When we are hurt or injured by another, our natural response is to want to lash out, strike back, hurt the other as we have been hurt. Yet, Jesus tells us that we are to “forgive those who trespass against us,” as we say in the very words of the Our Father.
Jesus gives us two very good reasons for forgiving others. First, that our own sins might be forgiven: “If you forgive others their transgression, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Mt 6:14-15). Second, we forgive so that our prayers will be heard: “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions” (Mk 11:25).
As Christians, Jesus’ words are the gold standard for forgiveness. Moreover, He tells us that we should forgive those who harm us, not just once or twice, but over and over, as many times as necessary: “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but seventy times seven’” (Mt 18:22, RSV).
Forgiveness is a choice we make in obedience to the Lord and for the good of our own souls. We are to do it freely, repeatedly and without counting the personal cost. All that notwithstanding, our modern world has created a few misconceptions about forgiveness that make this essential Christian act more difficult than it already is.
Are we obligated to forgive everything instantly?
The clearest example of this can be seen in how we expect children to respond when someone hurts them. Let’s say one child deliberately smashes another child’s prized Play-doh pink rabbit. We command Miss Smasher, “Say you’re sorry.” Miss Smasher mumbles “Sorry” under her breath, and then we expect the offended child to say something like, “That’s OK. I forgive you.”
The problem is that the child whose pink rabbit is now roadkill doesn’t really feel like forgiving at that moment, not to mention Miss Smasher’s hastily tossed off “Sorry,” with no conviction, doesn’t indicate any sort of repentance.
If we read Jesus’ words to Peter in context, we realize that they come with the parable of the servant who refused to forgive a debt even though he himself had been forgiven an even greater debt. A careful reading of the passage shows that the master who granted forgiveness didn’t forgive the debt the moment it was incurred. Nor did he call his slave in and immediately say: “Oh it’s all good. No problem. You don’t owe me a thing.” The servant had to ask for forgiveness before it was extended.
Somehow we’ve forgotten that the point of the story was that when someone genuinely asks for our forgiveness (not just saying meaningless words), we must give it. Instead, we’ve interpreted it to mean no matter what someone does to us, we are obliged to forgive them immediately, if not sooner. While it’s true that Jesus did forgive those who were crucifying Him in the midst of the Crucifixion, it’s equally true that God does not peremptorily forgive us our sins until we ask forgiveness. A “trespass” doesn’t carry automatic forgiveness. God isn’t asking us to do something that He himself doesn’t do.
On the other side of the equation, we can’t expect to be forgiven all the things we have done to harm others just because they are supposed to forgive. If we have “sinned against a brother,” we have the responsibility to ask for forgiveness, not automatically assume that it is instantly granted even as we are figuratively smashing their Play-doh rabbits.
The unfortunate consequence of this idea is that too many people now believe that they can do anything they want and then they have to be forgiven, genuine repentance or not. They think a halfhearted “sorry” (if that) is all that is required to be forgiven. However, forgiveness is a gift from those of us who are doing the forgiving, not a mere exchange of words. We forgive because bearing grudges is a cancer in our soul. We forgive because the way we forgive is the way God will forgive us. We forgive because it is good for us, not because it’s the automatic response to all offenses.
Does forgiveness make it all better?
We need to understand that forgiveness doesn’t eradicate the law of cause and effect. Forgiveness doesn’t erase consequences. Take for example, a husband who has an affair and brings home a sexually transmitted disease to his wife. His wife may forgive him, but they still have to deal with the medical repercussions of his adultery, and probably with trust issues and other emotional aspects stemming from the affair.
Just because a sin is forgiven, the effects don’t disappear, either for the person doing the forgiving or the one being forgiven. To understand this better, think of the Cross. Jesus forgave those who crucified Him, but He still died on the cross. The mere act of forgiveness didn’t change the physical reality of the action.
This is precisely why Catholics believe in the concept of purgatory. We may be forgiven our sins, but that doesn’t mean that all the temporal effects are removed. We still have to live with and work through the cost of our trespasses. Neither extending or accepting forgiveness can change that reality. In fact, sometimes we have to live a lifetime with the consequences of our actions, a constant and painful reminder of what we have done.
Does forgiveness trump justice?
Along with the fact that forgiveness doesn’t erase consequences, neither does it preclude justice. If someone has harmed us or someone we love in a way that breaks a law, we can still demand our right to justice, while simultaneously forgiving the person.
Politicians and public figures seem particularly prone to overlooking this aspect of forgiveness. All too often they act as if a public apology is all that is necessary, even when a crime has been committed. They almost act affronted when they aren’t let off the hook just because they said the right words of apology.
But it isn’t just the rich and famous. All of us face the temptation to believe that asking for forgiveness will somehow erase the price of justice. Who, for example, hasn’t hoped that telling a police officer you are really sorry for having sped will prevent the issuance of a ticket?
The interplay between forgiveness and justice is complex, but one of the best modern examples of how the two can coexist stems from Mehmet Ali Agca’s assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981. Although shortly after the shooting, Blessed John Paul asked that we “pray for my brother [Agca] ... whom I have sincerely forgiven,” and later visited him in prison, the Pope did not intervene to prevent justice from being served. Agca was convicted by an Italian court and sentenced to life in prison.
What forgiveness does call for with regard to justice, however, is that justice be tempered with mercy. Eventually, Pope John Paul asked that the Italian government pardon Agca and allow him to be extradited to Turkey — not before he had served 19 years of his sentence, however. Forgiveness was granted, but justice was also served.
Forgiveness is tough. As Reinhold Niebuhr says, “Forgiveness is the final form of love.” As Christians, we are called to forgive, as we have been forgiven. But we are also called to model God’s forgiveness, which incorporates repentance, allows for consequences and demands justice.
When we try to forgive as the world understands forgiveness, it is an almost impossible undertaking. But when we forgive as Christ commands us, it is an infusion of grace into a wounded world. TCA