FORGIVE US... AS WE FORGIVE?
There are two parts to this presentation. The first part considers God’s forgiveness: forgive us our trespasses. The second part looks at our own forgiving, or perhaps lack of it: as we forgive others? A question mark is appropriate here, because our own forgiving is “where the rubber hits the road”.
PART 1: GOD’S FORGIVENESS
A - IS GOD WILLING TO FORGIVE?
The answer to the question about God’s willingness to forgive will of course depend on what God we have in mind. Some time ago, Mark Twain wrote that God created us in God’s image and we keep trying to return the favor by making God in our own image. So, is this God we keep trying to create in our own image willing to forgive?
Perhaps the Old Testament has contributed to painting God anthropologically in all too human colors, presenting a series of moods or dispositions in God. Selecting only two such images, one image from the book of Numbers [14: 18] presents a God, who is enraged and bent on punishment: The Lord... punishing children to the third and fourth generation for their parents’ iniquity. Yet in the Psalms [78: 38] God is also presented as kind and merciful, a different image of God: but God, being compassionate, forgave their sin: he did not utterly destroy them. Time and again he turned back his anger, unwilling to unleash all his rage. Scripture is God’s word conveyed in men’s words and this applies especially to the Old Testament. But men’s words are not necessarily consistent in conveying God’s word or God’s image.
Let me offer some instances of God’s disposition to forgive, as conveyed by Jesus, whose own message is clearly consistent in this matter. In the gospel of John [3: 17] Jesus tells Nicodemus clearly: for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved by him. In the same gospel [12: 47] Jesus “cried out”: I did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. From the cross Jesus will ask the Father to forgive those, who were crucifying him: forgive them... they do not know what they are doing [Jn. 23: 34]. Even now at the consecration of the chalice, the priest emphasizes this: ...will be poured out for the forgiveness of sins. There is in Jesus no ambiguity regarding God’s willingness to forgive. The so-called “parable of the prodigal son” is really a parable about the prodigal father much more so than about the wayward son, who becomes a foil to make shine all the brighter the father’s willingness to forgive. God’s image conveyed by Jesus is more consistent than what men’s words had portrayed earlier.
So, yes, God is willing to forgive. In fact, willingness to forgive is God’s uninterrupted attitude. Because all things are present to God (“past” is a human category), God keeps forgiving today what for ourselves are “past” sins, yet sins always present to God. Yes, God is willing to forgive. Yet, even granting that willingness on God’s side, sometimes we may wonder about its extent and this wondering takes us to a further pondering of God’s forgiveness.
B - IS GOD’S WILLINGNESS TO FORGIVE LIMITED?
Forgiveness is a two-dimensional concept, one dimension being forgiveness as offered and the other forgiveness as received. It is not unlike what happens with the concept of witness, which has the dimension of witness as offered and of witness as received. Writing to the Colossians [1: 24], Paul talks about what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. Of course, nothing is lacking there on Christ’s side, but something can be lacking on our side, namely, the acceptance of that suffering. This lack on our side is why blasphemy against the Spirit cannot be forgiven [Mt. 12: 31], not because God is not capable of forgiving, but because a heart set against the Spirit is not open to receiving the forgiveness offered, which remains incomplete as unaccepted. A heart set against the Spirit cannot be reconciled with God.
We can indeed be reconciled with God, who is willing to forgive and capable of forgiving, and yet what we call the sacrament of reconciliation reaches beyond God’s forgiveness both as offered and as accepted. We know from catechism that an act of contrition does reconcile us with God, yet we still go to the sacrament of reconciliation, as if something remained undone. And, indeed, something remains undone.
Writing to the Ephesians [5: 25-27, Paul tells them that ...Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her... that he might present himself the Church... without spot or wrinkle or any such blame, but holy and blameless. Every time we sin, we soil the Church meant to be without spot or blemish. We give the Church a “black eye”, even if nobody else, not even the Church knows it, but we know it and this creates a need for us to be reconciled with the Church. So, we present ourselves to a sacramental representative of the Church and ask for reconciliation. There is in the sacrament an ecclesial dimension of reconciliation. Forgiveness does not destroy the reality of the offense, but it restores our relationship both with God and with the Church through the sacrament.
