Father Jim Costigan, CPM
Some things are easy to forgive. A fan mistakes you for the reigning Miss America, you correct him, then he graciously apologizes — that’s pretty easy to forgive. But then there’s the friend who didn’t keep your secret, the woman who stole your man, the date who raped you, the man who harmed your children — these are hard to forgive. Maybe, though, after a long time, when you’ve managed to forgive all those other offenders, through a lot of prayer and effort and emotional struggle, there’s still that one woman that it seems it is impossible to forgive: you.
Why? Why can’t you forgive you? Most of the time, you can forgive yourself for a bit of gossip, eating a little too much, showing impatience to the kids. But for some of your sins, the really serious sins, it can be so hard to forgive yourself — especially for sins involving sex or violence. And abortion involves both. If you are post-abortive and having a hard time forgiving yourself, part of the difficulty may be that you’re living with mistaken notions about God, about forgiveness, and about yourself.
Wrong about God — You may of think of God mainly as a harsh judge, as a fierce punisher, as an angry sinner-hater (and these caricatures, though they‘re distortions, are based on truth: God is just, He hates sin, He punishes sinners — but not in the mean, spiteful ways you imagine). If that’s how you picture Him, then you are going to fear Him, want to avoid Him, and try to hide from Him (like Adam and Eve tried to hide from Him in the Garden). You may begin to distrust Him, resent Him, even feel hostility toward Him. Satan will encourage this alienation — which is emotional at its core, though probably covered with a credible, convincing cloak of rationalization (God doesn’t hear me, He doesn’t answer my prayers, He’s busy with other people — good people, He’s all about shalt-nots, He doesn’t really care about me anymore . . .). You may end up hating God — and feeling, probably unconsciously at first, that God hates you, that He is your enemy. And who goes to an enemy for understanding, sympathy, forgiveness, and sweet, gentle love?
But all those notions about God are false. Those hateful images are lies. Yes, God hates sin, but He loves sinners — and not just in a general way, as some kind of lovely ideal. He sees your most horrible choices, your worst sins — He sees them even as you’re committing them — and He loves you anyway. And when you turn to Him in sorrow, He forgives you, He washes those sins away — forever — in His Son’s Precious Blood. Jesus revealed to Saint Faustina, the Secretary of Divine Mercy, this staggering promise for sinners, for the worst sinners: “The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to my mercy ( Saint Faustina’s Diary 723 ).” A right to mercy? How can you have a right to mercy? In human terms, logically, there is a right to justice, while mercy is outside the framework of rights. But God is outside that framework too — way above it. If Jesus proclaims to you — yes, even you, The Worst and Most Unforgivable of Sinners (a title the Devil and your sick self may keep trying to hang on you) — that you have a Divinely Guaranteed right to His mercy, do you really want to argue about that? And remember: When this madly-in-love-with-you, merciful, gentle Jesus forgives, He forgets.
Trouble is, you don’t.
Wrong about Forgiveness — Most of us don’t understand forgiveness. Most intelligent, educated Christians don’t even understand simple human forgiveness, much less Christian forgiveness, and therefore, much, much less God’s forgiveness of His repentant children. We tend to judge by ourselves, by our own experience. Let’s say your former best friend is your husband’s new wife. And now, twice a month your children spend a fun-filled weekend with the two of them. You hate this, maybe you hate him and her, you long for justice (or revenge — which you probably call justice). But, as a Christian, you know you must forgive, and so you try. You tell Jesus, as sincerely as you can, that you forgive them, both of them. But the Devil and your own wounded self keep stirring up images and memories that fill you with anger, envy, resentment, hatred. You then think that the surge of those hot, hurtful emotions means you haven’t really forgiven. Hear this: the act of Christian forgiveness has nothing to do with feelings. Forgiveness is an act of the will. When you told God, when you told Jesus, as honestly as you could, though perhaps very imperfectly and with mixed emotions, that you were forgiving those two — that was it: you forgave. But that doesn’t mean that the memories die, that your imagination stops harassing you, that all those powerful feelings suddenly become nice and quiet and docile.Those unruly emotions have a life of their own, and they do not want to obey your will. But you have now done your part: you have — mind, heart, and free will — chosen to forgive (your gut may follow later). You’ve done it. Period. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t feel like you’ve done it. God never judges us by our feelings.
Wrong about You — So often, though, and this is especially true for a mother when the sin is abortion, the hardest one to forgive is you. You may have reached the point where you believe, at least intellectually, that God has forgiven you. But, still, you can’t forgive you. Why? Perhaps, because of your upbringing, you think you’re not lovable, and therefore, not forgivable. Perhaps, because of trauma — spiritual, emotional, maternal trauma due to abortion and other wounds from the past — your sense of self, of your own dignity and worth, has been so shattered and trashed, you believe you don’t deserve to be forgiven. Perhaps, because guilt and guilt feelings (not the same thin ) and shame and self-loathing have pierced you so deep, it feels like they’ll never heal. Perhaps, because of the oppressive weight associated with such sins and sufferings — along with those particular aggravating circumstances that are yours alone — deep down, and with a passionate certainty, you feel (note the tell-tale words feel and passionate), that this worthless wretch (yourself) cannot, should not, and must not, be forgiven.
Do It Now — Now, imagine this: You see some sinful woman kneeling before Jesus. She is dirty, ragged, repulsive — weeping and sobbing before her Judge. You know her. She has committed the same sins as you, and other worse ones, and over and over again; she has even taught others to sin, and helped them to sin. Morally, humanly, she is you — only ten times as bad. She’s a hundred times the sinner you are. Her past is a thousand times more hideous than yours. But now, she hates her sins, she hates herself, she wishes she were dead, and with her heart breaking, she is asking Jesus to forgive her. You watch Jesus, Who knows all this woman’s evil, Who knows her through and through. You see Him begin to lean down toward her with His Arms reaching out. You see that, not only is He going to forgive her, He has in fact already forgiven her. More than that — He is about to hold her and kiss her and let her cry on His Chest as He comforts her. Somehow, with certainty, you know all this. And you know too that, as He holds this dirty woman close, He is going to tell her how much He loves her and how much He wants her to be healthy and happy, and that He is then going to show her how to be His faithful servant, His true friend, and even His beautiful bride. So, what do you do? Of course, you rush up, grab His Arm, and tell Him to stop. You tell Him she needs more punishment, it’s not right for Him to take her back, to still love her. You tell Him He must reject her.
Really? In your heart you know that is not what Jesus will do. He will love and strengthen and teach this repentant woman how to replace sin and rot with virtue and Grace. You know He will show this once terrible sinner — because He loves her, and has always loved her, and will always love her — how to become a great saint.
This little tableau is not just an edifying fable. Jesus has worked this miracle of conversion, of human transformation, countless times in real life. He is doing it all the time. He is aching to do it for you. All He asks, to start, is your permission to do it. But for your permission to be availing for you, for it to begin to actually transform you, you must first forgive yourself. Don’t wait till you feel like forgiving yourself. Tell Him now: Jesus, I know You’ve forgiven me, so I forgive me. I love You. Make me new.