When the first missionaries came to Alberta, they were fiercely opposed by a young chief of the Cree tribe named Maskepetoon. Eventually, however, he responded to the gospel and became a Christian. Shortly after his conversion, a member of the Blackfoot tribe killed his father. Maskepetoon rode into the village where the murderer lived and demanded that he be brought to him. Confronting the guilty man, he said, “You have killed my father, so now you must be my father. You shall ride my best horse and wear my best clothes.” In utter amazement and remorse, his enemy exclaimed, “My son, now you have killed me!” He meant, of course, that the hate in his own heart had been completely erased by the incredible forgiveness of the Cree chief. (1)
Now here’s the question: Where did Maskepetoon get the power to forgive?
Our gospel tell us, “When it was evening on that day, on the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathe on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
One of the great certainties in almost any relationship is that there are bound to be failures and breakdowns. At some point the honeymoon ends. And not just with marriage but with any relationship: a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, a co-worker, or even among church members. Quite simply, troubled relationships are a fact of life. So how do we handle them?
The gospel tells us that Christians have been given the power to forgive. Yes, I know…it’s hard to forgive, especially when we are the victims of some unjustified injury. And yet, we Christians are followers of Jesus who has forgiven us for our sins, and now calls us to forgive others. One could even say that a distinctive mark of a Christian is to forgive others as God forgives us. That, at least, is what we pray every time we say the Lord’s Prayer.
Forgiveness is primarily a matter of the will. It’s a matter of the heart catching up with the head. It’s constantly reiterating to ourselves our need to forgive – until forgiveness becomes part of us and enters deep into our wounded feelings.
I remember a wise old Jesuit priest telling me, “If you can’t forgive someone, then pray for the desire to forgive.” That’s good advice. We need to be motivated to forgive. So let me offer you three reasons why we should forgive someone who hurts us.
First and foremost, we forgive for God’s sake. On the cross when Jesus gave his life for us, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” You and I have received the underserved, unmerited mercy of God. God gave it because God loves us and wants the best for us. As we have received God’s forgiveness, so we should extend that forgiveness to others – not because they deserve it but precisely because they don’t. In fact, forgiveness is never a matter of our deserving. It’s not our right to receive, but rather it’s a gift to give. What is not ours by merit, God gives by mercy.
God’s forgiveness precedes our repentance. I realize this goes against our normal way of thinking. We like to think that God’s forgiveness is a response to our repentance – we say we’re sorry, and God forgives. But when we put that kind of logic into practice, we end up refusing to forgive an offender until he or she has apologized and maybe even made restitution for the offense. That way of acting may be perfectly proper in a court of law, but it is heresy in the context of grace. So let’s get it straight. Repentance is a response to forgiveness, but forgiveness is never merited by repentance. Forgiveness precedes repentance. Repentance accepts forgiveness.
An employee who had been stealing from his company was summoned to the office of the senior partner after he had been caught. The least this employee could expect was a blistering dismissal; he might even be charged with a crime and sent to prison. The partner called his name and asked if he were guilty. The employee stammered out that he had no defense. “I shall not dismiss you or charge you with a crime,” said the partner, who was himself an elderly man. “If I take you back, can I trust you?” When the surprised and broken employee gave his assurance and was about to leave the office, the senior partner continued, “You are the second man who had fallen and been pardoned in this business. I was the first. What you have done, I did. The mercy you have received, I received.
It’s only the grace of God that can keep us both.”
Here is forgiveness that knows mercy because it has received mercy. It can pardon because it has been pardoned. God, who has forgiven us is beyond our deserving, calls us to forgive others beyond their deserving. We forgive for God’s sake.
But second, we also forgive for the offender’s sake. Forgiveness which precedes repentance may also result in repentance. Quite simply, forgiveness has the power to change lives. None of us want enemies in life. The question is, “How do we overcome our enemies?”
The world says to out-hate them, but God says to out-love them. St. Peter says that “love covers a multitude of sins” – even, we may add, the sins of those we find hard to forgive. This is no prissy ethic. When love springs from the wronged party to the one who has wronged us, it has the power to heal and even to convert.
