Reflecting on the Word

Forgiveness: Does forgiving mean forgetting?

There are wounds we do not forget. In certain tragic situations, the road to healing seems to involve becoming more deeply aware of the wrong done rather than forgetting. The evil is not purged—it remains in any case—but rather it is held before one so that little by little it can be immersed in love and then transformed. If the Old Testament speaks of God’s anger, that is ­because God is hurt and his love towards Israel is wounded by the unfaithfulness of his people.

The most extraordinary aspect of Bible history—this is what the prophets discovered—resides in the fact that, out of love, God goes beyond his own anger: “My people are bent on turning away from me. (…) My heart recoils within me, all my inner being boils, but I will not execute my fierce anger, (…) for I am God and no mortal (…)” (Hosea 11:7-9). For the one who forgives, forgiveness is a struggle with one’s own anger. The passion we feel does not lead to a violent reaction but to an inner wrenching, to sacrificing one’s desire for justice in order to take a step towards the one who sinned.

The prophet Isaiah goes even further, describing a mysterious figure with the features of a suffering servant: “A man of sorrow, acquainted with infirmity (…) despised and held to be of no account. Whereas it was our sufferings he was bearing and our diseases he was carrying. (…) In his wounds we find healing.” (Isaiah 53:4-5).

Christians can recognize in this text an anticipation of the life Jesus offered for others. Jesus’ patience before his opponents, his passion in Jerusalem, lead us to realize that he did not flee either from suffering or from those who were trying to trap him. Rather than arming himself against attacks, Jesus truly welcomed what presented itself to him with no advance preparation nor afterthought. If he could say on the cross “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), that is because he went to the extreme point of openness for love’s sake and ­consented to be hurt at the hands of those he loved.

In this sense, the Cross takes on an existential dimension which all of us, even non-believers, are confronted with: we only truly suffer at the hands of those we love. If my enemy makes me suffer, that is normal, but how can I consent to suffer at the hands of my friend (see Psalm 55:12-14)? Every relationship of love leaves a door open to vulnerability, in other words the possibility of ­being hurt. Remembering this, not running away from this vulnerability, is already a way of preparing ourselves for forgiveness.

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