The greatest problem any one of us human beings has is sin. Sin can make our lives miserable on earth, and, if it is unrepented and unforgiven, it can result in everlasting misery. When the priest-prophet Zechariah foretold the ministry of his son, John the Baptist, his words tied John’s preparing the way for the Lord to giving “knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” The path to salvation for each human being requires repentance and forgiveness. Exactly what does that involve?
Jesus placed a petition for forgiveness right at the climax of the Lord’s Prayer, and remarkably made it a conditional clause: “forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12). St. Luke’s version is slightly different: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us.” (Lk 11:4). Matthew later positions one of the strongest of the Lord’s parables as a kind of homily on the sentiment “forgive us as we forgive others.” (Mt 18: 21-35). He responds to Peter’s question of how many times to forgive “my brother” and ups Peter’s ante of seven times to seventy times seven. He then tells the story of a servant who owes his king an unimaginable sum, at least $7.5 million in today’s economy. The servant promises to repay it all, something no servant could ever do. Moved with pity, the king in unimaginable mercy, forgives the whole debt. Then the ungrateful servant goes out and throttles a fellow servant who owes him probably less than ten dollars, after ignoring his request for an extension on the loan. Of course, on hearing of the ungrateful servant’s behavior, the king reinstated the original debt, and threw the bum into debtor’s prison, for what amounted to an eternal term.
The takeaway according to Jesus? “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Jesus does not threaten punishment very often, but this one comes as a divine promise. Christians who do not sincerely forgive sins committed against them will have a bad end.
For some Christians, forgiving others is not a difficult task. If I see myself as a sinner desperately in need of redemption, and have not been terribly beaten down in life by others—physically or emotionally—then when I am offended, I understand the need to forgive. The other person probably had a bad day, and tossed off a thoughtless insult, or even an unintended slight. I realize that and, knowing how gracious God has been to forgive me, follow the Lord’s command to forgive him. It is a grace that I know the Lord is eager to grant.
But I have also found that there are Christians whose life experience is not more grim. In their childhood or youth, such a person may have been abused or bullied. If one’s parents have done that to a child from an early age, that child will be gravely damaged well before hearing the Gospel of forgiveness. There may be a heightened sensitivity to another person’s unthinking comments, or non-verbal communication. In interpersonal terms, that individual may habitually think that not only are they not “OK,” but that nobody else is “OK” either. This is a particularly difficult soul for a minister to help, because there may be an initial level of distrust presented to the minister, one that is difficult for either party to negotiate. Where, then, can one begin?
One of the earliest understandings of our spiritual warfare came from the Book of Job. A being is introduced–Satana–a word that describes a kind of office. This being is the Adversary of man, a kind of spy who is skeptical of Job (Job 1:6). Earlier in the chapter, we read that Job is “blameless and upright, God-fearing and turned from evil.” The Adversary appeals to God to let him take away Job’s riches and children, and then see whether he is such a good guy. Job loses everything except his nagging wife, but still does not sin. The Adversary loses, and ultimately God restores all of Job’s riches to a level greater than he originally had.
This Adversary, which Christian theology later identified as the “prince of hell,” comes back again and again in the tradition, and Scriptures. The clearest example is in 1 Pt 5:8:
Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you.
It should be recalled also that the term “Satan” is used of Peter himself by Jesus when Peter objects to the idea that the Christ would suffer and die for the people (Mt 16:23 and Mk 8:33). The adversary of the human is, therefore, anyone who is not on the side of God and His plan for our redemption.
In the Book of Revelations (Rv 12:9-10), the satana makes one last appearance at the end of human history. He is at the same time the great dragon, the Devil, Satan, and the Accuser, and he is “thrown down, who accuses [the elect], day and night, before our God.” This accuser operates in the mind of all humans, reminding them of their shortcomings and sins, but never bringing to mind their repentance and forgiveness. The accuser’s downfall is brought about because “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come.” Once Christ’s kingdom is definitively established in the minds and hearts of the redeemed, there can be no further accusations brought, because they have been justified and sanctified in the saving blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. This is the state to which Christians are called, and to which they aspire after physical death. This is the state of completion or perfectionis.
Suffering and Completion
When we read Jesus’s call to “be perfect,” (Mt 5:48), many might throw up their hands because they see that to mean “be without any flaw,” something few of us seem able to do, even with God’s grace. But the Greek teleioō and the Latin perfecti generally mean a state of success or completion. The perfect person is complete in the sense that Jesus was complete at the end of His ministry. And that leads us to the function of suffering in the completion of the Christian.
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews confirms:
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. (Hb 2:10)
Jesus is the “pioneer” of our salvation. His completion, his state of perfection, subsists in his dying on the cross. Those who are reborn in Christ’s image, therefore, are completed through suffering, just as He was. This is one of the principal messages from the author to his readers, who have already endured suffering (10:32), but not yet to the point of shedding blood. (12:4)
So a critical element—perhaps the hardest—in our own perfection in Christ is our willingness to suffer without complaint, without recrimination, and with forgiveness. We are reminded that at His crucifixion, the first words of Jesus were: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk 22:34) Realistically, when we are insulted, reviled, or disrespected, I believe that it is rare that the one who does such a thing has a goal to hurt us. People don’t generally do anything without seeing some good they intend to come from the action. That would probably be the good of letting off steam on a difficult day, or reacquiring status at the expense of the one being belittled. Perhaps, they are trying to show someone else that they are in control of the situation. But it is very likely that they don’t fully comprehend what they are doing to us in the process. In other words, they are acting very much like the scribes and Pharisees and mob and Roman soldiers on Calvary. They are acting like idiots; they know not what they do.
