Forgiveness by Henri Nouwen
To forgive is not natural. To forgive is to love. Without forgiveness there can be no love. A heart that doesn’t forgive is a heart doesn’t know love. It is a hardened heart that is callous, resentful, and full of rage.
Why must we forgive? It is a commandment from Jesus Christ. It is not a choice for us to forgive or not to forgive. If we want to please God we must forgive. Jesus says, “if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done.” (Matthews 6:15) In the Lord ’s Prayer we are told to pray thus “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us.” (Matthews 6:12) St Paul says “You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you.”(Colossians 3:13) Jesus reminded Peter the numbers of times he has to forgive his brother, “’Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?’ ‘No, not seven times,’ answered Jesus, ‘but seventy times seven’” (Matthew 18:21-22).
How do we forgive others? Many times we are unforgiving because of our own self-righteousness and pride. We think, “How could he have done this to me?” We forget that we have also sins against him many times. Jesus says “First take the log out of your own eyes, and then you will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”(Matthew 7:5) Maybe one of the quickest way to forgive is to ask God to reveal to us our own sins as well as seeing His great and abundant forgiveness toward us.
The passages below on forgiveness are taken from Robert A. Jonas’ book, ”Henri Nouwen” published in 1998, on Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s writings.
Limited and Unlimited Love (pg 101)
Community is characterized by two things: one is forgiveness, the other is celebration. Forgiveness means that I continually am willing to forgive the other person for not being God—for not fulfilling all my needs. I, too, must ask forgiveness for not being able to fulfill other people’s needs.
Our heart—the center of our being—is a part of God. Thus, our heart longs for satisfaction, for total communion. But human beings, whether it’s your husband, or your wife, or your father, or your mother, your brother, sister, or child, they are all so limited in giving that which we craved. Since we want so much and we get only part of what we want, we have to keep on forgiving people for not giving us all we want. So I forgive you since you can only love me in a limited way. I forgive my mother that she is not everything I would like her to be. I forgive my father. This is of enormous importance right now because constantly people look to blame their parents, the church, and their friends for not giving them what they need. So many are so angry. They cannot forgive people for offering only limited expressions of an unlimited love. God’s love is unlimited but people’s love is not. If you enter into any relationship in communion, friendship, marriage, community, the relationships are always riddled with frustration and disappointments. So forgiveness becomes the word for love in the human context.
The interesting thing is that when you can forgive people for not being God then you can celebrate that they are a reflection of God. You can say, “Since you are not God, I love you because you have such beautiful gifts of His love.” You don’t have everything of God, but what you have to offer is worth celebrating.
By celebrating I mean to lift up, affirm, confirm, to rejoice in another person’s gifts. You can say you are a reflection of that unlimited love. That is why community becomes important. . . .
So celebration becomes important and can be very concrete expressions of love, like birthday celebrations that simply say, “I’m happy you are here.” It doesn’t mean lifting up people’s talents like “You’re a good piano player.” (Rather) I lift up your gifts of joy, peace, love, perseverance, kindness, gentleness. We lift up the gifts of the spirit—and these are reflections of God.
. . .If you look atthat passage in Luke, Jesus’ community is named one by one, and at the end it says, “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.” So you see, as soon as you have community, you have a problem. Someone once said that “community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” I mean there is always that one person. To be a traitor means to “hand over.” It doesn’t so much mean betrayal. There is always someone in the community who hands you over to something. It’s not just one person. He may be my Judas, you may be another’s Judas. It’s not that one person in the community is the problem; it’s more that different people are handing other people over to suffering all the time without even wanting to. There is always someone who doesn’t satisfy my need or someone who irritates me. In every community—whether family or congregation—there is always someone who for someone else is a hair shirt, but that is essential for community. It may not be that we want it, but it is always there. It is not the sentimental life that we want community to be where everybody loves each other. That’s never going to be there. People have to be trained to realize that community doesn’t mean emotional, affective, total harmony. That’s not even good, for we are always on the way, on the move. Imagine if community were all we want it to be, we’d never want to go anywhere. We are a people on the road. (Parting Words 10-13)
Mother Teresa said:
“We know that if we really want to love we must learn how to forgive. (“A Gift for God”, 42)
“Whatever our religion, we know that if we really want to love, we must learn to forgive before anything else.” (One heart full of love, 113)
“We must make our homes centers of compassion and forgive endlessly.” (“A Gift for God”, 18)
The following passages on forgiveness are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book, “Bread for the Journey,” published in 1997.
