All of us are sinners, and therefore all of us need pardon from God; but our divine Savior has made it clear that an essential condition for receiving pardon from God is that we pardon one another.
Our Blessed Lord explained this in detail in His parable of the servant who was forgiven a large debt by his master, but would not himself forgive a small debt of a fellow servant. Thereupon the master demanded the first servant to pay his debt in full. (Mt. 18:23)
Our own condition is similar to the first servant referred to above. Time and again God has forgiven us when we asked His pardon with humble and sincere contrition, thereby pardoning an infinite debt, for sin is an injustice against a Person of infinite dignity who has a strict right to our obedience. And yet, at times we are unwilling or reluctant to forgive another. While we can atone for an injury or injustice to our neighbor, we can never, by ourselves alone, atone for the least offense against God, unless He assists us by His grace to do so.
One who is unwilling to forgive another who has offended him, should be fearful of praying the "Our Father," for in that prayer we ask God to forgive us "as we forgive those who trespass against us." That means - if we do not forgive another, we are asking God not to forgive us; and that is exactly what He will do.
We are not suggesting that some should not pray the "Our Father," but rather that for those who find forgiving difficult, let that prayer be a plea that God will enable them to forgive others, so that He in turn will pardon them.
Our Blessed Lord, being a Divine Person, is infinite Love, is Love Itself. (1 Jn. 4:8) Dying on the Cross, He begged forgiveness for the very ones who were putting Him to death. He forgave them from His Heart, and begged His Father to forgive them. And He was begging pardon for our sins as well, for He was making satisfaction for the sins of all mankind.
We should strive to forgive others, then, not merely for the selfish motive that we ourselves might be forgiven, but also because forgiving is a form of loving. As the renowned Carmelite theologian Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen wrote:
We all know that the most central and essential part of the Mass is the Consecration when Christ renews His sacrifice, changing bread and wine into His own Body and Blood, and offering these divine gifts with His merits to the Father. Notice the words of Our Savior, which the priest repeats at the consecration of the Precious Blood:
"Do this in memory of Me." Not only is Christ asking that we continue offering this sacrifice. He is asking that we continue this work of pardon.
Christ suffered and died precisely to gain pardon for our sins, and to share with us the capacity of pardon. His redeeming death gave to forgiveness (done out of charity) a special efficacy in gaining grace and help from God.
For this reason, we unite ourselves to Christ and His Passion in a very special way when we forgive another out of the motive of charity. This is so central and so basic in the Christian life because it is an intimate participation in the principal thing that Christ became man to do.
It should be clear, then, that as long as we have an unforgiving frame of mind and heart, our prayers and offering will not be acceptable to God.
During the sacrifice of the Mass Our Savior invites us to unite ourselves with Him who was the victim of an injustice infinitely greater than any injustice we will ever suffer, and who asked forgiveness for all who were responsible for His death. How, then, can we be united with Him in the renewal of His Sacrifice, if we ourselves have an unforgiving heart towards someone who has offended us.
In the prayer at the beginning of the Mass on the 26th Sunday of ordinary time, we read these words: "Father, you show your almighty power in your mercy and forgiveness."
We are accustomed to think of Godís power in terms of creating out of nothing, curing the sick, raising the dead to life, etc. But here the Church refers to His mercy and forgiveness as a manifestation of His power. We can understand this, however, when we remember, as we said above, that forgiving is a form of loving. It requires great spiritual strength to forgive from the heart. An unwillingness to forgive, or an inability to forgive, is spiritual weakness. One who loves God "with his whole heart, his whole soul, his whole mind, and with his whole strength" as God has commanded us (Mk. 12:30), will have the power and strength to forgive.
We cannot imitate Godís power to create, raise the dead, etc., but we can and are called to imitate His power to forgive. In fact, we have the opportunity of exercising this form of charity more often than any of the other works of mercy. For example:
So you see, certain types of charity are limited to the situation in which one finds himself; but we should never be limited in our capacity to love our neighbor by the love of forgiveness . . . our capacity to give witness of Godís love, by pardoning another.
Forgiveness, then, is one type of alms that we can always give. It is a type of charity that can be exercised at any time, by anyone, be he rich or poor, young or old, sick or in good health, etc. If we canít manage this type of alms, then our poverty is much greater than being without money, or food, or clothing, or shelter.
At times a person can be dominated by a grudge which he holds against another, or a deep resentment, or even hatred and a desire for revenge. In all these cases what is usually lacking is the charity and humility that disposes one to pardon.