Forgiving the Prodigal
The parable of the prodigal son and the forgiving Father (Lk 15: 11-32) is one of the best-known stories in the New Testament. A wastrel son takes half his father’s property, and goes off to splurge it on a prolonged spring break vacation, but ends up tending hogs, and drags himself back home, hoping to be taken on as a hired servant. But the father doesn’t even let him finish his rehearsed speech, clothes him in splendid garments, kills the fatted calf, and invites everyone to a celebration of his return. This extravagant mercy, love, and forgiveness is a weak human example of the unbelievable attitude of the heavenly Father toward those who repent of sin.
The commentary is provided by the elder brother, who has been—in his mind—“perfect” in the sense of a straight-arrow, good kid. He rants at his father for the forgiveness, the garments, the party. He is essentially telling Daddy that he has been made a chump by the wastrel.
But Daddy doesn’t mind being considered a chump. He has his son back, alive and repentant. The challenge is to get the elder son back in the same state, because he has been a poor brother, and a poor son in his reaction to the other son’s return, and the father’s forgiveness.
Our Divine Father forgives, and forgives, and forgives again, whenever we turn away from sin and ask for pardon. Our Divine Savior forgives, and forgives, and forgives again, whenever we take our hands from the nails we have driven into His hands and feet, and beg for mercy. And the Divine Spirit hovers over our broken “wind and waste” (Gn 1:2) each time we ask, and brings order to the chaos of our lives. Yes, that is chump-ish divine behavior, way beyond what humans could expect of each other. God doesn’t care what we think of it, as long as we ask for and accept it. The psalmist said it best “His hesed endures forever.” (loving kindness) (Ps 136 throughout)
How To Forgive and Forget
Most of us experience our progress toward holiness, toward completion, as “measured.” That is a nice way of saying “painfully slow.” The challenge to forgive and forget may be one of the hardest calls of Jesus, but accepting it, and doing it, will speed up our progress. And forgiveness from the heart also means endeavoring to forget the hurt. Is that even possible? I know some Christians who have remembered a slight or injury for more than four decades, even if they have forgiven the hurt. It still hurts. It still comes to mind, especially when that person causes another emotional injury. It can extinguish joy in the spirit of the injured person.
The example we are called to follow is that of God. God forgives, but does He also forget? Even in the Old Testament, God is pictured “blotting out” sin (Is 43:25). The author of Hebrews says that God will “remember their sins no more” (8:12). Sin being an absence of moral good, when sin is forgiven the moral hole that is sin is filled with divine grace. The moral hole no longer exists. God has obliterated it with His grace. Does anything remain? St. Thomas tells us that the material element of the sin remains—the inordinate turning to a created good for which a debt of temporal punishment is due. (ST III, 86, Art.4) This, however, is an effect in the sinner, not in the one who forgives. But God’s forgiveness, which obliterates the sin by grace, makes the sin and guilt pass out of existence. The only one who may remember the sin is the one who committed it, and any human harmed.
Once God forgives me, then, if I try to re-experience the sin or enjoy it, I am bringing it back into my life. This is a culpable act requiring further repentance, forgiveness, and healing. The human being who has been hurt also needs to forgive and forget, so as to emulate the Divine agent of forgiveness and forgetfulness. In my experience, this requires accepting the grace that God will always grant to those who need it. That grace will fill in the gaping hole torn in the emotional, or even physical, life of the one harmed, if only the injured party will permit it. God’s grace will enable the injured person, whose heart is broken, to forgive, and even to forget, as God does.
The Sacred Heart as Model
The most broken human heart was the Sacred Heart of Jesus. If the heart is the physical seat of the human will and affection, then the Heart of Our Lord was broken in ways that no other human heart ever was broken. Christ’s love overflowed for the men, women, and children of His day, and of every epoch. The desire of His heart has always been for our safety and salvation, to “withdraw [us] from the path of ruin into which Satan hurls such crowds” in the prophetic words spoken to St. Margaret Mary. But from the broken Heart of Jesus, pierced by a Roman lance and by our personal sin, flowed “treasures of love, of mercy, of grace, of sanctification, and salvation,” especially through the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Eucharist. In other words, the very human sin of killing God’s Son released the grace that can forgive every sin, obliterate every human offense against God and man. His words of pardon, spoken from the cross and repeated in every sacramental absolution, effect our forgiveness.
If Christ in His Sacred Heart desires to withdraw humans from the enemy’s empire, then He surely wants that to be an effective sign for those who need the grace, to forgive and forget in order to receive that grace. They should then experience liberation from the fetters of resentment and revulsion that enslaves those who refuse to forgive. The rule of Christ’s love will then begin to restore the health of their hearts, and perhaps even heal their emotional lives and bodies. Those who have difficulty forgiving should, then, turn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus frequently, and let His Heart heal their own hearts, and restore the joy of liberation.