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Finding Healing in Forgiveness

Forgiving someone who has hurt us is a way of finding healing and peace, but does that mean that we have to forget the offence made against us? Does Jesus ask us to "forgive and forget"?

This blog is extracted from Finding God: Faith and Mental Health.

Because of original sin, we human beings make mistakes, fail and love imperfectly. In our imperfection, at times we injure each other, leaving us wounded and in need of healing. Being wronged or hurt gives rise to strong emotions of anger and disappointment which, if not acknowledged and addressed, can lead to depression and other mental health problems. The famous psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) argued that much depression is caused by repressed anger. If this is true then all the more reason to address our anger and its root causes.

In the Gospels, forgiveness is a core teaching. Christians believe that Jesus Christ was sent into the world by the Father to forgive sins, heal relationships and “bring everything together under Christ as head” (Ep 1:10). Throughout his ministry, Jesus reveals a merciful God who desires to forgive sins and reconcile relationships that have been damaged. With his Spirit, the Lord also empowers us to forgive ourselves and each other as we have been forgiven by God (cf. Mt 18:21-35). We see this with the Apostles Peter and Paul who both failed Christ but who did not remain paralysed by their failings. Rather they were transformed by Christ’s mercy and by his renewed faith in them after they had fallen (cf. Jn 21:15-17; Ga 1:11-24). This was the mercy and forgiveness that they proclaimed to all as part of their preaching (cf. Ac 2:38; 13:38).

With this forgiveness that we receive from God and extend to others, we are freed from anger, guilt, shame, bitterness and other emotionally destructive feelings such as hatred and revenge. Once the merciful love and power of Christ is invited into wounds of hurt then the cycle is broken of inflicting hurt on those who have inflicted it on us. This is what Jesus did by his Passion and death – he filtered out hatred, violence, injustice and cruelty by absorbing it into himself before giving back to the world the gifts of peace, blessing and forgiveness. This is the cycle of violence he broke and in doing so he changed the course of history. By that same power at work in his disciples today, we too can break the cycle by making sure we do not cause the same hurt to others as we ourselves have endured.

In order to do this, we need to learn Jesus’ art of distinguishing between the sin and the sinner. With his Spirit we learn to forgive the wrong done to us without denying the wrong that was committed. This is a crucially important distinction to make. Many think that the invitation to forgive another who wronged them is beyond their ability because to do so would mean to minimise or deny the hurt that was caused to them. This is not what Christian forgiveness asks of us. We often hear the catchphrase “forgive and forget” – a pithy phrase which we think comes from the Gospel or the lips of Jesus. This is not true. Jesus asks us to forgive as we ourselves have been forgiven but he did not ask us to forget. What this means is that while we forgive with the help of God’s grace, the process of healing is not about pretending that the hurt never happened. Rather it is about coming to the place where it no longer affects us.

Forgiveness of someone who has hurt us does not come easy and is one of the most challenging aspects of being a Christian. In the Gospels, Jesus asked us to forgive those who wrong us and left us the supreme example of doing so himself. As he was being crucified, he cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Jesus forgave his killers and after his resurrection he offered peace to those who had denied and failed him. How can we begin to forgive like this?

Again, Jesus shows us the way. He assures us that God is merciful and forgives us when we ask. Then he asks us to forgive others as we have been forgiven ourselves. This is challenging because the ability to extend forgiveness to others depends on our being in touch with our own sinfulness and shadow side. It requires us to know that we have no right to withhold the gift of mercy that we ourselves have received: “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (cf. Mt 18:33). This requires that we enter deeply within ourselves and humbly acknowledge our own brokenness, darkness and need for forgiveness. It means allowing the light of God’s grace to touch our inner wounds.

Christianity is good news for those who have been hurt and who carry emotional scars. It gives us a way of dealing with negative baggage that leaves us free. Because of Jesus, we know that God is merciful and forgives us joyfully. He showed heroic forgiveness himself to those who killed him. He asks us to forgive others as we have been forgiven ourselves and “to think of ourselves as an army of the forgiven”. Our faith shows us how to distinguish between the harm caused and the one who caused it. At all times, the healing Spirit of Christ, that restores and touches our knotted spirits, is offered to us. His infinite mercy is the antidote to every form of anger and hurt; it is balm for the scars that sear the soul.

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This blog is extracted from Finding God: Faith and Mental Health, which draws on both the ancient teachings of the Church and modern research to discuss ten ways Christian faith can support good mental health and wellbeing.