Yes, God can and is willing to forgive. And so is the Church.
PART 2: OUR FORGIVENESS...
CAN WE FORGIVE?
Certainly, forgiving is neither easy nor spontaneous, because something in us has been hurt. But sometimes we torture ourselves needlessly, thinking that we are not forgiving, and this is most often based on a faulty perception of forgiveness that yields in us an unrealistic expectation and this is what tortures us.
Forgiving is not forgetting nor pretending that we have not been hurt. Forgiving is rather remembering and acknowledging the hurt, yet without a desire for revenge, for getting even with the offender. Let me propose a litmus test. If we were to see the offender in a critical situation like a car accident or a heart attack or being violently attacked by someone, would we be willing to help, or at least to call for help, to the extent that we can? If so, we are on the journey to forgiveness, we have already started a process. The process will take time, but we have already started the journey.
Healing our feelings will take longer than the first step of willingness to help. Cognitive forgiveness is somewhat in our control, but emotional forgiveness is often beyond our control. Trying to reason ourselves into forgiving will not work, because reasoning addresses the head, while the reluctance to forgive comes from the heart more than from the head, and we cannot give head answers to heart questions.
Because forgiveness is by no means spontaneous, we need motivation to forgive and motivation is what the parable of the unforgiving debtor [Mt. 18: 21-25] is all about. The bottom motivation to forgive is that we have been first forgiven and a larger debt at that. In a head reasoning, the first forgiven debtor was not being unjust in demanding payment from a fellow worker. The latter’s debt was real and it was the former’s legal right to ask for payment. What enraged his fellow workers was the context and the circumstances: he ought to forgive, because he himself had been first forgiven a much larger debt. Awareness of forgiven-ness is the ultimately effective motivation for forgive-ness.
Part of the difficulty in forgiving lies in our looking at the offender with a distorted focus, a distortion Peter incurred when asking Jesus about forgiving. He asked: if my brother sins against me... [Mt. 18: 21], which is recognizably a self-centered focus: sin is committed against God through an offense committed against us. A change in focus is needed, namely, realizing that the offender is also hurting himself or herself. In the book of Jeremiah [7: 18] God asks: are they offending me or rather themselves, when they offer gifts to the Queen of Heaven? In sinning “against us”, in hurting us, others are also hurting themselves. On the cross Jesus prays: Father, forgive them, who are hurting themselves in hurting me, thus turning the focus away from his own suffering, from their sinning “against him”.
This brings up an important question about forgiving people we do not like, because we do not have to like people, in order to be able to forgive them. The Lord’s command is: love one another, not: like one another. Yes, we can love and can forgive people we do not like. Jesus certainly did not like those who brought him to the cross, yet he asks God: Father, forgive them...
Granted then that we should forgive others, we still resonate with Peter’s question[Mt. 18: 21]: how often must I forgive my brother? It is not that the offender is not aware of the offense, since the offender keeps coming back asking for forgiveness. So, in spite of the offender’s awareness, how often must I forgive? Back in the mid-1960s the Germans came up with a new film that had the unusual and intriguing title: 490. This title was a direct reference to Matthew’s passage, some of whose variants read not seventy-seven times, but seventy times seven times. Now, seventy times seven times -70x7- is precisely 490, which was the title of that film. So, if my brother (or sister) offends me for the 491st time, am I off the hook? Obviously, the point of Jesus’ answer is not a specific quantity, but as often as needed. This is how God forgives: as often as needed.
In view of all this, it would be pertinent, at least at times, to reverse our petition, when praying the prayer Jesus taught us. We might want to pray: not forgive us, as we forgive others, but rather teach us to forgive others, as you forgive us. We need to pray that we forgive others, as God forgives us and this as often as needed.
By Fr. Luis Rodrigues, S.J. - LRodriguez@Jesuits.org
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