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Anger and Forgiveness

As the month of March comes to a close, I’d like to share a reflection from the March sisters of the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott called Little Women. Every Wednesday as part of Night Prayer at Lisieux House, we hear the same reading:

“If you are angry, let it be without sin. The sun must not go down on your wrath; do not give the devil a chance to work on you.” (Eph 4:26-27).

From a physiological perspective, the feeling of anger is a neutral emotion that simply indicates a boundary has been crossed. Anger is a “fight or flight” emotion that spurs us to action. As such, the feeling of anger can be useful in situations where we need to protect ourselves or others. St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, does not tell us not to be angry at all, but to be so without sin. At what point does anger cross the line towards sinfulness, even so to the point of being included as one of the Seven Deadly Sins?

As an example, let’s take the scene from Little Women in Chapter 8 called “Jo Meets Apollyon.” Jo is one of the older March sisters that has a fiery spirit and a sharp temper. The Greek word “Apollyon” (in Hebrew, “Abaddon” meaning “doom”) refers both to the place of destruction and the angel known as “The Destroyer.” In this scene, Jo’s younger sister Amy takes the manuscript that Jo has worked on for many years and burns it out of revenge for a previous insult. When Jo finds out about the loss of her writing, she is rightfully angry and upset. As the day turns over to night, her mother gently reminds Jo:

“‘My dear, don’t let the sun go down upon your anger; forgive each other, help each other, and begin again to-morrow.’

Jo wanted to lay her head down on that motherly bosom, and cry her grief and anger all away, but tears were an unmanly weakness, and she felt so deeply injured that she really couldn’t quite forgive yet. So she winked hard, shook her head, and said, gruffly, because Amy was listening--

‘It was an abominable thing, and she don’t deserve to be forgiven.’”

Jo’s decision to harbor resentment and hold out forgiveness from her sister pervades throughout the next day. It is only when Amy’s life is in danger in a dramatic scene of her falling through ice that Jo’s own heart is filled with fear, remorse, and love for her sister. This sudden shock of the sister’s close call thrusts Jo out of her state of unforgiveness.

“Jo’s only answer was to hold her mother close, and, in the silence which followed, the sincerest prayer she had ever prayed left her heart, without words, for in that sad, yet happy hour, she had learned not only the bitterness of remorse and despair, but the sweetness of self-denial and self-control; and, led by her mother’s hand, she had drawn nearer to the Friend who welcomes every child with a love stronger than that of any father, tenderer than that of any mother.”

Forgiveness can be defined as freeing the other person of the obligation or debt he or she owes to you.

Here are some common misconceptions regarding forgiveness:

  1. Forgiveness is NOT condoning or reducing what happened. It does not mean there was no hurt or that the other person does not owe you anything.

  2. Forgiveness is NOT the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is between you and God, while reconciliation is between you, God, and the other person. Reconciliation does not always happen nor is it necessary, but forgiveness is always possible.

  3. I do NOT need to feel like forgiving in order to forgive. Forgiveness is a free choice and often a multi-time event.

  4. Forgiveness presupposes I must have hard feelings towards the person who offended me. Sometimes we do not acknowledge our feelings, or we think we have gotten over the offense, but the Lord wants to reach healing into the depths of our hearts!

And in addition to freeing the other, forgiveness frees us. As we approach the glory of Easter and the freedom our Lord promises in His resurrection, may we also with equal weight remember Christ on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Perhaps while reading this, a certain person or relationship came up in your mind. For any of us that need to forgive someone as we start these most holy days of the Paschal Triduum, we may start by praying to our loving Father:

“Father, in the name of Jesus, I forgive ______ for ______.”

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