Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
April 24th, 2013

Why Is It so Hard To Forgive?


forgivenessBack in 2004, Victoria Ruvolo made national news when an 18-year-old named Ryan hurled a 20-pound frozen turkey at her moving car. It shattered her facial bones, damaged her esophagus, and caused some brain damage. It nearly killed her, but at Ryan’s sentencing Victoria forgave him and asked for a shorter prison sentence.

Here’s her reason:

I went through all the emotions that anyone would have: Why me? What did I do in my life that was so bad that this had to happen to me? Then I realized God is everywhere, and if he is everywhere, then he knew I was in such great physical condition and because of that, God knew I would be able to live through this terrible ordeal. That’s what kept me moving on, to go through my rehab and get back to life because I was meant to save someone else’s life. Now I know I did save someone else’s life — Ryan’s.

It would be hard for anyone to forgive someone like Ryan or the perpetrator of any terrible act of violence, especially if you’re a victim. But the amazing, stunning and absolutely radical call of Christianity is that forgiveness is not meant to be barred from anyone. “[God] makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike …” (Matthew 5:45).

It’s so hard to forgive because we don’t have God’s understanding or view of the world, or even God’s kind of perfect love. Our vantage point is limited and shackled by our pain, our human desire for retaliation and revenge, and even our own ego. But Christian discipleship is meant to lead us closer to God’s kind of love.

Risks of forgiveness

There are many risks that come with forgiveness. First, the risk to our personal pride and ego. We can feed our pride by maintaining grudges and placing ourselves on higher moral ground than the person who hurt us. Forgiveness risks damaging that image we’ve worked so hard to create for ourselves. The second risk, for some, is that forgiveness seems to go against the pursuit of justice.

Some mistook Victoria’s forgiveness for her saying Ryan’s sinful act was OK. Rather, forgiveness says, “I’m not going to hold a grudge against you.” “I’m not going to be vengeful.” “I’m angry, but I want love and reconciliation to prevail.” In the face of evil, this can take time to get to, but we all must get there at some point.

Perhaps it’s acknowledged for small wrongs, but forgiveness becomes more difficult when the wrong grows in size, affecting more people or becoming more deplorable in our eyes. Scripture is clear though — God is serious about forgiveness.

Imagine calling a murderer a brother or sister. Jesus did when he said that if we are angry with our brother we will be brought to trial like someone who commits murder. Instead, we must drop everything and make peace, even before bringing a gift to God! (Matthew 5:23). Victoria did just this. At Ryan’s trial, she made peace with him and her very act of forgiveness brought her peace.

“My spiritual and emotional health came from awareness that when we hold onto revenge the only person we hurt is ourselves,” Victoria says. “Forgiveness is for ourselves, not for the other person.”

But Victoria’s forgiveness actually inspired Ryan to change his life for the better. He was transformed and given hope. Forgiveness has this unique characteristic of healing both parties, despite the risks. The risks of forgiveness merely cloud the benefits of healing and reconciliation, a true “making right.”


Forgiveness is a hallmark of Christianity, which was exemplified when Jesus forgave the adulterous woman: “I do not condemn you… Go, but do not sin again.” (John 8:11) Jesus exercised not only forgiveness but justice. Jesus called the woman out on her sinfulness but also affirmed her potential for freedom from sin through the gift of forgiveness. This is justice. Forgiveness acknowledges that even the most evil person has hope and is still beloved by God.

Sadly, the living out of this Christian hallmark often falls short. Perhaps it’s acknowledged for small wrongs, but forgiveness becomes more difficult when the wrong grows in size, affecting more people or becoming more deplorable in our eyes. Scripture is clear though — God is serious about forgiveness. Jesus said to his followers, right after teaching them the Lord’s Prayer, that “If you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done.” (Matthew 6:15)

President Obama, on the evening after the Boston Marathon bombings, ensured that the federal government would help and care for the victims and that those responsible would be found and “feel the full weight of justice.” There’s no doubt that all of us desire justice to be done, but what if the president had said that in addition, we would love the perpetrators and work to forgive them? I think people would have been outraged.

The bombings at the Boston Marathon haunt us. They hurt us; they confuse us; and they grip our hearts with pain, anger, and even resentment. Our psyches don’t know what to make of an incident that turned a delightful and celebratory day into one of terror and death for so many.

But in the midst of such tragedy, God wants us to have a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. Love, forgiveness and true justice come with a compassionate heart, even though it may be broken.

The Author : Andy Otto
Andy Otto is earning his graduate degree in theology and ministry at Boston College and is the creator and editor of GodInAllThings.com, a blog and podcast on Ignatian spirituality. He lives with his wife Sarah in the Boston area.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • http://www.facebook.com/Michaelrose19 Michael F Rose

    It is important to know that the divine law is imbedded into creation
    , no one can escape its reward or punishment. It is a mathematical
    physical reality of the universe just like E=mc /squared. The cross is a
    guarantee from the creator that sin will be forgiven and punished. The
    golden rule is so well know that songs have been written about it. After
    St Paul accepted jesus he had to suffer everything he did to others.

    Once we know this law we dont have to have a spirit of vengeance, sin
    itself brings its own suffering because the universe was built by a
    infinitely holy being.

  • http://www.facebook.com/williegrl Katie Collins

    I agree and wish I were better at this. I have been told that holding on to hurt and anger is like taking rat poison and waiting for the other person to die. In addition, I have been the receiver of forgiveness, and I know how powerful that was, and what an incredible healing process it brought about. I am grateful.

  • Caritas

    Is it un-Christian to believe that one can forgive and love those who have done something wrong but that they should be held accountable through some proportional penalty imposed by the community’s justice system?

  • ksmartbl

    I can’t help being confused about this. Over the course of very long marriage, my now-ex repeatedly beat me, sometimes nearly to death, and I repeatedly forgave him. He continued to do this until I stopped forgiving him and got out of the marriage. How do you reconcile my story with what you say is God’s position on forgiveness? I am not being combative; I truly want to understand.

    • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.j.bliss Barbara Bliss

      Forgiveness does not mean tolerance. Forgive, but leave, to keep yourself safe to do the work God has for you. Pray for husband to change, but do not continue to put yourself in danger. Respect that flesh and blood God has given you! And know that if your marriage was once a valid sacramental marriage, it still may be, even if you are divorced in the secular sense.

      • meerkat13

        How can it continue to be “a valid sacramental marriage” after one partner horribly abused and probably tried to kill the other? Thank heaven this woman had the courage to leave a terrible situation; may she now live the life she was meant to live without looking back!

      • formericelaker

        So what does it mean?

  • madbaumer

    Mr. Otto, Thank you for a well written article that speaks to a subject that we need more focus on. I always tell my children that Jesus forgave those that put him on the cross so who are we to decide who deserves forgiveness. I also recently saw something that compared holding a gudge to holding onto a red-hot piece of coal. It hurts worse until we let it go…

  • Matt Landry

    The trouble is that most people don’t view forgiveness that way, and so publicly offering forgiveness to someone tends to have the effect of saying “oh well, it wasn’t so bad, so go ahead and do that again whenever you feel like it”.

  • Markmcd

    Thanks Andy, I have been grappling with a situation and despite knowing I need to forgive the person involved, I haven’t been able. Your article was a perfect gift from God reminding me of what I need to do.

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