Taking the Pressure Off Forgiveness

This week I was helping some other consultants revise social media posts when I saw one about vulnerability from a middle-aged man. Usually a great start. Then, he said he was making himself vulnerable by asking for forgiveness from neighbors who judged him when he left his wife and kids after 17 years of marriage.

Now. The objective editor in me should have said, “This post could be more powerful if you gave some specifics about your state of mind and then showed how you’ve grown since then. That would truly make your vulnerability real and help your readers envision their own transformation and path to forgiveness.”

Instead, I just skipped over it. It was the best I could do, because as the child of divorce and the mother of two kids, within sight of 17 years of marriage, I couldn’t come up with a single warm or encouraging remark for that post. Maybe if there had been more color or context it would have resonated more, but I didn’t want to put the energy into it. It would be false of me to pretend, and since it was a voluntary feedback exercise, I decided to just skip it.

I probably would have forgotten about it immediately, but the way the post framed forgiveness gnawed at me. It felt off to me, this idea of asking for forgiveness as though it’s a tangible thing in our control to be given or withheld. I like the way Father Clay talks about it, as the end of a long healing process. That we can’t pressure ourselves to get to a state of forgiveness or letting go, we can only try to start the process.


Forgiveness is a long, long process. We’ve all been hurt. We’ve all hurt other people. These things do great damage to our lives. The deeper and earlier the wound occurred, the longer and more difficult the healing process is.

We cannot choose to forgive, but we can choose to begin the process. At the beginning, we might say, “I will pray for the person who hurt me.” But that does not always work. Instead we might say, “Well I don’t want to pray for that so and so.” Okay, don’t start there then. Start wherever you can.

Maybe we don’t want to forgive. We want to hold onto revenge. It feels so good, even though it tears us up. There is a certain perverse pleasure in it. So we don’t want to forgive. We can pray, “God, help me. I don’t want to forgive. Help me want to forgive.” Or maybe, “Help me want to want to forgive. Or even, “Help me to want to want to want to forgive” – whatever. All we need to do is to make a start, begin the process. That’s all we can do. We can’t make choices beyond where we are, so don’t guilt yourself. Don’t let other people guilt you when they say you are an unforgiving Christian.

When we try to forgive by an act of will, we hold the poison inside. Any wound has got to heal. All we can do is go through the process.

Look at the flower. You don’t stand in the garden and say, “Flower, be there.” It is impossible. I can’t will the flower into being. But I can will to plant the seed, to water it, to fertilize it. Eventually the flower grows, but I can’t will the flower. All I can will is to begin the process.

Excerpted from the first Forgiveness homily, from Surrounded by Love, by Father John Clay. © 2005

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