(This is the second in the series, "5 Keys to Healing.")
Oh, that dreaded word... forgiveness. After a divorce, forgiving a spouse may seem to be nearly impossible to achieve. I've heard many stories of divorce over the years and know that the damage inflicted upon spouses and children can be unconscionable. Certain situations seem nearly unforgiveable. If you have suffered through a divorce, you might feel the same. Let's talk about why forgiveness is hard and how, despite all the pain, it can be achieved.
Why is it so hard to forgive? Sometimes, it can seem that by forgiving, the perpetrator of your hurt gets away scot-free! It's as if your ex-spouse and anyone else in question is off the hook and bears no responsibility for destroying your marriage. This is a terribly painful proposition! And while everyone does not have this circumstance, it is especially painful if you know your ex-spouse is out there living it up! What a slap in the face! You might wonder: why should you forgive such behavior? You probably feel that the one(s) who have hurt you so badly should be suffering through as much pain as you are; that forgiving them means they are not accountable and that you will suffer alone. But ironically, forgiveness is the very remedy you need.
Forgiveness is a "key" to healing because it has a physical, spiritual, moral, and emotional effect. It has a physical effect because when you hold on tightly to anger and resentment, it wreaks havoc on your body. The amount of energy spent on being angry will at the very least exhaust you, and may cause your immune system to become depleted, leaving you susceptible to flues and viruses. The stress from being bitter and angry often results in ulcers, acid reflux, headaches, sleep deprivation, inability to concentrate, and other serious problems.
A lack of forgiveness also has a spiritual effect because it prevents us from truly loving God and others, which defeats our purpose as human beings. Giving and receiving love is what we were created for. A priest once asked me in confession, "Do you love your children?" And of course, my answer was "Yes!" Then he went on to ask me, "How can you say that? There is no room in your heart for love - it is filled with anger and resentment for those who have hurt you!" For me, that was a stinging slap across my face, but certainly one I needed, for I had to admit he was right.
There’s also a moral effect of unforgiveness: Christ commanded us to forgive (cf. Matthew 18:35). He made it clear that anyone who did not forgive from the bottom of their hearts would suffer themselves. As we've heard in Matthew's gospel, we cannot ask God for His mercy and forgiveness for our own sins and failings, yet refuse to forgive our brothers and sisters for theirs. We need to find it within ourselves, no matter how deep the wounds are, to forgive.
Forgiveness clearly has an emotional effect. While you carry around bitterness and anger, your ex-spouse may not even be aware of your resentment, and likely doesn’t even care! That means the only one who is suffering because of the lack of forgiveness is... you! Release the vice grip you have on the hurts you are suffering. Release them and release those who've caused the hurt. Free yourself of that prison and let yourself live.
Now that we've identified why we need to forgive, let's talk about how to forgive, which is a much bigger issue.
1. You need God's help. This issue of forgiveness is such a huge monster to tackle that do it on your own is likely to disappoint and discourage you. Pray to God and ask Him for the grace to forgive--then trust that He will give it to you. But make it a daily prayer. Another friend of mine put it very well... she prayed that God would make her "willing to be willing to forgive." She didn't want to forgive but since she knew she couldn't heal without forgiving, she left it entirely up to God, praying for the grace. God gently brought her the gift of forgiveness in His perfect timing. He can do the same for you.
2. Don't beat yourself up. Forgiveness is an everyday process and cannot be accomplished quickly (unless, of course, God grants you an extraordinary grace). It will be especially difficult if you have to see your ex often for the sake of children or other circumstances. You may one day feel you can forgive and the next day you want revenge. That's okay! Believe me, it is and it's not indicative of failure at all. Just remain open to God's grace. That's all you have to do to allow Him to work on your heart. And remember that divorce is an extraordinary challenge with extraordinary pain. Imagine that you are an Olympic athlete training for his goal... it takes time.
3. Remember that the first "Key to Healing" is Acceptance, and it paves the way for forgiveness. From time to time, reassess your "acceptance" of your situation. Do you feel comfortable in moving to this second key, forgiveness, yet? If you need more time before you move forward, take it. If you need to step back from the whole concept of "forgiveness", that is fine; just keep yourself open to God's grace and remember that He is with you every step of the way.
Christ is very close to you as you suffer. He loves you with a passionate and never-ending love. Lean on Him in your journey toward forgiveness. Ask Christ for what you need. He is waiting to give it to you and will not leave you alone in your suffering.