The Need to Forgive

Every age has certain difficulties with the Christian faith. Our present culture's complaints about the Church center on sex because, of course, our present culture can think of practically nothing but sex and so keeps bumping into the same issues as it stupidly keeps returning to the Church's teaching in the hope that this time, it will change.

Interestingly, past generations found problematic, not the Church's prohibitions against wrongful sex, but Her frank encouragement and glorification of rightful sex. Many early Christians (and even more, heretics) were so agog for virginity that they fancied sex was evil. The Church responded with the reiterated point that Marriage is a sacrament and sex was God's gift. This was just as scandalous to some of the ancients as the modern Church's reiterated point that virginity is also God's gift.

This is not to say, however, that antiquity and modernity always disagree. Happily, we live in a heartwarming time when, on one subject, both ancient and modern people can find themselves in happy concord about how offensive the Church is. For, however much we disagree about sins of the flesh, both ancient and modern people loathe, as they have always loathed, the Church's teaching on mercy.

To be sure, we might be more "tolerant" than past ages. But being "tolerant" is not the same as being merciful. To be tolerant is to either not care about sin or to excuse it for legitimate reasons. We do a little of the latter and a lot of the former. But when confronted with what we still regard as real sin that cannot be excused we are every bit as merciless as Jonah wishing for the destruction of Nineveh.

Exhibit A: The 9/11 hijackers. When Pope John Paul II prayed for them that their sin would be forgiven, not a few people were offended by it, complaining that it was "cheap grace" to pray for impenitent murderers. It's okay, said the Pope's critics, to pray for mercy for the souls of the victims, but not for those who killed them. Prayers for them were, in fact, an "affront" to the victims, said many critics.

Now it's true that no human being can say for certain that the Pope's prayer will be answered. No Catholic can, or should, categorically state that God will certainly save the 9/11 hijackers, Hitler, or the various other monsters of history from final damnation. Likewise, I can't say that my former boss, who I grew to loathe 13 years ago, will ever be in a position to receive the mercy he so badly needs and so richly does not deserve. Similarly, the abused wife, cuckolded husband, and molested child are none of them bound to say of their impenitent victimizers that they shall surely find heaven. But all are nonetheless bound to extend forgiveness to those who hurt them.

To extend forgiveness is not the same as declaring the sinner is bound for heaven. It is not saying the sinner is even penitent. It is not saying they are really a good person. It is not saying "God likes them better than me and if I don't forgive then God will blame me as the Bad Guy, not my victimizer." Rather, extending forgiveness means releasing the sinner--impenitent or not--from our judgment. It means desiring their good. It means handing them back to God and asking his mercy--which is his judgment--will be given to them.

So what does all this have to do with Catholic Parenting? Simply this: you aren't likely to have somebody you know killed by terrorists. But in families you will very likely run into somebody who hurts you, sometimes very badly, and is either oblivious or impenitent. If you tell yourself, "I will forgive that person only when they say 'sorry'" then you are not only disobeying Christ's command (Matthew 6:15), you are cutting off your nose to spite your face. For Christians are bound to extend forgiveness to all who sin against us.

How can we do such a thing? "I mean," say most of us, "I can let a lot slide, but not that truly despicable thing that X did. That is beyond the Beyond. How can I forgive that?"

Truth to tell, we can't. Not on your own steam. We need the help of the Holy Spirit. Because it is Jesus, not us, who provides the strength to do this necessary thing. And Jesus can give that strength because he's already forgiven the horrible things done to him by impenitent sinners. As St. Paul tells us "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8).

Why is extending forgiveness a "necessary" thing? First of all, because Jesus commands it. If you do not forgive, you will not be forgiven, says Jesus. But that is not because he hypocritically refuses to extend forgiveness himself. On the contrary, Jesus commands that we extend forgiveness unconditionally because if we refuse to forgive the impenitent the only one who pays the price is... us. The sinner may go to his grave oblivious of the wrong they did us. But if we refuse to forgive then we will still be in a prison of rage decades after they are dead. They will still have power over us. They will still be able to torment us. And we will find it impossible to receive mercy just as we find it impossible to extend it. Forgiveness breaks that chain.

Might not the New Year be a good time to break a few chains? Give it some prayer.

Copyright 2003 - Mark P. Shea