When asked why he had become a Catholic, G. K. Chesterton famously replied, “To get rid of my sins.” The forgiveness of sins is the awesome gift that Christ offers us, a gift so beautiful that words can scarcely express the glory of it. One of the most lovely things you can possibly experience is going to the Easter Vigil and watching the sheer joy of the newly baptized when, among the many other miracles that occur on that wonderful night, they emerge from the waters as new creations whose sins God will remember no more. It is a miracle so profound that fairy tales strain to capture the heart-breaking beauty of it with tales of lost youth regained, of chances to start over again completely, of myths of the fountain of youth. Likewise, tragic stories communicate to us the dark side of the refusal of the gift with bitterly sad stories of people who, in their headstrong folly, get what they want only to lose the love of their life forever.
That this is God Himself giving us the petition “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” ought to startle us. For it places us in the odd position of the student studying for the finals who is handed a folder with all the answers — not by some cheating student, but by the teacher himself. It’s like going to court on a murder charge, having the defense counsel coach us on how to get a favorable verdict from the Judge — and then having the defense counsel don robes and ascend the bench. It throws the whole picture of God as Judge into a very odd light. Forgiveness is ours for the asking, saith the Lord. Just ask for it!
However, “asking for forgiveness” means we must really mean it. And the test of whether we mean it is bound up, as the Catechism says, with that pesky little word “as”:
Now — and this is daunting — this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see. In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father’s merciful love; but in confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to his grace (2840).
In short, once again, the Lord’s Prayer is absolutely predicated on the fact that Christ’s revelation is corporate and communal, not individualistic. Just as we pray the Our Father, not the My Father; and pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” not, “Gimme this day my daily bread”; so we also pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” not, “Forgive me my trespasses as I forgive those who sin against me.”
The implications of this are enormous, and it accounts for why it has long been my conviction that the single most scandalous doctrine in Christian teaching has nothing to do with the pelvic issues that so obsess our progressive dissenters, but is instead to be found right here — with the demand to forgive absolutely everybody for absolutely every sin they have committed against us.
Jesus seems to have anticipated something of the same thing, given that, of all the commentary He might have offered on the Our Father, the sole clause He focuses on is this one, precisely in order to hammer home how crucial is the command to forgive others if we expect to have any hope of forgiveness for ourselves. In Matthew, He tells us:
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Mt 6:14-15).
In Mark 11:25, He offers us even less wiggle room:
And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.
In short, Christ’s test of whether we are really serious when we ask forgiveness for ourselves is whether we are really willing to extend it to others — regardless of whether they want it. This is a colossally hard saying, so over the centuries Christians have developed an impressive repertoire of strategies for avoiding, minimizing, evading, and explaining it away. Among them are the following:
1. Call “excusing” the same thing as “forgiving,” and pat yourself on the back for it as the summit of Christian virtue. Now, excusing wrongs done you is a fine thing and should be our first resort in treating others charitably. To paraphrase Mark Twain, never attribute to malice what can be sufficiently explained by stupidity (or some other less culpable cause like ignorance, clumsiness, or bad luck). When somebody steps on your toe accidentally, you are quite right to excuse them for it. They meant you no harm. But of course, as Jesus notes, even tax collectors and sinners can muster that much mercy. It’s the emotional equivalent of loaning and receiving back a couple of bucks for a cup of coffee. No actual forgiveness is taking place, merely simple justice. Until the excuses for offenses are exhausted, we haven’t even begun the work of forgiveness. Because forgiveness is for sins — low-down, dirty, mean, intentional, nasty sins — not for mistakes. If you “forgive” somebody who steps on your toe accidentally, but not the S.O.B. who stomps on it on purpose, you haven’t forgiven at all.
2. Try putting a limit on the severity of the sin — as in, “I can forgive a little shoplifting. I was young once too. But I draw the line at out-and-out theft!” or, “Every man has a wandering eye, but when a husband commits adultery, he commits the unforgivable!” The problem with this is that the measure you use will be measured to you. If you won’t forgive mortal sin in others, don’t expect any mercy for your own.
3. Try putting a number limit on forgiveness, as in, “Three strikes and you’re out.” Our Lord’s remarks on forgiveness “seven times seventy times” are the obvious rejoinder here. If you’ve sinned more than three times yourself, it’s highly advisable you extend the same mercy to others.
4. Call forgiveness “cheap grace.” This is the notion that if you don’t go on hating that guy who ditched you, if you don’t keep repeating to yourself every day the litany of wrongs your mother-in-law has done you, then your enemy will have gotten away with it! The crimes will go unpunished if you do not make yourself the Eternal Repository of Memory. The thought, “I must not let them off the hook!” sums this up.
