When I was 17 years old, I bumped into a bush and lodged a thorn in my elbow muscle. I pulled the thorn out, cleaned the wound with alcohol and bandaged it, thinking that the wound would heal and everything would be OK.
But it wasn’t. The wound would not heal completely. Over time new skin covered the wound, but it would still occasionally hurt.
Ten years after the original incident, I bumped my elbow, the wound split open and a little piece of thorn popped out, encased in pus. Finally, the hurting stopped and the wound healed properly because the source of the pain — the barbed end of the thorn — was finally removed.
This story says a lot about the healing power of forgiveness. True healing can only occur when the wound is cleaned completely, and the wound caused when someone hurts us can only be healed by letting go of the “tip of the thorn,” the grudge that we continue to bear even after the offender says, “I’m sorry,” and we say, “You are forgiven.”
As long as we continue to carry around in our hearts any animosity or ill feelings toward the person who has hurt us, our wound cannot heal. We can say that we forgave, we can say that we are OK, but if we continue to bear any animosity toward the person, we are not OK, we have not forgiven.
At my mother’s funeral, her children were surprised to learn that she had been engaged to marry someone other than my father. When asked, Mom’s sister confirmed the story and told us more of the tale. Ending the story my aunt said, “Your mother never forgave him either. When he died a few months ago, she refused to even attend his funeral.”
Unlike my mother, I don’t think that I could go that long holding a grudge. I’ve tried over the years to reach out to people I’ve offended in some way to seek their forgiveness. Some of these people have seemed confused, not knowing why I owed them an apology, while others, thankfully, have assured me that all was forgiven.
As I grow older, I’m finding it more difficult to seek forgiveness, which concerns me. To say “I’m sorry” or to forgive requires introspection, the ability to examine one’s conscious and evaluate one’s behavior and the behavior of others.
Most of the apologies I’ve offered in the past 20 years were because I thought about something that happened or that I consciously did, and realized in retrospect that I was wrong, that I had treated people poorly. Now, I’m more likely to immediately blame the other person for their behavior without considering my own. I pray that doesn’t become my usual behavior.
In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus forgives a “sinful woman.” When confronted about forgiving a sinner, Jesus makes it clear that sinners are just the ones who need forgiveness. And, the larger our sinfulness, the more delight we will take at being forgiven.
“Her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little,” Jesus said.
Like the woman in Luke 7, I too am a sinner seeking forgiveness, both from God and from those I have sinned against. While I believe that I have been forgiven by God, I know that there are still people who I’ve harmed.
This Lent, I will seek new opportunities to remove old thorns from my wounds. I will examine my life (and conscience) to determine whether I should issue more apologies and seek more forgiveness. Both are needed for healing.
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(Daniel S. Mulhall is catechist living in Louisville, Kentucky.)