I’ve had too many sleepless nights asking God, “How am I supposed to love the person who made me hate myself?”
Last year, with the help of my family and friends, I worked up the courage to leave a mentally abusive relationship. In the depths of my soul, all I knew was guilt and shame, which eventually faded to numbness and depression. I hated how weak I felt and myself for believing there were people in this world whom I could trust.
Though I didn’t want to feel this way, I had no idea how to escape the emotional torment. Thinking it would all go away once I distanced myself, I realized that action was only the start of a long journey to a healthier mental state. I found that I had lost trust in every person who was close to me, not knowing who might become my next abuser. I lived like this for many months, too afraid to show how much I had been hurt to anyone, out of fear they would abandon me. The truth of the matter is, my hatred was the only sustenance I had — I found myself withholding forgiveness for quite some time because so much had been taken from me.
Only recently did I begin to understand that in order to heal, I would need to learn how to forgive.
In ancient cultures, justice was inherently transactional. The concepts outlined in the Mosaic law of an “eye for an eye” or a “tooth for a tooth” were culturally ingrained across the Mediterranean and Arabia, not exclusive to Abrahamic faiths. Bloodshed or sacrifice of some regard was absolutely essential for forgiveness. To restore order, the injustice was nullified through an equal but opposite action against the offender. Once this payment had been made, forgiveness was able to be granted.
Entering the conversation of this broader social narrative, a diversion from the traditional means of justice came with Christ and His introduction of the law of love. As the Messiah, Jesus fulfilled the old law and established a new one: To “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27 ESV). This commandment of Jesus was the summation of the old law, and made the case that God is honored in harmonious relations between mankind.
Christ joined love and justice together. And therefore, as St. Augustine would later argue in On the Morals of the Catholic Church, “justice is love serving only God, and therefore ruling well everything else that is subject to the human person.” In sum, the evidence of love for God is love for mankind. A heart that has been reconciled to its Redeemer is transformed in the sense that it longs to seek reconciliation with others. In this act of loving our neighbors well, our sole purpose to bring glory to God is fulfilled.
What, then, is the proper posture of Christlike forgiveness? Primarily, the forgiving party must remember that though we too have been forgiven, our sins were not paid for lightly. Although Christ’s body was glorified in resurrection, His hands, feet, and side still display the marks of calvary. In our relations with our neighbors, forgiving does not coincide with forgetting. Our Father did not forget our transgressions, rather He paid for them through Christ’s death and resurrection. Christians seeking to forgive must understand that once forgiveness has been granted, his or her right to hold a grudge has been surrendered. They accept the weight of injustice they bear on themselves. But in this surrender, the forgiver can only be sustained by Christ.
To the reader seeking to forgive an offender: The first act is forgiveness of self, which I found in the submission of my own will to God’s. I was set free from the guilt I carried. I realized that though I found myself in an unfortunate situation, it was not my fault. Secondly, it is helpful to understand that the scars from both the injustice done and the forgiveness granted are deep, painful, and real. I am exceedingly thankful that I overcame my fear and met with a good counselor who helped me find an effective means of coping with these scars.
Though a hard price to pay, comfort can be found in the knowledge that in those times of deep pain, we are most like our Savior. Christ endured this same pain in Gethsemane, battling a restless, lonely night of His own. In our lowest moments, He is in the midst of the trial with us. In Jesus’ prayer for unity among believers, found in John 17, He requests of the Father “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26 ESV). Though unquestionably difficult, it is Jesus’ wish that we love others because we were first loved by Him. This constitutes forgiveness among our fellow man, for which our Savior and Intercessor prays constantly, asking that we might have the strength to follow His example. In our forgiving, we surrender grudges but we also gain sustenance in Christ — we die to the flesh, but we are given life in the Spirit. We deny ourselves, and we render to Christ the praise He is due.