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FORGIVENESS: A CRUCIAL ELEMENT
Occasionally, we all perceive to experience unfair and unjust treatment. At such times, our perception of the motives of those who treat us unfairly is critical. Can we believe in the goodness of the motives of those that deal with us unkindly?
Many people seek to justify themselves as they grow angry, bitter, or disillusioned when they believe they were treated badly or unfairly. Humanly, the reaction to be angry, vindictive, or embittered is understandable. Sadly, the anger, bitterness, or disillusion scars us – emotionally, psychologically, and physically.
In such situations:
Only the saints walk on serene, never doubting that, even in the dark places, a loving God walks with them and that “all manner of things will be well”. Only the saints can see, behind the hands that hurt them, the gentle hands of a loving Father. And only the saints succeed in thinking and speaking with loving charity of those who have acted badly towards them (Cuskelly, 25).
To begin with, in forgiving others, the following convictions are most helpful:
· That God is a loving Father. Good things are God’s gift – for our good.
· Bad things, likewise, are his gift – in his Providence also working for our good. It would be a lack of faith and a lack of trust for us to fear that “bad things” – allowed as they are by a loving God – can be for our ill.
· We would be wasting opportunities for personal growth (and for furthering the cause of Christ) not to take up the cross with love when it comes our way – not to see in it the presence of God.
· We need a realistic view of others and to bear with one another. We all have faults, and no one is perfect among us. Mary MacKillop once wrote: “Remember that we must always expect from time to time to receive crosses, and know that we also give them.”
In our view of the motives of others, can we believe in the goodness of people – and the fact that they could be mistaken more often than malicious? Do not others merit our respect? The Lord’s words come to mind: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44, NIV). Some late manuscripts have: “do good to those who hate you”.
Learning to think good of others, of loving those who treat us with disdain, if not with enmity, is an essential element in extending forgiveness.
We say how hard we find it to forgive others. The example of Mary MacKillop shows that she did not often forgive – for she did not often judge that people had need of forgiveness. She had a greater love than that – the reason is that forgiving presupposes the judgment that someone has done wrong and needs to be forgiven. Mary seldom made the judgment that someone had done wrong. Instead, she attributed good motives to them, believed that even wrongful actions were excused because of the ignorance, misconceptions, or powerlessness of other people. This was the deeper love which, believing good of others, found in them nothing that needed forgiving.
Mary put into practice the text of St Paul: Love is patient, love is kind . . . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Cor 13:4, 7-8, NIV). Of course, her belief in the goodness of others did not prevent her from correcting the faults of those under her charge when needed.
In sum, Mary delighted in the good of others. It was because she looked to the motive, and because (unless she had strong evidence to the contrary) she presumed that people acted from good motives according to their lights, that she rarely felt the need to forgive. To judge that you need to forgive is to judge that others need forgiveness. This Mary would seldom do.
From a personal experience, this principle of believing that people act from essentially good motives has assisted me greatly in extending forgiveness. Some time ago, I was accused of a range of behaviours that cut to the heart. Weeks and even months of examination of conscience ensued because the critical judgments made toward me were weighty. Deep in my heart, I knew that I had acted from a pure heart – I had a good conscience. There was no trace of an intention of harm or evil on my part. In faith, I knew that I had striven to follow the leading of God’s Spirit. Being human, my actions were not perfect, and perhaps my zeal at times was misguided.
Nevertheless, the personal accusations caused anger, hatred, resentment, and bitterness to arise toward the person who had inflicted the pain. Spiritually, I was on a downward spiral.
Then it finally (after much personal anguish and suffering) dawned on me – just as I had acted with the best of motives and intentions, had not the person who accused me, also acted out of their best intentions and motives. It had been most unwise of me to impute evil motives to them. Rather, when I finally believed in the goodness of the person, a peace of mind arose that I had not experienced for a long, long time.
Source: Taken and adapted from E. J. Cuskelly, MSC, Mary MacKillop: A Spiritual Model for All (Brisbane: St Pauls Publications, 1999).
Photo credit: Intellimon Ltd.