But forgiveness does not equal passivity in the face of evil. It means forgiveness: releasing the evildoer into the hands of God’s mercy even as you finger him to the cops. A rape victim has the right and duty to see to it that her attacker goes to jail with the help of her testimony. She likewise has the right and duty to forgive that attacker, precisely so that he does not retain power over her for the rest of her life by robbing her of her happiness. A soldier in a just war has the duty to fight and even kill an enemy when necessary. He does not have the right to hate him.
5. Related to this is another false notion arising from this bad understanding of forgiveness: the idea that stewing in rage is tantamount to “doing something about sin.” I remember a woman I knew, incensed by the priest scandal, who told me, “Love does not permit continued sin. I do not love an abusing priest or an enabling bishop by telling him ‘That’s ok, I forgive you and God will forgive you,’ when there is no reason to suspect they will repent and sin no more. They have demonstrated that they will do it again, if I let them off the hook.”
The problem is that my friend was living in a complete fantasy world, imagining that cursing at a computer screen or TV would somehow affect the actions of bad bishops, abusive clergy, police, prosecutors, and so forth on the opposite side of the country. But of course, somebody swearing at her TV in Ohio over some sin committed by a priest in Boston is going to do absolutely nothing except corrode her own soul. Her refusal to let go of rage did not Teach Somebody a Lesson, chasten a bad cleric, help the cops do their job, or comfort a victim. It just ate away at her own heart.
6. Related to this is another particularly silly argument — “Forgiveness cannot take place until we know the extent of what must be forgiven.” The claim here is that if a person or persons continues to sin, we don’t have to forgive them, since we allegedly can’t forgive what they have not yet done or what is not yet known to have been done.
Rubbish. That is exactly backward from Christ’s approach. He does not wait until our lives are over to decide whether He loves us. God commends His own love to us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). He commands us to do the same. That is what “love your enemies” means. “Forgive, if you have anything against any one,” doesn’t mean, “Love people who pay back your emotional bank account by saying they are sorry and assuaging your rage.” It means, “Extend unconditional love and forgiveness to nasty people who despise you and want to harm you. Desire their happiness. Do not cultivate bitterness against them. Fight their evil actions, where necessary and possible, but do not will them ill.”
7. Still another common dodge is to say, “God does not forgive impenitent sinners. Why should we be held to a higher standard than that to which God holds Himself?”
This clever retort sounds good, but it all hinges on what we mean by a “higher” standard. Obviously, no standard is “higher” than God’s own standard in the sense of “better” or “more perfect.” But if by “higher” you really mean “stricter,” then there is a very sufficient answer to this question: “Because we’re not God.”
The sleight of hand at work here is the notion that God would never forbid us something He doesn’t forbid Himself. But this is nonsense. We are commanded “judge not” by the Judge of the whole world. Why? Because we are not qualified to judge anybody, and He is qualified to judge everybody. In other words, it is precisely because we are not God that we are commanded to forgive.
8. Still another excuse for refusing forgiveness goes this way: “The command to forgive is not unconditioned, because if it were, a priest could not refuse absolution. Since, in some cases, the priest is supposed to refuse absolution, so can we refuse to forgive.”
This is, however, to confuse sacramental confession with the common Christian demand for forgiveness. Like it or not, the command, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one” (Mk 11:25) is unconditioned, just as the command to love our enemies is. And it is coupled with the equally unconditional (and dire) assurance, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Pastors with a responsibility to govern the Church are given latitude by our Lord to exercise discretion in the dispensation of sacramental absolution (“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” [Jn 21:23]) precisely because they act in persona Christi and we do not. This is why the Catechism is really quite blunt:
Christian prayer extends to the forgiveness of enemies, transfiguring the disciple by configuring him to his Master. Forgiveness is a high-point of Christian prayer; only hearts attuned to God’s compassion can receive the gift of prayer. Forgiveness also bears witness that, in our world, love is stronger than sin. The martyrs of yesterday and today bear this witness to Jesus. Forgiveness is the fundamental condition of the reconciliation of the children of God with their Father and of men with one another (2844).
Enemies are not tearful penitents like the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, or the sheepish Thomas saying “My Lord and My God,” or the prodigal son, or any of those gratifying sorts of people who make us feel so grandly magnanimous when they come crawling back to us saying, “I was sooo wrong, and you were sooo right! Please forgive me!” Enemies are people who hurt us, who mean to go on hurting us, and who have not the slightest intention of saying, “I’m sorry.” It is these people Jesus commands us to love — and, as a corollary, it is these people to whom we are commanded to extend forgiveness.
