How to forgive enemies—and loved ones

Another hug by sgarcia [Flickr]Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Catholic woman and native of Rwanda, is a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. In her book, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, she writes about how she hid for 91 days in a 3 ft. x 4 ft. bathroom with seven other women. At one point while hiding, she could hear the killers right outside the door. As she prayed for God’s protection, she realized God wanted her to forgive the men who were hunting her.

Why do you expect the impossible from me? I asked God. How can I forgive people who are trying to kill me, people who may have already slaughtered my family and friends? It isn’t logical for me to forgive these killers. Let me pray for the victims instead, for those who’ve been raped and murdered and mutilated”¦let me pray for justice. God, I will ask you to punish those wicked men, but I cannot forgive them—I just can’t. (92-93)

Unconditional love

We must forgive those who hurt us
Now—and this is daunting—this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see. In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father's merciful love; but in confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to his grace.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2840

Eventually, however, Immaculée began to understand the power of God’s unconditional love. Relying on the strength and power of that love, she finally did forgive all of the killers. She even forgave the men who killed her mother, father, and two of her brothers. I honestly don’t think I could do that. I remember when the 9/11 attacks occurred. No one I know, certainly none of my family, were harmed on that day. Still, I’m not able to forgive the attackers. How much more difficult would it be if my loved ones had been attacked? And yet, that is what Catholics are called to do—to forgive as God forgives; to love as God loves. God’s love is endless and unconditional. That means that we don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love or deserve God’s forgiveness. For some of us, forgiving our enemies seems almost impossible. However, forgiving a member of our family can sometimes be even more difficult. When we feel we have been wronged by a family member, there is the double pain of the actual wrongdoing and also a sense of betrayal. We expect family members to always have our backs and to never hurt us. But, of course, some of our deepest wounds come from our loved ones.

A first step toward forgiveness

However difficult it is to forgive, we have to try if we are going to grow into the person God intends us to be. Immaculée Ilibagiza serves as a role model in this. Forgiveness, at first, was impossible for her. So she didn’t pray for the killers. She prayed instead to be able to pray for them.

I tried again, praying for [God] to forgive the killers, but deep down I couldn’t believe that they deserved it at all. It tormented me”¦I tried to pray for them myself, but I felt like I was praying for the devil. Please open my heart, Lord, and show me how to forgive. I’m not strong enough to squash my hatred—they’ve wronged us all so much”¦my hatred is so heavy that it could crush me. Touch my heart, Lord, and show me how to forgive. (93)

Most of us have someone in our lives who we cannot forgive. It seems unjust, somehow, to let go of our grudge and absolve them for what they’ve done to us. Keeping our anger alive is the penalty we levy against the perpetrator. But our anger really isn’t hurting them or causing them to turn from their wicked ways. We are only harming ourselves. I still don’t pray for everyone in my life who has hurt me deeply. But I pray for a few of them. And the only way I got there was by starting the way Immaculée did. I started by asking God to show me how to forgive.

Something to think about

  • Have you ever been forgiven when you thought you didn’t deserve to be? Have you done something for which you still need to be forgiven? Do you believe God will forgive you, no matter what?
  • Is there someone you need to forgive? Are you waiting for an apology or for restitution before you forgive? Are you able to pray for God to simply show you how to forgive?
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