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Helpful hints on forgiving others Print E-mail
Guest column
Thursday, Mar. 16, 2017 -- 12:00 AM
Msgr. John Hebl

Editor's Note: During Lent, a series of articles on Forgiveness will be presented by Msgr. John Hebl, pastor emeritus and charter member of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI), and Robert Enright, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, author, and founder of the IFI. This will help introduce the first ever International Conference on Forgiveness in July 2017 which IFI is sponsoring in the Holy City of Jerusalem. This is the third in the series of seven articles.

Pope Francis declared 2016 as a Jubilee Year of Mercy. However, few people realized that human mercy had its inception about 2,300 B.C, that's 4,300 years ago, when Hammurabi reigned as the sixth king of the Babylonia Dynasty.

He noticed that people often wanted to "get even" when someone offended them. It had a snow ball effect as many times retaliation ended in a fashion of extreme violence.

Hammurabi's law

So to limit vengeance, Hammurabi developed a Code or Law known as Lex Talionis (Law of Retaliation). It is best described as tit for tat.

Briefly, if a person lost an eye or a tooth through violence, he could inflict the same injury on the other person.

Jesus himself cited this oldest law in the world but then added, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt 5:44). Surprisingly it was the beginning of human mercy and forgiveness as we know it today.

There are two levels of forgiveness: spiritual and human. Today we deal only with the human aspect.

Stages of human forgiveness

The stages we go through to reach human forgiveness could be summarized as the "4 Hs" – Hurt, Hate, Heal Self, and Hug. Let's deal with each one separately.

HURT: It is not like a tornado or flood caused by nature but one that's caused by a person. The hurt is unfair in a sense that we don't deserve it as in the sudden death of a child or spouse or maybe even a divorce. It is deep, not in the sense of a missed appointment, a broken promise, or road rage, but one that goes down into our soul perhaps caused by disloyalty, deception, denial, betrayal, physical/sexual abuse, or infidelity. The pain and the stress can almost be insurmountable.

HATE: In this second stage, we simply cannot shake the memory of the hurt. We become angry, bitter, vindictive, filled with resentment and avoidance, and want to get even or retaliate.

HEALING SELF: It might take some time to heal the pain. Sharing it with another can help a great deal. As the old saying goes, "joys shared are doubled; sorrows shared are cut in half." In this healing stage we try to edit out the pain by acquiring "magic eyes" to see the person differently.

This may include seeing how the person who wounded us has been wounded by others, perhaps in the distant past in childhood. It may include realizing that we share a common humanity with this person. The one who hurt us, like us, is special, unique, and irreplaceable.

Martin Luther King, as he often turned the other cheek on violence, reminds us that "hate multiplies hate." In this third stage we try to turn back the flow of rage and pain by letting go and letting God.

HUG: A key to this final stage is a coming together or reconciliation. Many years ago, we would read about this stage in the advice column found in "Dear Abby." Here the victim (you) and the other (perpetuator) seek a common ground united by forgiveness.

Benefits of forgiveness

Much of the thought processes we go through to wait for compassion to emerge is mental. But when we decide to bear the pain and forgive, we are truly giving a gift to someone who might be undeserving. But the benefits of reconciliation can truly be rewarding.

Jesus knew very well what he was asking when he said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" and then Our Lord continued in the same breath with some very encouraging words, "That you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes the sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust."

Our Lord died for everyone without exception. His parting words from the cross are memorialized. After He had been cruelly treated and crucified, one of his final words were, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do . . ."

Is it possible during this Lenten season that those words of Jesus could be on our lips as well?


Msgr. John Hebl is a pastor emeritus in the Diocese of Madison.