“Thus, the authority of compassion is the possibility for each of us to forgive our brothers and sisters, because forgiveness is only real for those who have discovered the weakness of their friends and the sins of their enemies in their own hearts, and are willing to call each human being their sister and brother.”
– Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer
Forgiveness is a choice. Why is it a choice? Because as much as it hurts to admit it, forgiveness is an extension of love and good will toward another person; probably a person we hate. When you think about someone who hurt you my guess is the last thing you want to do is extend love and goodwill toward them. That’s why forgiveness must be a choice. The act of forgiveness requires us to overcome our natural inclinations to be angry and hateful and instead embrace a life of grace responding with good will toward people who hurt us. When we talk about extending good will we must first establish empathy and compassion for the individual who wronged us. It takes a person of great strength to choose to forgive someone so be ready to do a great deal of work. You’ll become emotionally exhausted as you walk through the process, but you will grow tremendously in body, mind, and spirit.
In the above passage from The Wounded Healer Nouwen reminds us there’s authority in the virtue of compassion. The authority of compassion makes it possible to see one another through the eyes of Christ. In fact, it allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of Christ. Compassion is the fruit of empathy. Psychologists see the emergence of empathy as a key developmental milestone in children. Those who struggle to develop this psychological construct struggle to develop a number of human virtues, one of these being compassion. To have compassion for someone is to recognize their human dignity. Seeing other people as human beings is a key element for developing a forgiving spirit. In fact, when we think about the word compassion we find its latin roots teach us a great deal about this very virtue. The two words combined to create the english word compassion are cum, meaning with, and passio, meaning suffering. Together the intended meaning is “to suffer with.” To have compassion for another person is to be willing to “suffer with” them. This isn’t easy to do even with those who have never hurt us and even more so with those who have. Yet, if we want to escape the prison of anger we must begin to have compassion with those who hurt us.
In Matthew 18:21 we read the following:
“Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.…”
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. In the above passage, Jesus doesn’t say Peter must reestablish a relationship with one who has offended him (remember, that’s reconciliation). He also doesn’t say any losses incurred should not be repaid. What Jesus does say is Peter MUST forgive his brother meaning he must extend love and goodwill toward him. By extending love and goodwill Peter doesn’t allow himself to treat another human being as an object. This is your challenge. It may not be time for you to forgive someone who hurt you, but if you want to be free from the chains of anger and depression you’ll have to at some point. Forgiveness is a choice and only you can make it. Before you can heal you must make that choice. Choose to forgive, embrace the authority of compassion, and begin to see the one who hurt you as a person. Like you, they have human dignity and when seen as another hurting individual you can begin the forgiving process. To start, all I want you to do is try and see the individual that hurt you through the eyes of compassion. Be willing to look at them and realize they too have pain, are hurting, and are human beings. This isn’t easy, and we are not making excuses for what they did to you, but it has to start here if you are ever to be free from the turmoil this has caused in your life. Perhaps you start by at least recognizing whatever they did they did because the human dignity they “should” express has been marred by someone in their life. Do what you can to begin seeing them as human beings and extend some form of goodwill to them, even if it is just recognizing they are struggling with things in life just like other people do.
I applaud those of you making this brave choice to embrace the pain this process evokes as a way to stop the hurt from impacting you and others in your life. Remember, to heal we must hurt, but only for a little while. When you go to the hospital to get a fractured bone reset it hurts. You could ignore the broken bone and try living with the damage, but that leads to more pain later in life. It’s better to begin acknowledging your pain and allow yourself to heal.
You may find you can only extend so much goodwill and love to the individual who hurt you. That’s okay, it is a start. I simply ask you to make that start today and let me continue to walk with you as you heal yourself. Take time and reflect on this awhile before moving forward. Remember, we are not making excuses for the individual or ignoring what they did was wrong, we are merely trying to see them as they are, weak fallen and broken human beings. Stay tuned for more later in this series on becoming a forgiving person.