1. Forgiveness, the way to Freedom (Jan 26)
To forgive another person from the heart is an act of liberation. We set that person free from the negative bonds that exist between us. We say, “I no longer hold your offense against you.” But there is more. We also free ourselves from the burden of being the “offended one.” As long as we do not forgive those who have wounded us, we carry them with us or, worse, pull them as a heavy load. The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves. It is the way to the freedom of the children of God.
2. Receiving Forgiveness (Jan 25)
There are two sides to forgiveness: giving and receiving. Although at first sight giving seems to be harder, it often appears that we are not able to offer forgiveness to others because we have not been able fully to receive it. Only as people who have accepted forgiveness can we find the inner freedom to give it. Why is receiving forgiveness so difficult? It is very hard to say, “Without your forgiveness I am still bound to what happened between us. Only you can set me free.” That requires not only a confession that we have hurt somebody but also humility to acknowledge our dependency on others. Only when we can receive forgiveness can we give it.
3. Forgiveness, the cement of community Life (Jan 24)
Community is not possible without the willingness to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). Forgiveness is the cement of community life. Forgiveness holds us together through good and bad times, and it allows us to grow to mutual love.
But what is there to forgive or to ask forgiveness for? As people who have hearts that long for perfect love, we have to forgive one another for not being able to give or receive that perfect love in our everyday lives. Our many needs constantly interfere with our desire to be there for the other unconditionally. Our love is always limited by spoken or unspoken conditions. What needs to be forgiven? We need to forgive one another for not being God!
4. Healing our Hearts through Forgiveness (Jan 27)
How can we forgive those who do not want to be forgiven? Our deepest desire is that the forgiveness we offer will be received. This mutuality between giving and receiving is what create peace and harmony. But if our condition for giving forgiveness is that it will be received, we seldom will forgive! Forgiving the other is first and foremost an inner movement. It is an act that removes anger, bitterness, and the desire for revenge from our hearts and helps us to reclaim our human dignity. We cannot force those we want to forgive into accepting our forgiveness. They might not be able or willing to do so. They may not even know or feel that they have wounded us.
The only people we can really change are ourselves. Forgiving others is first and foremost healing our own hearts.
5. Stepping over our Wounds (Jan 9)
Sometimes we have to “step over” our anger, our jealousy, or our feelings of rejection and move on. The temptation is to get stuck in our negative emotions, poking around in them as if we belong there. Then we become the “offended one,” “the forgotten one,” or the “discarded one.” Yes, we can get attached to these negative identities and even take morbid pleasure in them. It might be good to have a look at these dark feelings and explore where they come from but there comes a moment to step over them, leave them behind and travel on.
6. Healing our Memories (Jan 29)
Forgiving does not mean forgetting. When we forgive a person, the memory of the wound might stay with us for a long time, even throughout our lives. Sometimes we carry the memory in our bodies as a visible sign. But forgiveness changes the way we remember. It converts the curse into a blessing. When we forgive our parents for their divorce, our children for their lack of attention, our friends for their unfaithfulness in crisis, our doctors for their ill advice, we no longer have to experience ourselves as the victims of events we had no control over.
Forgiveness allows us to claim our own power and not let these events destroy us, it enables them to become events that deepen the wisdom of our hearts. Forgiveness indeed heals memories.
7. Forgiving in the Name of God. (Jan 28)
We are all wounded people. Who wounds us? Often those whom we love and those who love us. When we feel rejected, abandoned, abused, manipulated or violated, it is mostly by people very close to us: our parents, our friends, our spouses, our lovers, our children, our neighbours, our teachers, our pastors. Those who love us wound us too. That’s the tragedy of our lives. This is what makes forgiveness from the heart so difficult. It is precisely our hearts that are wounded. We cry out, “You, who I expected to be there for me, you have abandoned me. How can I ever forgive you for that?”
