opposed to seeking that the perpetrator of grave harm be brought to justice. Genuine forgiveness seeks justice, not vengeance.” As the virtues cannot conflict, both justice and forgiveness can flourish side by side.
The book also contains some valuable lessons about apology. First, we cannot wait for an apology. If we all waited for an apology prior to forgiveness, there would be very little forgiveness in the world. But that does not discount the value of apology. They explain the healing power of an apology: “So an apology gives us validation on multiple levels. First, it offers validation of the reality of the offense: It says, essentially, ‘the offense did actually happen; it’s not something you misinterpreted or made up.’” We must apologize to help others forgive us; that is a desperately needed message in a world that considers apology a sign of weakness.
Many of us have one person in our lives whom we refuse to forgive: ourselves. They write, “One of the most frequent struggles, even of committed and well-formed Catholics, is the struggle to forgive oneself.” When it comes to ourselves, we can have a difficult time separating act from actor — sin from sinner. The authors insist it’s time to let ourselves off the hook:
“Rather than allowing shame to overpower me with the conviction that I am bad, I recognize that things I have done are bad. I admit, I apologize, I repent, I am willing to accept the consequences for my bad choices, I seek reconciliation and to amend my life. Perhaps I have committed sins that warrant hell, but I have sought the Lord’s forgiveness and received it. And he sees my goodness and affirms me in his love.”
For those struggling with forgiveness toward self, toward others, and even toward those who have passed away, this book will prove a valuable asset. Forgiveness is not easy; the authors admit that. But unforgiveness leaves us lost, and this book may help find a way out. As the book observes in referencing an old adage, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and to discover that the prisoner was you.”