Mercy and forgiveness must not remain as pleasant words but must be manifest in daily life. (Pope Francis)
As Christians we often hear about and speak about forgiveness – God’s forgiveness of our sins and our need to forgive one another. And yet the practice of forgiveness is one of the hardest things about being a follower of Jesus. Various aspects of our human nature – our pride, our narcissism, our instinct for self-defense – militate against the virtue. But it’s a challenge we cannot ignore. As Pope Francis said, “Mercy and forgiveness must not remain as pleasant words but must be manifest in daily life.”
So the question is: Do you believe in forgiveness? And that question can be divided into three parts.
First – Do you believe that God forgives you?
That God loves us and wants to forgive our sins is one of the central teachings of Christ. In one parable after another, in one example after another, Jesus emphasizes that God is a benevolent Father who wants to forgive us, who wants us to have a good and peaceful relationship with him. The only thing that can impede that forgiveness is our own closed heart.
Sometimes it may be difficult for us to accept God’s gift of forgiveness. Perhaps we have an image of God as a ruthless, angry judge; or we believe that our sins are so great that God will reject us; or we have an unrepentant attitude; or we suffer from scrupulosity that turns even the slightest of faults into the heaviest of burdens. Whatever the case, we need to listen to Jesus: God loves you; he forgives you; he wants to be your friend!
Jesus not only taught about forgiveness, though. He made it a reality when he opened his arms on the cross, offered himself in sacrifice and died for our sins, reconciling us to God once-and-for-all. Do you have trouble believing that God forgives you? Spend a few moments gazing at the Cross of Christ and remember that at our Father’s bidding, Jesus did that for you! And then rejoice and relax in the comfort of God’s mercy and love.
The second question is this: Can you forgive yourself?
You know, as we go through life, we all do stupid and embarrassing things, sometimes downright silly things we’d rather not think about. And worst of all, we’ve all committed sins – perhaps serious sins – actions or omissions that still cause us guilt and shame. Even if we’ve repented of our actions, confessed our sins and been forgiven, we blush at the memory of some of our past deeds.
I remember speaking to some very young Catholic school students a few years back about the importance of the Ten Commandments. “Bishop, have you ever broken the Commandments?” one inquiring lad asked. “Well, yes, I guess I have . . .” I started to explain. “Which ones?” he insisted, while his teacher hid in the corner. “I’m not going to tell you,” I emphasized, to everyone’s relief.
And I’m not going to tell you either, dear reader. Suffice it to say, as I survey my life, I can think of a whole bunch of stupid, embarrassing and even sinful things I’ve done. I’ve had to grow comfortable (though not complacent) with the fact that despite the many graces I’ve been given, and the lofty position I hold in the Church, I’m thoroughly human, just a normal guy. St. Paul said: “I am the least of the Apostles, not fit to be called an Apostle . . . But by the grace of God I am what I am.” (I Cor 15: 9-10) Trust me, I can relate to that insight.
So, can you forgive yourself? Can you let go of the past, and accept your faults and imperfections, and be comfortable with the person God created you to be?
The third question is, without a doubt, the hardest. Can you forgive others?
Forgiving an unkind or even vindictive person who has harmed or offended you is really difficult, isn’t it? Maybe you’re the totally innocent victim; or your trust was betrayed; or someone has caused you or a loved one permanent harm. Can you forgive that person?
Jesus told us that forgiving others, unconditionally, is an essential condition for being his follower. “How often must I forgive my brother?” St. Peter asked Jesus. “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” Jesus answered, indicating that our forgiveness can have no limits. And he warned that our punishment from our Heavenly Father would be severe “unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” (Cf: Mt 18: 21-35)
Remember that every time we say the prayer that Jesus taught us, we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” They are serious words and I believe that on the day when we stand at the gate of heaven awaiting our final judgment, God will take us at our word – he will ask us if we’ve arrived there holding any grudges.
Forgiving others is sometimes contrary to human nature. That’s why we need the purifying power of God’s grace. God can change us and lift us up beyond the confines of our human nature.
Believing in God’s forgiveness, forgiving ourselves, and forgiving others – all three are invitations extended to us during the Season of Lent and, especially during this Year of Mercy. But they are essential virtues of the Christian life in every season. May God give us the beautiful grace of forgiveness!