Forgiveness often seems impossible, but nothing is impossible for God. The God who lives within us will give us the grace to go beyond our wounded selves and say, “In the Name of God you are forgiven.” Let’s pray for that grace.
8. From Blaming to Forgiving (April 8)
Our most painful suffering often comes from those who love us and those we love. The relationship between husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, teachers and students, pastors and parishioners—these are where our deepest wounds occur. Even late in life, yes, even after those who wounded us have long since died, we might still need help to sort out what happened in these relationships.
The great temptation is to keep blaming those who were closest to us for our present condition, saying, “You made me who I am now, and I hate who I am.” The great challenge is to acknowledge our hurts and claim our true selves as being more than the result of what other people do to us. Only when we can claim our God-made selves as the true source of our being will we be free to forgive those who have wounded us.
9. Being handed over to Suffering (April 9)
People who live close together can be sources of great sorrow for one another. When Jesus chose His twelve disciples, Judas was one of them. Judas is called a traitor. A traitor according to the literal meaning of the Greek word for “betraying” is someone who hands the other over to suffering.
The truth is that we all have something of the traitor in us because each of us hands our fellow human beings over to suffering somehow, somewhere, mostly without intending or even knowing it. Many children, even grown-up children, can experience deep anger toward their parents for having protected them too much or too little. When we are willing to confess that we often hand those we love over to suffering, even against our best intentions, we will be more ready to forgive those who, mostly against their will, are the cause of our pain.
10. Loving our Religious Leaders (April 10)
Religious leaders, priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams can be admired and revered but also hated and despised. We expect that our religious leaders will bring us closer to God through their prayers, teaching, and guidance. Therefore, we watch their behavior carefully and listen critically to their words. But precisely because we expect them, often without fully realizing it, to be superhuman, we are easily disappointed or even feel betrayed when they prove to be just as human as we are. Thus, our unmitigated admiration quickly turns into unrestrained anger.
Let’s try to love our religious leaders, forgive them their faults and see them as brothers and sisters. Then we will enable them, in their brokenness, to lead us closer to the heart of God.
11. Letting go of old Hurts (Dec 30)
One of the hardest things to do in life is to let go of old hurts. We often say, or at least think, “What you did to me and my family, my ancestors, or my friends I cannot forget or forgive. . . One day you will have to pay for it.” Sometimes our memories are decades, even centuries, old and asking for revenge.
Holding people’s faults against them often creates an impenetrable wall. But listen to Paul, “For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old order is gone and a new being is there to see. It is all God’s work” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). Indeed, we cannot let go of old hurts, but God can. Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not holding anyone’s faults against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is God’s work, but we are God’s ministers, because the God who reconciled the world to God entrusted to us “the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). This message calls us to let go of old hurts in the Name of God. This is the message our world most needs to hear.
12. The task of Reconciliation (Dec 25)
What is our task in this world as children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus? Our task is reconciliation.Wherever we go we see divisions among people—-in families, communities, cities, countries, and continents. All these divisions are tragic reflections of our separation from God. The truth that all people belong together as members of one family under God is seldom visible. Our sacred task is to reveal that truth in the reality of everyday life.
Why is that our task? Because God sent Jesus to reconcile us with God and to give us the task of reconciling people with one another. As people reconcile with God through Jesus we have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). So whatever we do the main question is, “Does it lead to reconciliation among people?”
13. Claiming our Reconciliation (Dec 26)
How do we work for reconciliation? First and foremost by claiming for ourselves that God through Christ has reconciled us to God. It is not enough to believe this with our heads. We have to let the truth of this reconciliation permeate every part of our beings. As long as we are not fully and thoroughly convinced that we have been reconciled with God, that we are forgiven, that we have received new hearts, new spirits, new eyes to see, and new ears to hear, we continue to create divisions among people because we expect from them a healing power they do not possess.
