Father, forgive them. They know not what they do

Friday, March 08, 2019 - Updated: 11:32 am

By Dr. Susan Muto

These words of Jesus spoken from the cross defy understanding. Those he forgave mocked him, spat upon him, scourged and crucified him. How could he forgive them? Does he really expect us to do the same? Consider the child whose father or mother beat her. Can she forgive them? Or the wife whose husband betrayed her? Or the friend who shattered a solemn confidence?

In such cases, we feel dehumanized, unloved and justifiably angry. Our first reaction is to seek revenge, either openly if we are strong enough to fight back or in silent resentment if we are too weak. Indeed, on a mere human level, it seems impossible to forgive such wounds.

For this reason we must turn toward Jesus for help and rise above what we feel. We have to break the impulse to seek revenge and think of Jesus on the cross. Was anyone ever more wronged than he? And yet, in face of the fickle crowds who were his friends one day and his foes the next, he taught such lessons as turn the other cheek, make peace with your brother before you approach the altar, forgive your enemy not seven times but 77.

The opposite attitude of unforgiveness may not express itself in physical outbursts but in hidden resentment that poisons our heart. In mock charity we may say: “I’ll forget about what you did to me, but don’t expect me to forgive you.” We fail to recognize that people who hurt us are in need of healing themselves.

The trouble is that forgetting about an incident that causes such distress is not enough. We have to move toward lasting forgiveness. Since our hardened hearts resist this magnanimous turn, we must trust in the Lord to show us the way.

His prayer on the cross teaches us that forgiveness is always more than a mental or an emotional gesture.

When young adults come to see and admit the deformative influence of a parent or teacher on their life, when they find that they have been hurt to the core of their being by the abuse that happened to them, the completion of their healing process does not end when they bring their pain to the light. It occurs only when they are able to forgive those who injured them in company with the just punishment they deserve.

With the Lord’s help, we may be able to express our forgiveness in some way. Such expressions can be painful or embarrassing, but at least we are willing to make the effort to forgive and forget.

If the other refuses to accept these words of reconciliation, so be it. We know before God that the bitterness is gone from our heart. We pray that someday the other party may experience the same peace.

Involved in forgiveness, besides attempted expression and inner reconciliation, is a gradual letting go of any lingering displeasure we may feel toward others for what they have done to us. The need for self-preservation is powerful. That is why it can prevent us from truly forgiving others, that is, for saying, “I forgive you,” and then letting go of the hurt we feel.

One obstacle to guard against is our tendency to make others the object of our forgiveness. We do not really regard them as God’s child, but simply as a bad object whom we, in our condescending generosity, can forgive.

By the same token, we can refuse forgiveness or prevent it from happening within us if we reduce a person to his or her actions only — as if the whole of their life can be summed up by what they did or did not do.

If that happens, it might be impossible for us to forgive others. We see only their vices and overlook their virtues. We identify them with the wrong we feel they did to us and label them unforgiveable — a conclusion that in the long run may harm us more than them.

We can also fail to bestow forgiveness when we falsely forgive others for the sake of preserving and promoting the self-image of our being the always-forgiving one. Such condescension is not forgiveness; it serves only to make others feel guilty and resentfully beholden to us.

Forgiveness can also be used as a means to manipulate others by making them always feel guilty for the wrong they did. The proverbial example would be the chronically ill mother or father, whose son or daughter nurses them. On the one night he or she decides to go out, their parent may moan, “Have fun, but if I should have one of my attacks, don’t worry. I forgive you for not being here.”

In the end, genuine forgiveness emerges from the conviction that I and the other are already “fore-given” by his act of ransoming us from sin.

If we remember that revelation, then it may not require such a great effort on our part to forgive others from our crosses as Jesus did from his. After all, our forgiveness is only a reflection of what Jesus has already accomplished once and for all.


Muto is dean and executive director of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood. Visit www.epiphanyassociation.org.

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