It has been said, and with much truth, "to offend is human, to pardon is divine." Without the aid of divine grace strengthening us in the virtues of charity and humility, it is often very difficult - if not impossible - for our proud and selfish nature to forgive.
This we know to be a fact, and it should make us reflect: the more we grow in the love of charity and humility, the more we are inclined to forgive; but the more that self-love, pride and egoism dominates us, the more difficult it is for us to pardon and to ask pardon, and the more inclined we are to hold grudges, deep resentment, etc.
This is true, for when we are offended, both our emotional and intellectual being is affected. While the intellect may know the need of forgiving, the will finds it difficult because of hurt feelings that donít easily or quickly go away. And the Evil One, who does not want us to forgive, does what he can to make it more difficult. If we can not forget, it is more difficult to forgive; and the devil can make it harder for us to forget. Just as he can bring an image to the imagination that will tempt one to impurity, so he can bring an image that will remind one of a past painful offense. And if one is not on his guard, this can give rise to resentment and bitterness that would influence his decisions and actions.
A good way to handle such situations is by prayer, praying for the one who caused the offense. The hurt feelings may not quickly disappear. But if one can bring himself to pray for the one who offended him, then deep in his heart he is well disposed toward that person. He is loving in a true Christian sense, even though on the surface the feelings havenít completely quieted down. In this way one can reap spiritual gain through such temptation - instead of loss. Isnít that why God allows temptations?
A person can at times confuse pardon with softness with regard to sin, crime, etc. Is God asking us to overlook the injustice of robbers, murderers, those who exploit the poor, who sell dope, etc.? No, He asks us to hate sin, but love the sinner. Yet the love of forgiveness does not mean that we overlook the injustice done. It does not mean that it should not be corrected. Our Blessed Lord was severe in driving the money changers out of the temple . . . He was severe in condemning the Pharisees. Yet He died for them. The Scriptures testify that the love of forgiveness does not mean that wrongs are not punished:
Too, many worldly minded persons see forgiveness as a weakness, as not having the courage to stand up for oneís rights. If we follow the philosophy of the Western movies, not to fight back when one is insulted or offended (not to defend oneís "honor" as they call it) is to be a coward.
Yet, in a deeper sense, to retaliate, to fight back when one is offended, is often a weakness. It is to lack the power to control oneís pride . . . it is to fail to be strong enough to forgive.
On one occasion Peter asked our Blessed Lord how often he must forgive another who offends him . . . must he pardon him as many as seven times. Jesus answered him "not seven times, but seventy times seven times," that is, countless times . . . if the offender is sincere in asking pardon - wanting and trying to avoid offense. Peter thought his charity was quite commendable in being willing to pardon seven times, which was four more than was required by the Jewish teachers, who based the duty of forgiving three times on the Sacred Books. (Amos 1:3; Job 33:29)
Did not Our Lord say to His apostles the night before He died-"love one another as I have loved you" . . . which can mean "forgive one another as I have forgiven you;" and has He not forgiven each of us countless times? And not only that, but he forgives us a debt far greater than that which our neighbor owes us; for when our neighbor offends us, he offends a weak person who himself offends often . . . while God pardons a debt against Himself, a Being of infinite majesty and power and goodness. The best way we can thank God for forgiving us, is to forgive - for His sake - those of His children who have offended us.
The effect of pardon can be more extensive than we might imagine. Any true conversion of life must come from within, from a conversion of heart aided by Godís grace, and not merely imposed from without. The love of forgiveness can help win those graces.
When we give alms, or clothing, or food, or lodging, etc., we are helping another exteriorly. When we forgive another from the heart, as Christ asks, we are touching him interiorly, in his heart, where any true conversion or amendment of life must originate.
As regards our own conversion of life, the more we forgive the offenses of others, the more God is going to pardon us our faults, and give us the graces and help needed to overcome them.
As regards the faults of others and their conversion of life, if one can bring himself, not only to forgive the offense of another, but to offer to God the pain and suffering for the person who caused it, he will be doing exactly what Christ did on Calvary. Such a love of forgiveness will draw down graces both on the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. This seems to be what Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen (quoted above) means when he said, in connection with forgiveness, that "while cockle cannot be changed into wheat, it is always possible for the wicked to be converted and become good."
St. Paul is talking in the same vein when he tells us not to render evil for evil, not to take revenge. On the contrary, he says, quoting the book of Proverbs:
Saints Augustine and Jerome understand these words to mean that generosity towards an enemy will inflict upon him healing pains of remorse and repentance for his past conduct, and thus effect his conversion. This implies, of course, that these exterior forms of charity are accompanied by an interior love of forgiveness. In this one would be fulfilling what St. Paul recommends:
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