Why Personal Forgiveness is Necessary for Happiness

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Forgiveness lives in a big tent! It can be offered to institutions as well as persons. It can be part of reconciliation among nations and neighborhoods. But for the most part, it is needed in the small, circumscribed cup of the family, the place where hurts and animosities often slip in and manage to grow like weeds strangling even the smallest green shoots of life. So, let’s talk for a minute about forgiveness in the smaller circles of family and friends.

Timothy Keller wrote several months ago in the New York Times that he once served as a pastor in a very small, rural town where there were no marriage counselors or therapists. He studied hard to make progress in providing help to the couples who came to him and he discovered over the years that those who embraced forgiveness survived and those marriages who did not never did. “Without forgiveness,” says Keller, “no human relationships or communities can be sustained.” 

Keller argues that we owe it to others to forgive because we need forgiveness ourselves. He suggests a close reading of Matthew, Chapter 18 when the master of the workers said to a servant who cruelly demanded a sum owed to him: “Should you have not dealt mercifully with your fellow servant as I dealt with you?” 

Many social scientists are pointing out that the lack of forgiveness in families allows a cesspool of bad health, addictions, violence, and fear to take over most, if not all, the members of the family. If you hold a vengeance toward a family member or several, you will only wallow in unhappiness until the issue is faced and forgiven. It is not natural, it is rather a break in the foundation of unity, an organic failure, a breach of a relationship that once was part of love. To choose to remain there is sinful. The grace of forgiveness will constantly haunt the unforgiving. One owes it to the other members of the family or friends as well to begin the healing process.

Keller also points out that by not forgiving, one is dismissing the precondition for justice. Seeking vengeance or choosing to stay unforgiving will only consume one’s inner being with hate and anger. Justice will never occur. Forgiving is not excusing; you must name the evil or wrongdoing that was done. And then you offer forgiveness.

We are all aware of the famous Amish example where the Amish parents of children murdered and wounded by a lone gunman who took his own life, quietly processed to the home of his family to offer sympathy for their loss of a son. The Amish believe in a core value of self-renunciation with forgiveness being one form of it. Several scholars who have written on this have said that our extreme individualism is one that “nourishes revenge and mocks grace,” not producing people of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Keller believes that if forgiveness “in small things and large were deeply embedded in our culture it would transform us politically ending racial discrimination, stereotyping, and unwillingness to listen to one another.” I believe it would help families to heal the fault lines of their disagreements or vengeance and anger. These fault lines almost always occur when grievances, some very small, grow larger and larger taking the place of a once beautiful relationship.  


I agree with Keller and other thinkers on this topic that today’s Christianity is failing when it comes to forgiveness. Over the centuries Christianity had been a model for forgiveness but we have succumbed to many misleading temptations in vengeful ‘justice’, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” kind of thinking which is a misuse of the entire biblical passage that Jesus challenged for its retaliatory rhetoric. If we are a forgiving people, we would be able to “confront frustrations and hurts and work through them rather than to turn to drugs, guns, or other destructive ways of dealing with our pain,” says Keller. Grace can meet us at the crossroads of hurt and forgiveness. I think our Christian communities need to preach more on forgiveness, offer more social assistance and support groups in it, educate more about it in pre-marriage classes, maybe even offer classes on it for parishioners. It shouldn’t be relegated as a timely topic for Lenten talks. It is always relevant.

There are several passages in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures which are very helpful to reflect on. I particularly like Matthew 5:38-44. Others may speak to you. Most people have deep wounds that require forgiveness. If you need to forgive someone, ask fervently for the grace to approach that person, and offer forgiveness. The same is true if there is someone who needs to forgive you and won’t do it. Reach out. Offer your regret for the hurt. If they do not take your hand, you have made the Christian move. There may be a time in the future when you can offer again, do so. Always respond tograce. It is mostly pride that keeps us from full reconciliation, but we cannot progress without reconciliation. 

I have experienced many examples of the need to extend forgiveness and to ask for it. I’ll share just one that might seem minor if you suffer marriage conflicts or friendship breakups. I stood at the entrance of our retreat center thanking people for coming to an event. I extended my hand to each person who was leaving when a gentleman refused my hand saying abruptly, “I don’t shake the hand of any sister who doesn’t wear a habit!” And he walked away angrily. I was momentarily surprised but kept on thanking the others who attended the program. I remember thinking well, he came to a rather progressive lecture, perhaps he will change his mind someday. I did not know who he was so I could not contact him. About a year later the man showed up at another lecture and came to me. He said, shakenly but firmly: “Sister, I’m sorry for what I said to you last year. It was wrong. I’d like to shake your hand.”

Enjoy a week of Springtime inspiration on forgiveness.

Quotes from Timothy Keller. “What Too Little Forgiveness Does to Us.” New York Times, December 4, 2022, p. 7.

6 thoughts on “Why Personal Forgiveness is Necessary for Happiness

Add yours

  1. Forgiveness is truly foundational to life. The other foundational attitude is taking responsibility for our own actions instead of blaming others or events. We need both.


  2. Thank you…. I have been holding on to some incidents for decades. I’ll select one to work on forgiving , and see how it goes.


  3. I heard someone share thoughts on forgiveness once. One idea that stuck with me was that  forgiveness is a fruit that comes from God. It comes after I can confront the wrong and name it. It comes after I have went through the powerful emotions that come with the wrong. Emotions like anger, resentment, grief and judgement.  I can’t conjure up enough “forgiveness power” just because I know forgiveness is something I should do. If I keep a close relationship with God, forgiveness (for myself and others)  is a fruit that results from that relationship. Thank you, Sister. Your blogs are inspirational for me. Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone


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