A graduate school classmate of mine was once a greengrocer in a small English village. If you wanted fresh fruits and vegetables, and you happened to live in that village, you had to visit him. The problem was, he was usually cranky and sometimes downright mean. One day, three of his regular customers—all older, retired women—decided to do something about his behavior. They didn’t chew him out, and they didn’t decide to go to the next village to buy their produce. Instead, they agreed that they would pray for him every day. And so they did.
Months passed, and one Sunday my classmate decided to take an early morning stroll. After a while he heard a church bell calling the faithful to worship. As a non-churchgoer, he ordinarily would have ignored the bells and kept on walking. This time, however, he felt something tugging at his heart, drawing him toward the sound. He walked to the church, paused for a moment, pushed open the door, and took a seat in a pew. Then, from behind him, he heard whispering voices: “It’s him! It’s him! He’s finally come!” My classmate turned around and saw three smiling elderly ladies who visited his store each day. Their prayers had been answered.
As with my classmate, God can change people through the prayers of others. Whenever we have someone to forgive, prayer should always be part of our effort. As Jesus taught, “Pray for anyone who mistreats you” (Mt 5:44, CEV). We can pray that they might change, for their conversion, that they become more loving and lovable, and that God will bless them and fill them with happiness and peace. We can also pray for their healing.
We have faith that our prayers are always heard, but have been given no guarantees that we’ll get what we ask for. God’s plans aren’t always our own, and those we pray for may well have plans other than God’s too. They may be resistant to change, oblivious to God’s grace, stuck in negativity or resentment, or possibly addicted or mentally ill. Yet prayer is never a wasted effort, and always brings forth some good fruit. At the very least, lifting up in prayer those we’re struggling to forgive will remind us of their human dignity and that they are loved by God, who calls us to love them as well.
Nevertheless, as the women in the English village discovered, and as a popular slogan puts it, sometimes “prayer changes things.” Consider the experience of St. Monica and St. Augustine, who were mother and son. As a young adult, Augustine abandoned his faith and began living a wayward life. At times he treated his mother poorly. But Monica never gave up on her son, and she prayed for him every day. Eighteen years later, what she prayed for came to pass. Augustine returned to his roots, was baptized, and dedicated his life to God’s service. He eventually became a great bishop and preacher. Monica’s perseverance had paid off.
It’s one thing to pray that another person might change, but maybe we need to change as well. As all of us are responsible for our actions, we are responsible also for our reactions. That’s why, when faced with forgiving, it’s also important that we pray for ourselves. Perhaps we need to pray for wisdom and courage in dealing with a difficult person. We can ask God to help us be more patient, understanding, and loving. Maybe we should pray for thicker skin and the resiliency to weather the pain we’re experiencing and the challenge we’re facing. We might also pray for peace to replace our anger, and healing to ease our pain.
Above all, we can pray for the grace to forgive. One way we can do this is by using our imagination. Whenever we pray the words in the Our Father, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we can picture in our mind the person we’re trying to forgive. It’s a way of saying, “Lord, please help me forgive this person as you’ve forgiven me.” Twelve Step programs suggest praying that the person who hurt us will be blessed with all the goodness in life we wish for ourselves. Such prayer will likely be forced at first, but eventually it will feel more genuine. One has to “fake it to make it.”
Something for which we should never pray is that the person we need to forgive be punished or harmed. It can be tempting to want God to strike someone down with a lightning bolt. Indeed, this is exactly how Jesus’s disciples feel when they aren’t welcomed by the people in one town. They ask Jesus if they should “call down fire from heaven” upon them! But Jesus would have none of that (see Lk 9:51–56).
In our anger at being hurt, we too may want to call down fire upon someone’s head. If that’s the case, we can be honest with God about our thoughts and feelings. God knows what’s in our hearts anyway; we can’t hide anything from him. However, God wants us to share our thoughts and feelings with him in prayer, with openness and trust. Unfortunately, if we weren’t taught to pray this way, we might only tell God those things we think he wants to hear, or simply avoid prayer altogether. We may fear disappointing God, or even provoking rejection, wrath, or retaliation.
But our God of love and mercy doesn’t want censored prayers. He wants honest prayers. Consider the “prayer book” of the Bible: the Psalms. A great number of the psalms are laments or complaints. They’re a model for our prayers. It’s perfectly acceptable to say to God: “How could you let this happen? It’s not fair! I don’t deserve this! You could fix all this right now; why don’t you?” Maybe we hesitate to express ourselves this way, because at some level we know that our words reflect a lack of trust, overwhelming anger, or personal immaturity. That may very well be the case. But that’s where we are, and that’s where God meets us. And when we let God meet us where we are, we invite him to help us get to where he wants us to be.
Excerpt from Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach Revised and Updated by R. Scott Hurd. Being released on September 16, 2019.