Only when we fully trust that we belong to God and can find in our relationship with God all that we need for our minds, hearts, and souls can we be truly free in this world and be ministers of reconciliation. This is not easy, we readily fall back into self-doubts and self-rejection. We need to be constantly reminded through God’s Word, the sacraments, and the love of our neighbors that we are indeed reconciled.
14. A Nonjudgmental Presence (Dec 27)
To the degree that we accept that through Christ we ourselves have been reconciled with God we can be messengers of reconciliation for others. Essential to the work of reconciliation is a nonjudgmental presence. We are not sent to the world to judge, to condemn, to evaluate, to classify, or to label. When we walk around as if we have to make up our minds about people and tell them what is wrong with them and how they should change, we only create more division. Jesus says it clearly, “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge. . . do not condemn . . .forgive.”(Luke 6:36-37)
In a world that constantly asks us to make up our minds about other people, a nonjudgmental presence seems nearly impossible. But it is one of the most beautiful fruits of a deep spiritual life and will be easily recognized by those who long for reconciliation.
15. A Ministry that Never Ends (Dec 29)
Reconciliation is much more than a one-time event by which a conflict is resolved and peace established. A ministry of reconciliation goes far beyond problem solving, mediation, and peace agreements. There is not a moment in our lives without the need for reconciliation. When we dare to look at the myriad hostile feelings and thoughts in our hearts and minds, we will immediately recognize the many little and big wars in which we take part. Our enemy can be a parent, a child, a “friendly” neighbor, people with different lifestyles, people who do not think as we think, speak as we speak, or act as we act. They all can become “them.” Right there is where reconciliation is needed.
Reconciliation touches the most hidden parts of our souls. God gave reconciliation to us as a ministry that never ends.
16. Welcoming Home (July 3)
How do we welcome home our lost brothers and sisters? By running out to them, embracing them, and kissing them. By clothing them with the best clothes we have and making them our honored guests. By offering them the best food and inviting friends and family for a party. And, most important of all, by not asking for excuses or explanations, only showing our immense joy that they are with us again (Luke 15:20-24).
That is being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. It is forgiving from the heart without a trace of self-righteousness, recrimination, or even curiosity. The past is wiped out. What counts is the here and now, where all that fills our hearts is gratitude for the homecoming of our brothers and sisters.
In 1985, at the age of 53+ years old, Henri Nouwen left teaching at Harvard and move to France to live for at least a year with Jean Vanier and his L’Arche community that looks after the mentally handicap people, in Trosly. The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Road to Daybreak” published in 1988:
1. A Forgiven Person Forgives. Nov 11, 1985 (pg 342)
Often I am not prepared for my morning meditation and end up sitting in the oratory at 7 AM with all kinds of thoughts except the thought my meditation subject suggests to me.
But I simply must stay with it, even when it seems quite pointless. This morning I meditated on God’s eagerness to forgive me, revealed in the words of the One Hundred Third Psalm: “As far as the East is from the West, so far does God remove my sin.” In the midst of all my distractions, I was touched by God’s desire to forgive me again and again. If I return to God with a repentant heart after I have sinned, God is always there to embrace me and let me start afresh. ”The Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.”
It is hard for me to forgive someone who has really offended me, especially when it happens more than once. I begin to doubt the sincerity of the one who asks forgiveness for a second, third, or fourth time. But God does not keep count. God just waits for our return, without resentment or desire for revenge. God wants us home. “The love of the Lord is everlasting.”
Maybe the reason it seems hard for me to forgive others is that I do not fully believe that I am a forgiven person. If I could fully accept the truth that I am forgiven and do not have to live in guilt or shame, I would really be free. By not forgiving, I chain myself to a desire to get even, thereby losing my freedom. A forgiven person forgives. This is what we proclaim when we pray, “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
This lifelong struggle lies at the heart of the Christian life.
