To Forgive is Divine?

Last week, I wrote an essay on the importance of praying the Creed during Mass with greater intentionality.  This week, I would like to build upon this theme by reflecting upon one specific article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe… in the Forgiveness of Sins.”

Recall that the notion of the Creed as Symbol or Symbolon was also discussed along with the importance of looking at each of the articles of the Creeds not as a bunch of different articles haphazardly put together, but as a whole that is organically linked.  With this understanding in mind one can readily understand why the belief in the Forgiveness of Sins follows from the belief in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Catholic Church.  In His first post-Resurrection appearance to the Apostles in the Upper Room, Jesus gives the Church the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins (c.f. John 20:22-23).  This same gift of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins is also invoked in the formula of absolution during the rite of Confession—”God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”  This article then is tied up with the Sacrament of Confession as the ordinary means that God has put in place for the forgiveness of sins.

On the other hand though, it seems almost self-evident that Christians should believe in the Forgiveness of Sins, especially given all that is said in the Creed about the Incarnation.  One might begin to wonder why this should be included except perhaps to serve as a reminder of this often overlooked gift.  I am not just speaking of the gift of the Sacrament of Confession (we will cover that another time) but the overall gift of the forgiveness of sins.  I think most of us would rather have a different gift instead—the excusing of our sins.  We may not openly profess this in a Creed but our actions bear it out.  We have a really vicious habit of trying to make excuses for our faults rather than admitting them.  We would rather be excused than accept responsibility.  With a moment’s reflection however we can see that this is sheer insanity and yet another proof that sin makes us stupid.

Why do we spend so much energy and useless anxiety with making excuses when God gives forgiveness so readily?  Certainly if there are extenuating circumstances then God will be quick to excuse us for the role these played.  But ultimately the fact that we rationalize shows that we do not believe this doctrine.  Our Lord recognized that there would be a temptation to a lack of faith in this doctrine and so He repeatedly emphasized the “joy in Heaven” that comes when God exercises His mercy.  We should not seek to be absolved of responsibility but to be absolved of our poor use of responsibility.  In many ways excuse-making traps us in perpetual chains of victimhood, while seeking forgiveness frees us.  This desire for the freedom that only forgiveness offers cannot be stamped out regardless of how much we deny it and label it as “Catholic guilt.”  We can either exercise it in the manner that God intended—through the Sacrament of Confession—or by treating therapists as the new priests and thinking nothing of the “tell-all” interview on Oprah.  Either way, the desire has to be expressed.  So, who is the wise man building on rock?

armstrong and oprah

This idea that forgiveness brings freedom is no trivial point.  First it is freeing from the perspective of God’s forgiveness of us.  It is only when I readily admit my sins that grace begins to transform me.  To “firmly intend with the help of Your grace to sin no more” changes us.  God needs no laundry list of our sins—He already knows everything.  He wants us to see both our complicity and our total weakness so that He can grant to us the freedom we are truly seeking.  One of my favorite prayers of St. Philip Neri captures this perfectly: “Lord, look out for Philip today, he may betray you!”

The second dimension in which forgiveness leads to freedom is our own forgiveness of others. When someone is stuck in unforgiveness they unwittingly give power to the person whom they refuse to forgive. They harbor grudges and ill-will toward the other person and likely will not be satisfied even with their downfall. Nearly every Exorcist will tell you the same thing about unforgiveness—it is the number one way that the Devil keeps people in his clutches (especially through Oppression, Obsession and Possession). It may not be the way that he initially gains entry, but he is able to continually pick at the wound of unforgiveness and keep the person enslaved.

That our forgiveness of others is vitally important seems obvious from the teaching of Our Lord in the Lord’s Prayer and from the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:21-35). But we must first make sure we understand what He is really saying before we can begin to understand how we can forgive. Jesus is not saying that God’s forgiveness somehow depends upon the manner in which we forgive others. In other words, our forgiveness is not the cause of God’s forgiveness, but the other way around. His forgiveness is the cause of our own. The reason why we pray this petition in the Lord’s Prayer is because we are seeking the awareness of God’s forgiveness in our own lives so that we forgive others. The same thing in the parable—the King first forgives the man, but then because of his unawareness of true depth of the forgiveness he has received, he fails to exercise it.

I find that most people struggle with unforgiveness because they do not understand what forgiveness means. Like forgiveness from God, forgiving others from our perspective cannot be confused with or substituted with excusing others. Christian forgiveness does not mean we are to become doormats. Jesus may have told us to “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39) but when He was struck by the High Priest’s servant He asked Him “Why did you strike Me?”(Jn 18:23). Christ may have forgiven the servant, but that does not mean He should simply take the abuse.

To understand forgiveness on a human level, we have to understand the goal. The goal is to restore the relationship back to the level of justice. Justice is a necessary part of love even if it not the most complete form of it. Often “loving our neighbor” simply means ensuring they are justly treated.

Recalling from St. Thomas that justice consists in “rendering to each his due,” we see that it is governed by a principle of reciprocity. This also means that we can treat someone justly while they may treat us unjustly. When we understand this, we can make the important distinction between forgiveness given and forgiveness sought (or received). Christ’s commandment is for us to forgive the other. What they do with that forgiveness is up to them. It can only be offered. But in order to be received they must attempt to restore what is due to us. A sincere apology is certainly a starting point but it usually involves more than that. In justice we have to set out to restore something of what was lost. Teaching children this part of forgiveness is very important from an early age. We do them a grave disservice by teaching them that saying “I am sorry” is always enough. They come to expect forgiveness as a right. It is better to teach them to ask, “will you forgive me?”

Forgiveness offered consists in willing the good of the other person and ensuring they are treated justly. What would it mean to forgive someone who murdered a family member? At a minimum forgiveness would consist in willing that they receive a just trial and fair punishment. It might even mean defending them against the death penalty since it would be an unjust penalty. Christian forgiveness would mean praying for their repentance and conversion so that God would be given His due. Forgiveness would not mean simply forgetting what they have done and pretending it didn’t happen.

If we should not merely “forgive and forget” then we should finish by discussing a key aspect of relationships and that is trust. Forgiveness does not mean that we should instantly operate on the same level of trust as before the offense. Forgiveness may be divine, but it does not absolve us from being prudent in our relationships. While Jesus may have said that Peter should forgive his brother a practically infinite number of times, He was not saying that Peter should set himself up allowing the same thing to happen over and over (Mt 18:21-22). If someone is not trustworthy then we should enter into relationships that require trust with them. This would be excusing and not forgiving.

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