Forgive our Sins as We Forgive

I’ve been hearing confessions, now, for over fifty years, and I have noticed that there is one sin that comes up more than any other; it’s connected to today’s Gospel, about loving your enemy, “turning the other cheek.” The penitent will say something like this:

I know that I should forgive everyone, but I there is one person that I cannot forgive, whose cruelty I can never forget. I’ve tried, but the harm done to me and others was so severe and is so long lasting, that I am unable to pretend that that incident never took place.

Given that our eternal salvation depends on our fulfilling Jesus’s command to love our enemies, it’s worth our time to examine with some care exactly what that involves. There are three aspects of forgiveness that should be considered.

The first is the important reminder that there are two sides to every argument. On occasion I have had a vivid reminder of this fact. Someone, a man, e.g., will come for advice about a difficult relationship with his girl friend or wife, or perhaps a business associate has been unreasonable. At first, I am all sympathy, marvelling at how insensitive, even heartless people can be. Later, I receive a visit from the other party, and suddenly, the affair takes on another appearance. What seemed inexplicable and arbitrary, is now perfectly logical. The tables are turned, and it now appears that the first person was the one at fault. Conclusion? Whenever a seemingly unbridgeable gap has opened in a relationship, each party must begin by examining his own behaviour. Am I completely innocent? Could I be part of the problem? Have I understood the situation thoroughly, etc. Is this not what Jesus meant when said, “Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye.”[1] That’s number one.

Second, one should examine the degree of importance of the incident or the long-term difficulty with the other person. For it’s amazing how much ill will can be excited over the misappropriation of a few dollars! I’m thinking of the family squabbles that can erupt over questions of inheritance, especially if one of the heirs should receive a few thousand more than you. Saint Paul knew what he was talking about when he said “The love of money is the root of all evil.”[2] I can give you a concrete instance of a time when I over-reacted in a childish way to a rebuke. There were friends visiting our home, and I was playing the piano as I spoke to one of the guests, who was herself a music teacher. My pounding away at the keyboard irritated my father, who eventually exclaimed, “Stop that racket! We can’t hear ourselves think!” I was mortified and vowed silently, “I shall never forget or forgive this affront.” Of course, my father was right, and it didn’t take me too long to realize the fact. But how easy it is to exaggerate an injury, how ready we are to take offence when none was intended or when the incident is trivial. Surely, a son should not abandon his father because of an unkind or thoughtless remark. Some sense of proportion is required. It’s that the “speck” Jesus was talking about.

And finally, I come to the case where someone has been seriously harmed by the action of another person. All the good is on one side, all the wrong on the other. What, in this case, does forgiveness entail? To begin with, if you are that person, rejoice! For you one of the few people in the world ever to have been completely in the right in an altercation. Well, as Jesus says, “Rejoice!” for you have the rare opportunity of putting his command into effect: “Blessed are you when people hate you . . . revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”[3] When, in confession, some innocent person has been so harshly treated as to be unable to forgive, I ask him,

What would you do if the guilty person were to come to you on his knees, saying, “I have behaved horribly to you, and I’m more sorry than I can say. Let me make what restitution I can and overcome in so far as I am able the harm that I have done.”

“But that could never happen,” is the inevitable reply. “I know,” I respond, “but suppose by some impossibility, it did. What would you do?” “Of course, I would accept his apology and forgive him,” is the answer, “. . . but I know it would never happen.” Then I clinch the matter by telling him that the true meaning of forgiveness is to want what is best, best in moral terms, for the offending party. If he has really behaved badly, the best thing that could happen to him would be genuinely to repent and seek forgiveness. Forgiving does not mean pretending that no wrong has been committed, that black is white Rather, it is desiring the conversion of the sinner, for indeed, that is the best thing that could happen to him. There’s another motive for being generous in such circumstances, for each one of us has experienced just such an unmerited blessing—from God who, through Jesus, has without any merit on our part, freely bestowed righteousness as a gift: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”[4] As Christians, are we not required to be like God in being equally beneficent? “You received without paying, give without pay.”[5]  For the joy in finding ourselves forgiven is the strongest motive for being generous to others.a

[1] Matt 7.3,5.

[2] 1 Tim 6.10.

[3] Lk 6.22.

[4] Rom 5.8.

[5] Matt 10.8.