During the Korean War, a South Korean Christian, a civilian, was arrested by the communists and ordered shot. But when the young communist leader learned that the prisoner was in charge of an orphanage caring for small children, he decided to spare him and kill his son instead. So they shot the 19-year-old boy in the presence of his father. Later, the fortunes of war changed, and the young communist leader was captured by United Nations forces, tried for war crimes, and condemned to death. However, before the sentence could be carried out, the Christian whose boy had been killed pleaded for the life of the killer. He declared that he was young and that he really did not know what he was doing because of communist indoctrination. “Give him to me,” said the father, “and I will train him.”
The United Nations forces granted the request, and that father took the murderer of his son into his own home and cared for him like his own son. That young communist eventually became a Christian pastor, leading many post-war South Koreans to faith in Jesus Christ.
Now I am not saying that forgiveness will always lead to conversion or even reconciliation. I doubt if many members of ISIS or other Islamic terrorist groups would change their way of thinking by our forgiveness. Hatred will always be encountered in this life, but the point is, it is always to be met with love. Yes, self-defence is a legitimate part of the Christian love ethic, but we must never take vengeance on anyone. Forgiveness, after all, is an invitation to enter into relationship. Like any invitation it may be declined. Our business is to offer it, but not set ourselves up for another injury. And who knows? An enemy may become a friend by the forgiveness we extend.
We forgive for God’s sake. We forgive for the offender’s sake. But we also forgive for our sake. Forgiveness is not simply a matter of self-sacrifice. It’s a matter of self-interest. Unless we forgive the offender, we will always hurt from the offense. And hurting people are not happy people.
Psychologists tell us that if couples do not deal with their hurt at the time of divorce, they will bring that hurt into a second marriage. Unable to forgive their first spouse, they will end up hurting the second. That’s what happens when we allow a wrong done to us to take control of us – we end up doing worse to others.
Hurt left unhealed destroy us. It makes us less human as we become increasingly bitter. And not only our spiritual growth but our physical and emotional well-being are threatened. Heart attacks, stress and high blood pressure can all be symptoms of a lack of forgiveness. Some studies have even suggested that cancer is related to an angry or bitter spirit.
Forgiveness is therapy for our hurt. Picture it like this: When we suffer a wrong, we feel wounded. Forgiveness is a way of healing that wound. No longer scarred by the wounds of the past, we can live holistically in the present. Just as important, in living a life of forgiveness, we die in the assurance that we are forgiven.
In The Death of Ivan Illich, Leo Tolstoy tells the story of a man who was incurably ill. He was very unhappy, and angry with his life, his children, the doctor, and all who tried to help him. He had a very strict code of conduct and judged himself so severely that he could neither forgive himself nor forgive others. But he finally began to abandon his rigid code and accepted the forgiveness of God into his life. Warts and all – God loved him. Warts and all – he began to love others. When he died, his death was not viewed as a tragedy but a triumph – the triumph of a soul who overcame the hurts in his own life and became an instrument of healing to others.
Forgive for God’s sake – because God has forgiven you. Forgive for the offender’s sake – because our forgiveness may change lives. Forgive for your sake – because the only way to be a whole person is to stop being a hurting person.
Sister Helen Prejean, in her book Dead Man Walking, tells the story of Lloyd LeBlanc, a Roman Catholic layman, whose son was murdered. When he arrived in the field with the sheriffs’ deputies to identify his son, LeBlanc immediately knelt by his boy’s body and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. When he came to the words: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” he realized the depth of the commitment he was making. “Whoever did this, I must forgive them,” he later told Sister Helen. Though it has been difficult not to be overcome by bitterness and feelings of revenge that well up from time to time, LeBlanc said that each day, for the rest of his life, forgiveness must be prayed for and struggled for and won. (2)
Dear people: forgiveness is God’s remedy for our hurt. Too many of us suffer needlessly because of a refusal to forgive. Too many of us live with the pain of the past because we have yet to make peace with the present. The tragedy is, the more we harbor an unforgiving spirit toward others, the more unforgiven we will feel ourselves. Only when we root out the hurt in our own hearts and take it to the cross where it belongs – only then will we live free and fulfilling lives.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
April 3, 2016
Text – John 20: 19-31
Easter 2, C
1. Today in the Word, November 10, 1993
2. Susan Pendleton Jones, “Forgiven and Forgiving,” in The Christian Century, August 25-September 1, 1999