2. Struggle with the Nature of Friendship. Nov 8,1985
Maintaining spiritual distance is a more personal matter than I realized yesterday. It is essential to the understanding and living of true friendship. Jonas and I are trying to deal with our friendship. In the beginning we touched upon it only indirectly, but in the past few days we have been able to explore our relationship more directly. It is hard for me to speak of my feelings of being rejected or imposed upon, of my desire for affirmation as well as my need for space, of insecurity and mistrust, of fear and love. But as I entered into these feelings, I also discovered the real problem—expecting from a friend what only Christ can give.
I feel so easily rejected. When a friend does not come, a letter is not written, or an invitation not extended, I begin to feel unwanted and disliked. I gravitate toward dark feelings of low self-esteem and become depressed. Once depressed, I tend to interpret even innocent gestures as proofs of my self-chosen darkness, from which it is harder and harder to return. Looking carefully at this vicious cycle of self-rejection and speaking about it directly with Jonas is a good way to start moving in the opposite direction.
Two tings happened when Jonas and I spoke. First, he forced me to move out of the center! He too has a life, he too has his struggles, he too has unfulfilled needs and imperfections. As I tried to understand his life, I felt a deep compassion and a desire to comfort and console him. I no longer felt so strongly the need to judge him for not paying enough attention to me. It is so easy to convince yourself that you are the one who needs all the attention. But once you can see the other concretely in his or her life situation, you can step back a bit from yourself and understand that, in a true friendship, two people make a dance.
Second, I learned afresh that friendship requires a constant willingness to forgive each other for not being Christ and a willingness to ask Christ Himself to be the true center. When Christ does not mediate a relationship, that relationship easily becomes demanding, manipulating, oppressive, an arena for many forms of rejection. An unmediated friendship cannot last long; you simply expect too much of the other and cannot offer the other the space he or she needs to grow. Friendship requires closeness, affection, support, and mutual encouragement, but also distance, space to grow, freedom to be different, and solitude. To nurture both aspects of a relationship, we must experience a deeper and more lasting affirmation than any human relationship can offer.
As we struggled with the true nature of our friendship, Jonas and I read Paul’s words to the Romans: “We know that by turning everything to their good, God cooperates with all those who love Him, with all those whom He has called according to His purpose. . . those He called He justified, and with those He justified He shared His glory.” (Romans 8:28-30)
When we truly love God and share in His glory, our relationships lose their compulsive character. We reach out to people not just to receive their affirmation, but also to allow them to participate in the love we have come to know through Jesus. Thus true friendship becomes an expression of a greater love.
It is hard work to remind each other constantly of the truth, but it is worth the effort. Constant mutual forgiveness and a continual openness to the love of God are the disciplines which allow us to grow together in friendship. (pg 340)
3. Letting Go of Division. Feb 21, 1986 (pg 391)
This morning Jonas and I read in the Gospel Jesus’ words: “If you are bringing your gift to the altar, and there you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift in front of the altar; go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
These words have stayed with us the whole day. I realize that there are still many people with whom I am not fully at peace. When I think back on the friendships, encounters, and confrontation of the past, I realize that islands of anger, bitterness, and resentment still lie hidden in my heart. And when I bring to mind all whom I personally know or about whom I have heard or read, I know how I divide them between those who are for me and those who are against me, those whom I like and those whom I do not like, those I want to be with and those I try to avoid at all costs. My inner life is so filled with opinions, judgments, and prejudices about my “brothers and sisters” that real peace is still far away.
As I think about Jesus’ words, I know that I must let go of all these divisive emotions and thoughts so that I can truly experience peace with all of God’s people. This means an unrestrained willingness to forgive and let go of all old fears, bitterness, resentment, anger, and lust, and thus find reconciliation.
In this way, I can be a real peacemaker. My inner peace can be a source of peace for all I meet. I can then offer gifts on the altar of God as a testimony to this peace with my brothers and sisters.
I have to start thinking about concrete ways to make peace with my brothers and sisters who have something against me. What do I have to lose? To make peace is to free myself from my easy judgments so that I can love my enemy and the God who holds me and my enemies together in the palm of His hand.
Today I experience deep gratitude for the friendship between Jonas and me. It is the visible fruit of our peace-making in November.