The death of Martin McGuinness has opened up some old wounds and rekindled a certain amount of controversy. Some people have questioned whether his work for peace and reconciliation outweighs his alleged involvement in IRA violence. The question of forgiveness has been raised.
Forgiveness is one of the factors identified in several studies into happiness. One way to make your life happier is to forgive those who have wronged you. For Christians, this should not be hard to accept as it is an essential part of the teaching of Jesus. The Lord’s prayer includes the line, Forgive us our trespasses / sins as we forgive those who trespass / sin against us. It is something we are reminded of at every service of Holy Communion.
Even for Christians, however, this is often easier said than done. I know. It is not in my nature to forgive readily. I have to make a deliberate decision each time. I need God’s help to achieve this. Regardless of your religion or your personality, studies have shown that holding on to past hurts and wrongs (real, imaginary or debatable) does you no good. You have to let go. Bitterness, whether or not justifiable, damages you more than the person you blame.
In the unlikely event that you find all this easy to accept and act on, there are several complications to deal with. Questions that need answering. Let me try.
What if the other person will not ask for or even accept my forgiveness? What if he or she thinks they were in the right anyway? What if they think I need their forgiveness?
If possible, have an open and honest discussion, perhaps using a mediator, and aim at mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. If that is not possible, forgive them unilaterally. Their problem is their problem. You do not have to let it be a burden for you.
What if I do not know who did the wrong? Can I forgive in a vacuum?
Yes, you can. Say to yourself, or even out loud, ‘I forgive you, whoever you are.’
What if you have been wronged by an organisation, such as a company, a local authority, or the police, making it impossible to pinpoint where the blame lies?
As above. Make it a blanket forgiveness.
Does this mean we condone every kind of bad behavior?
No! Forgiveness is not needed where the action was justified or where the person had not really intended to do wrong. It is needed where the action cannot and should not be condoned.
Does this mean we should let criminals get away with it?
No! Forgiveness does not necessarily mean a negation of justice. It is right that people are punished for doing wrong. It protects others. It sometimes leads the criminal to change. Parents and teachers need to discipline children. They should still forgive any hurts the children have inflicted on them.
Does it apply to wrongs done decades ago?
If you remember them, if they have left a scar, if there is something you don’t want to talk about, the chances are that you do need to forgive. Even if the person in question is long dead.
If you are in any doubt about the effectiveness of forgiveness, try it. It will make you a much happier person.