Volume 4, Issue 3, January 1996


The importance to ones health and maturing of practicing forgiveness has been a spiritual principle throughout the ages. Prophets, saints, and religions advise us to forgive; the principle is a mainstay of virtually every religious, philosophical and psychological practiced tradition.

Why is it so important to forgive others? When we forgive we are able to constructively deal with our feelings of hurt, resentment, and self-pity, and are less likely to compound these difficulties. For if one holds a grudge against someone, one ends up bearing a heavy burden that restricts freedom and prevents spiritual growth.

Forgiveness is another word for letting go. It involves facing squarely our feelings and telling someone so we are no longer alone with our feelings of resentment, anger or guilt. If there is the possibility for repair without further hurt, we must make repair. Then forgiveness may be expressed. It is a spiritual experience that matures and develops the participants.

"You shall love your neighbour as yourself," Jesus taught. The Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard declared that if anyone will not learn to love themself in the right way, then neither can they love their neighbour. To love ones self in the right way and to love ones neighbour are in the end the same. Hence Jesus observation is, "You shall love yourself as you love your neighbour when you love them as yourself."

Forgiving love was well illustrated by Jesus in his parable of the two sons.(St. Luke 15:11). The younger son asked for and received his family inheritance early, while his father was alive and well. He left home, went abroad and spent the money. As his resources diminished and his efforts to establish himself in new relations broke down, the younger son judged himself to have been a fool to waste his inheritance to no avail, to have cut himself off from those who loved him, and to have fallen into the miserable state in which no one cared whether he lived or died. He realized the great lesson he had learned was to value relationships of genuine love. So he decided to return home, apologize and start over again as a servant for his family.

The father, who was mourning the loss of his son, hoped and longed for the young man's return. He welcomed the boy home with ecstatic love.

But not so the older son, who cherished anger and self-righteous indignation against his brother for what he had done. His opinion was that his brother had made his choice, so let him take the consequences of his own folly. The older brother was technically correct; he was in the right and his brother was in the wrong. Why shouldn't the prodigal bear the full penalty for what he had done? Yet we can infer that the older brother would feel also the pangs of guilt, against which he needed the ego defenses of repression, projection, and rationalization. To repress his guilt feelings he would project the blame upon the younger brother and rationalize that this person does not deserve another chance and should bear the destitution he had brought upon himself. The problem of sibling rivalry, which bedevils all families, makes it seem the younger son is the favoured one who displaces the older in the affection of his parents.

There is more than one way to be homeless. The prodigal had gone to another community to separate himself from his family, but the older son was homeless at home. The family relations were not yet restored and could not be so long as one remained the rival of the other.

Recognizing that persons have a basic need for a relationship of forgiving love, Jesus spoke a great deal about reconciliation, making peace, as a religious way of life.

The therapeutic value of forgiving love is now well recognized by psychologists and other professions working for mental health. The lack of such love is understood to be the principle cause of neurotic anxiety, juvenile delinquency, resistance to learning, the blocking of potential achievement, mental illness, and psychosomatic disorders.

We can set the stage for forgiveness by first trying to be understanding of those who have wronged us. To achieve understanding it is helpful to acknowledge our own human weaknesses and admit we are capable of committing a similar wrong. At some future time we also may need to be forgiven.

Dr. Walter Rauschenbusch, a prophet of the church a century ago in the application of the teachings of Christianity to social situations, was once hurrying across a busy street and was hit by a streetcar. When the motorman began to explain that he had sounded the gong, Rauschenbusch stopped him: "I am very sorry that I crossed the street in front of you, but you see, I am deaf, and I did not hear you approaching." He then reached into his pocket and took out a five dollar bill and gave it to the motorman, saying, "Take this as a gift and forgive me."

A man with that kind of spirit must have been a truly great soul. It is hard to forgive and it takes love within us to do it. Forgiving is a model of love in action.

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"Religion NOW" is published in limited edition by the Rev. Ross E. Readhead, B.A., B.D., Certificate of Corrections, McMaster University, in the interest of furthering knowledge and participation in religion. Dialogue is invited and welcomed.