The Choice to Forgive: The 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

As a young married woman, Edith Eger emigrated to the United States just after World War II and settled in Texas with her husband and first child. If she didn’t carry much material baggage, she carried a lot inside. A Jew, she and her family had been taken by rail along with hundreds of others to Auschwitz. Her parents were immediately put to death. A gymnast and dancer, she got the attention of a camp physician and was forced to dance for him; this was the notorious war criminal Jozef Mengele. Months later she was forced to march to another death camp and was one of the very few who survived. Her way of dealing with the trauma was to dedicate her life to helping others so in the 1970’s, her children grown, she went to college and became a psychologist. Now Dr. Eger, she began treating soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

One day Dr. Eger met with two patients, both Viet Nam veterans. They suffered identical injuries; the war left them paraplegics. The first man was angry, bitter, and resentful; all he saw was the world’s evil and his own limitations. His attitude was, “Why me?” The second man was just the opposite. Grateful to have survived, he was determined to focus on the good things in life and on its possibilities. His attitude was, “What next?”

Both patients deeply affected her. Through the first man she realized two things. First, her wartime experiences had left her like him: Angry, bitter, and resentful inside. More importantly she realized those feelings not only remained unresolved but had taken over, made things worse. Like that patient, she too was defined more by hatred than by love. But the second man showed her that she had a choice. She could choose life over death, to be a victor and not a victim, to celebrate the good and stop mourning the evil; to ask “What next?” and not “Why me?” That is the path she chose and, to coin a phrase, it has made all the difference.

In her book “The Choice,” Dr. Eger writes, “Maybe to heal isn’t to erase the scar… to heal is to cherish the wound.” May be; we know from the book of Leviticus that we are to cherish no grudge (Leviticus 19:18), for that is the opposite of healing. No wonder the same verse advises us to take no revenge. Although it may seem satisfying for a time, especially when someone has really hurt us, Dr. Eger also said that revenge keeps us revolving, not evolving. Our goal is to get past the pain, not pay it forward, to make a positive change in our lives.

But when someone has hurt you badly, how do you get past that kind of anger? By acknowledging it and giving it to God. Hiding it or pretending it doesn’t exist aren’t realistic solutions. You must be honest and admit that the anger you feel is the normal response to being badly hurt, but you must also resolve that anger will not win, will not define you, is not who you are. St. Paul told you who you are; you are the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16); don’t let anger defile that temple. Then give it to God in prayer. Be completely honest; tell God that the hurt and anger are too big for you, that you cannot do it alone. Ask him to help you forgive those who hurt you.

Finally, have a realistic understanding of love in the context of forgiveness. When our Lord says love your enemies he isn’t asking us to forget what happened and be friends; rather he is challenging us to see other people, including our enemies, as God sees them. Therefore, forgiveness doesn’t mean complete reconciliation of all differences with all people; it means freeing ourselves to love as God loves. Edith Eger didn’t reconcile with the Nazis but she did forgive them because she came to see them as they were: People who, although created good by God, learned as children to fear and hate what they could not understand. We come to forgiveness the same way; not by total reconciliation of our differences but by accepting first and foremost that all people, even those who have hurt us, are created and loved by God just as we are and in need of the same salvation we need.

prodigal-son-3388599_640It’s tempting to dismiss all this as foolishness but remember what St. Paul says: If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool so as to become wise (1 Corinthians 3:18). It may be wisdom in the eyes of the world to hate those who have hurt us and foolishness to forgive them but in Christ’s world it’s just the opposite; his is the world where hatred keeps us bound and love frees us, where judgment takes a back seat to mercy, and where God alone sees the heart, knows the pain, calms the fear, heals the wounds, and breaks the chains.

As Lent approaches I invite you to find that one person in your life most in need of your forgiveness. Make forgiving that person your Lenten project. It may not take you all of Lent or you may not have succeeded come Christmas; regardless, keep working at it. Pray for them; your prayers are the greatest gift you can give and are truly sacrificial. Forgiving others from the heart may be the one thing we do that God loves the most, for it shows how much we want to be like him. After all, God has forgiven us.

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