We have heard it said that forgiveness is necessary not for the offender, but for the one offended. Yet most of us struggle to accept this at face value, because it’s insufficient. When we are the ones hurt by another person, it’s not enough to believe that letting go of that hurt will somehow grant us acceptance and peace, especially when it’s highly likely the other person will go on living as if nothing happened—completely unaffected and unchanged.
The way in which forgiveness is explained often leaves us with a sense of unfinished business, and thus we are rendered less capable of actual forgiveness—the deep, healing kind that actually does grant us acceptance and peace.
Fr. Jacques Philippe, famous for his book, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, writes
When I forgive someone, it is an act of hope. Through forgiving them, I have hope in the path that this person will take. I have hope for this person’s progress, this person’s conversion… Hope is very powerful because what we hope for, God will grant.
This explanation provides a different perspective on forgiveness—as an act of hope for the offender to be reformed, so that they won’t perpetuate the cycle of inflicting harm upon another.
When we hope, great things happen. Not that we are always granted the fulfillment of what we hope for, but that we continue to believe that all things are possible for all people—including the worst among us.
I think the best part of viewing forgiveness as an act of hope is that we are humbled by the truth that we, too, have offended others by our words and choices and behaviors. In that sense, we are the ones in need of transformation. Maybe those we have hurt are praying for us, too.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI draws the connection between prayer and hope:
Thomas Aquinas says that prayer is the interpretation of hope. Praying is the language of hope… Those who despair do not pray anymore because they no longer hope: those who are sure of themselves and their own power do not pray because they rely only on themselves. Those who pray hope in a goodness and in a power that transcend their own capabilities. Prayer is hope in execution…
It’s easy to despair when we’ve been injured through misunderstanding or, more severely, abuse. But prayer keeps the lines of communication open so that we can maintain vulnerability with God, including the expression of anger and fear and intense sorrow. Hope is not the absence of these emotions, but often includes them, as we process what was done to us and how we can participate in the remedy or repair of that rupture.
Again, forgiveness here is an act of humility, because we rely upon God to provide the healing, rather than attempting to control how and when and why the other person might finally apologize. Humility opens our hearts, so that God can touch us where the woundedness is most apparent. And only God can repair relationships through His grace.
What we can do is to maintain a scintilla of hope through constant recourse to God in our pain and brokenness. Again, we turn to Fr. Jacques Philippe to understand how our hope for the offender is an act of charity, and how hope and prayer for that person are intertwined:
If, with hope and faith, I forgive this person, I’m accumulating the Holy Spirit over his or her head. One day, the Holy Spirit will enter in and transform the heart of this person, purifying and sanctifying him or her.
No one can force forgiveness upon us, nor should they. Healing can take a lifetime and include many periods in which we believe we have regressed spiritually but are actually delving more deeply into our woundedness. This happens when we allow the Holy Spirit to move through us and continually shed the layers of hardness of heart that can become hostility and resentment. Praying through our suffering and hoping for the other person’s conversion—as well as our own in other circumstances—opens the possibility for us to love again.