9. Realizing this shocking truth, yet another escape route people sometimes explore is this: “I can forgive evils done against me personally, but I don’t have to forgive, say, the 9/11 conspirators because they did not affect me personally. That’s why it was so presumptuous of Pope John Paul II to pray a prayer of forgiveness for them. That is for the victims to do, not some pope sitting in Rome in the comfort of a papal palace! He has no idea how those victims suffered!”
The trick behind this evasion is to allow yourself to identify with the victims of a sin enough to hate their enemies, but to pretend that this act of identification does not likewise oblige you to forgive their enemies as it obliges them. Basic rule of thumb: If a sin done to a stranger arouses pity for the stranger and loathing for the one who committed the sin, then to that degree you are bound to forgive it as if it were done to you.
“But,” we splutter desperately, “do you really think, for example, that Osama bin Laden is owed forgiveness?”
No. Nobody is owed forgiveness. Unconditional love is, by definition, undeserved. Grace is grace, not something we deserve.
So, sooner or later, we return to the granite fact that we are solemnly commanded by Jesus Christ Himself to extend forgiveness to absolutely everybody who sins against us, whether they ever repent or not. Why does He give this command? Two reasons:
1. We’re not God; and
2. It will destroy our lives and damn our souls if we don’t.
Here’s the deal: You can refuse to forgive [Insert Impenitent Jerk’s Name Here] till the day you die. The actual, practical, real world result of this will be a) nothing happens to the Jerk, and b) you are consumed with bitterness.
It is simply false that clinging to unforgiveness will somehow empower us to Do What Needs to Be Done. This is like confusing idling your motor at a million RPM with driving. Unforgiveness is a purely destructive waste of time. It is the ultimate Screwtapian ripoff, stealing our soul and giving us nothing in return: We not only commit the sin of usurping the place of God, we also have no effect whatever on the sinner while we eat ourselves alive with pointless, utterly unproductive, and impotent rage. It’s like drinking poison and expecting the other guy to die. The truly Christian thing is to act in whatever practical and just way we can — and then hand the sinner over to God with the words, “I forgive X in the name of Jesus Christ.” This, like quitting smoking, is easy — and must be done thousands of times.
You may well ask, “Who then can be saved?” A reasonable question, since, left to ourselves and our own strength, the answer is “no one.” But like the Son of Man said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). We are not left to our own strength, and we can ask the help of God’s mighty Holy Spirit to empower us in the lifelong work of growing in forgiveness and mercy. This is what the awesome power of the sacraments (especially reconciliation and the Eucharist) is, in no small part, ordered toward helping us to do.
Forgiveness of that miserable swine who did that awful thing to you sounds like death — and so it is. But, as with all Christian death, it ends not in the grave, but in resurrection and ascension. And the world is replete with examples of its awesome power when we see it, from John Paul II forgiving the man who shot him, to old enemies becoming friends, to victims of grave sin set free to start new and happy lives liberated from the power of their victimizer, few things attest better to the all-conquering power of the gospel of mercy and reconciliation.
One good way to start this process is by putting our own sufferings in perspective in the grand scheme of things. Jesus tells the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-35) as a sort of capstone to His discourse on how the Church should conduct its affairs on a daily basis. The central point of the parable is that, let’s face it, compared with what the king sacrifices in showing mercy to his servant (a guy who owed him millions of dollars), our day-to-day grievances against one another are pretty small beer. We who have not endured what Jesus endured can, among other things, find the help of the Spirit to forgive our Mickey Mouse trials in life and slowly build up the strength to forgive the big sins we have had to endure at the hands of others, just as we ask Jesus to forgive our great sins.
The servant who asks forgiveness for his own Mount Everest of debt while denying it to the poor schmoe who owes him a couple of bucks is just not serious. And if he is not serious about forgiveness, he shall receive mercy according to how serious his request really was — a dreadful prospect. The point is, in the words of the Catechism (2843), that “it is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.”
The bottom line (and paradox) of the mercy of God is that there is no limit or measure to it. Like the ocean, we could not possibly exhaust it. But, like the ocean, we can only get wet if we get near it. Merely looking at it or wishing to be wet will not do. So the smallest effort at extending mercy will be rewarded by our God, yet He will not rest until we are as immersed in and overflowing with mercy as He is. For God is, in George MacDonald’s phrase, “easy to please, but hard to satisfy.” Take a step toward forgiving that guy who gave you a wedgie 40 years ago, and all the angels in heaven will rejoice. But that will be because you have taken the first, not the last, step toward full union with the Blessed Trinity, who is “the source and criterion of truth in every relationship” (CCC 2845). He will never leave you where you are until you are as fully happy as He means you to be — full of the mercy, love, joy, and peace of God.