Forgiveness is a wonderful gift of grace and mercy. If we asked many people if they would like to receive forgiveness most would say yes. The number would most likely be less if we were to ask them how many would be willing to forgive others. If we were asked to forgive someone seven times, that number would shrink significantly, and if we were invited to forgive someone seventy-seven times, is there any among us who would say yes, any among us willing to consider doing so?
Why is forgiveness so hard for most of us? I do say most because there are those who have an openness to being forgiving. One reason could be that we have few role models. I would imagine those that are more forgiving have not only experienced positive role models but have received forgiveness themselves.
How often do we seek forgiveness from others when we have done something wrong, inappropriate, or made a mistake? We often seek to explain first, make excuses, justify, or ignore our behavior altogether. When we resist being humble, confronting our offenses, and do not seek reconciliation, we do not experience the healing balm of forgiveness. We are then less likely to be willing to offer forgiveness and more likely to hold a grudge or to seek revenge.
Yet, even if we receive the gifts of mercy and forgiveness, as the servant did in today’s parable (Mt 18:21-35), we may still choose to be unforgiving toward others. We may resist forgiveness because we have already created patterns of distancing ourselves, making someone else as other, somehow justifying the hurt and pain we feel. We think that by holding a grudge or offering another the cold shoulder, we are giving them just what they deserve.
Unfortunately, patterns of not seeking forgiveness for ourselves, not willing to forgive others, allowing ourselves to bear grudges, to distance ourselves, or project negative feelings on others to cover up our own inadequacies, not only perpetuates a climate of isolation and divisiveness, but continues to multiply mistrust and further distance, that when continuing unchecked metastasizes into division, hatred and violence. Even in a case where someone has truly wronged us in some way, we are still invited to forgive, to make an attempt to understand why someone might act in such a way, and to shift the momentum away from the perpetual cycle of hurt and to seek to bring about healing and reconciliation.
Jesus is very clear that if we are not willing to forgive we will not be forgiven. This is true because when we are unwilling to forgive, we cut ourselves off from the love of God. We choose the hurt and pain inflicted upon us over the healing touch that God offers. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a gift of healing, and a pattern of regular confession helps us to receive the healing and forgiveness of our loving God and Father. As we develop a regular practice of examining our conscience, experiencing contrition: true sorrow for our sins, confession, are absolved, and forgiven, we will experience God’s healing and love. Hopefully, we will then also come to the realization that we need to put God first, instead of ourselves. As God shares his love with us, we are to share his love with others.
From this change of mind, we can encounter one another with more understanding and more of a willingness to forgive. Jesus invites us to resist the temptation of withholding forgiveness. This attitude further divides and separates by keeping others at a distance. We are to forgive, yes even seventy-seven times and yes, even our enemies. Even if we feel this to be impossible, we can do so by asking Jesus to forgive through us. In doing so, we will be builders of bridges of forgiveness like Doha Sabah Abdallah. Doha lost her son during the bombing of her city in 2014. Doha shared her story with Pope Francis while he visited Iraq last year, and she said: “By imitating him [Jesus] in our sufferings, we testify that love is stronger than everything,”
Pope Francis shared how touched he was by Doha’s story of forgiveness. On his return plane trip, Pope Francis shared, “I forgive. This is a word we have lost. We know how to insult big time. We know how to condemn in a big way… But to forgive, to forgive one’s enemies. This is the pure Gospel. This hit me in Qaraqosh.” May we take up the mantle that Jesus holds out to us today and be willing to cloak each other in a loving embrace of forgiveness.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Pope Francis meeting together last year in Najaf, Iraq. Photo credit: Vatican Media/AP