Mother Teresa once found a woman in a dustbin. She was burning with fever and close to death.
“My son did this to me!” the woman said over and over.
Mother Teresa picked up the woman and brought her to the convent. On the way, Mother tried to convince the woman to forgive her son.
For a long time, Mother kept trying to get her to say, “I forgive my son.” Finally, just before the woman died, she was able to say the words with real forgiveness.
“She was not concerned that she was dying,” Mother says in the book Mother Teresa: My Life for the Poor. “She was not concerned that she was burning with fever. She was not concerned that she was suffering so much. The breaking of her heart was that her son did not want her.”
Mother Teresa understood that the woman’s agony would be relieved only by forgiveness. It is often easier to forgive those we do not know than those we love, because those we love can hurt us more. The only thing this poor woman could think about, the only thing she could feel, in her last hours on earth, was the pain of her son’s rejection.
Unforgiveness, bitterness, and resentment have a way of blinding us with their darkness, and the only way to see past them is by the light of forgiveness. When Mother Teresa helped the woman to say the words, “I forgive my son,” she not only eased her pain on earth but also prepared her to find peace in eternity.
The Most Challenging Words
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” Jesus says in Matthew 6:14-15.
To me, these are some of the most challenging words in the Bible. I know that forgiveness is non-negotiable. If I want God to forgive me, I must forgive those who have hurt me. I want to be merciful, to forgive quickly and completely. And yet, my emotions muddy the waters.
Sometimes forgiveness is easy. But sometimes it is very, very hard, especially when a person we loved and trusted has betrayed us. We might say we forgive someone, but then painful memories replay in our minds, and it is tempting to wallow in resentment again. When this happens, we might wonder: If I still feel the pain, and I don’t trust these people anymore, did I truly forgive them from my heart? If I’m tempted to resentment, did I fail to forgive fully?
In the midst of such doubt, the wisdom of Scripture and of the saints will ease our minds. In his book Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales explains that there is a difference between feeling temptation and consenting to it.
“Temptation to a certain sin…might last throughout our whole life,” he writes, “yet it can never make us displeasing to God’s Majesty provided we do not…give consent to it.”
Forgiveness is an act of the will. As long as we forgive with our will, then we do not need to worry about the temptations to unforgiveness that beset us. The pain of emotional injury might linger even after I have forgiven someone, just as the pain of heart surgery might still be felt even after a successful operation. Residual pain indicates the depth of the injury, not the level of forgiveness. After we have forgiven the person, we can pray for God to heal that pain just as we would pray for Him to heal a physical illness.
It is also important to remember that there is a difference between forgiveness and trust. Jesus tells us again and again in the Gospels to forgive and to show mercy, but He doesn’t say we must place our trust in the people who have hurt us. Rather, Scripture says, “It is better to put confidence in the Lord than to trust in man.” (Psalm 118:8)
If someone has broken our trust, forgiving them doesn’t mean we have to automatically trust them again, or even that we need to be around them if the relationship is unhealthy. Forgiveness is given freely, but trust is earned. Forgiveness is not an expression of trust in the person who hurt us, but an expression of trust in God who is the source of all mercy. It is also an act of humility, acknowledging that we need God’s forgiveness and mercy just as much as the person we are forgiving does.
The Importance of Calmness and Compassion
It is an added challenge if the person who offended us has not asked for forgiveness, and we are tempted to hold all his injustices against him.
“There never was an angry man who thought his anger unjust,” St. Francis de Sales writes. This temptation to dwell on injustices can be a stumbling block to forgiveness, and St. Francis explains that we should take care to resist it “not violently and tumultuously but mildly and yet seriously…. By trying violently to restrain our anger, we stir up more trouble within our heart.”
Instead, St. Francis says, when we feel our anger rising, we must calmly call upon God’s help. “Prayers directed against present and pressing anger must always be said calmly and peaceably and not violently.”
It is also important, St. Francis says, to have patience and meekness towards ourselves in the process. If we commit a fault in our anger or in our pain, we must correct our own heart calmly and with compassion. In this case, St. Francis suggests saying these words to ourselves:
“Alas, my poor heart, here we are, fallen into the pit we were so firmly resolved to avoid! Well, we must get up again and leave it forever. We must call on God’s mercy and hope that it will help us to be steadier in the days to come. Let us start out again on the way of humility. Let us be of good heart and from this day be more on guard. God will help us; we will do better.”
Ask the Child in the Manger for Help to Forgive
A friend once shared with me this prayer that comes from Al-Anon, with the guidance to pray the prayer every day for two weeks, even if you don’t feel like you mean it at first, and it will change your heart:
“Dear God, I have a resentment towards a person that I want to be free of. So, I am asking you to give this person everything I want for myself. Help me to feel compassionate understanding and love for this person. I pray that they will receive everything they need. Thank you, God, for your help and strength with this resentment.”
This prayer helps me remember that God is the source of all mercy, and when we struggle to forgive, He is waiting to help us. All we need to do is ask.
With Christmas right around the corner, now is a perfect time to ask God for the grace of helping us to forgive those who have hurt us. Whether the wounds are new or decades old, the Child in the manger, who is God’s gift of mercy and forgiveness to the world, is waiting to help us.
The Infant of Prague offers special graces at Christmastime. If we implore the assistance of the Child Jesus, He will grant us the grace we need to give the gift of forgiveness this Christmas.