Jesus makes forgiveness possible (2 of 3)

Benjamin Human Relationships

In you haven’t already read Part 1, Why should I forgive?, I recommend taking five minutes to read it before beginning part two.

Jesus began His mission by preaching “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Recognizing that not everything we have done is appropriate for the Kingdom of Heaven, changing our lives is the best way to profess our faith that the kingdom is coming, and to prepare ourselves to receive it. In one parable, Jesus speaks of the arrogant Pharisee who goes to pray, but because he is convinced of his own righteousness his prayer is not heard. The tax collector who recognized his sinfulness went home forgiven (Luke 18:9-14). This man’s prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” is a very good prayer for a pagan or a tax collector, but Jesus asks more from His disciples. He tells His disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). In case the disciples have missed the point, Jesus adds, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15)

Jesus expects His disciples to forgive before they can ask for pardon from God. When the insults and injuries that have been flung at us are small, giving them up to receive God’s forgiveness is definitely a bargain. When what other people have done to us, however, is much worse than anything we have committed, it hardly seems fair to expect us to offer forgiveness before seeking God’s pardon. Jesus does not give up this point at all, and in fact He drives it home in one of His most powerful parables.

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him [forty million dollars]; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you back everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him [four thousand dollars], and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt.
When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. (Matthew 18:23-35)

Forgiveness is not so much about our relationship with another person, but about our relationship with our heavenly Father. Another way to put it is that forgiveness is about relating to our fellow human being the way God has related to us. Forgiveness does not mean giving up our desire for justice, but it does mean letting God decide when and how much to punish the person who has done wrong. Justice is good, but strict justice defines a world that is much smaller than the world God has given us. God is a God of justice, but more importantly He is a God of mercy. By justice we are born in debt to God, being given a body and soul, air to breathe and a world in which to live, none of which we invented or did anything to deserve. By the time we realize that we are living in a rented world, we are already so far behind in our payments that we could never keep up. In His mercy God does not total the check, He leaves the tab running and invites us to become His children and the heirs to His fortune. Jesus tells us that at the Last Judgment God will total the check, but since God is offering us His fortune, we can afford to leave some debts uncollected. Yet we often struggle against doubt, and don’t believe that God will really give us His fortune. It is hard to believe He could truly be that generous.

The broken are God’s children
The most difficult thing for those of those of us who have been badly abused is to believe that God loves us, because we are tempted to accept the abuse as a fundamental part of our reality. If we approach it that way, we might believe, “I am not lovable, not even God could love this pile of junk”. The abuse, though, is an act of violence that has twisted reality. It is as if bandits had smashed down the gate of our castle, thrown us out, pillaged the castle, and then left a pile of rubble blocking the gate. This situation is the same even if we were the ones who fell for the temptation and opened the gate to bandits. In either case, we are tempted to accept the fact that we cannot get back inside and conclude that the castle is not ours, and that we truly belong in a hut by the moat. Yet the situation we are in is horribly wrong, and it is never what God intended.

Recognizing that the abuse is wrong is an important guideline to the process that I mentioned before, the process of acknowledging that we have been deeply hurt. As we accept the depth of that hurt and the pain that it caused, we cannot allow the hurt to become part of our identity or one of the pillars of our world. This can happen when people begin to define themselves as “The son of an alcoholic” or say “I am the child of a broken home” or “I am a recovering drug addict”. This acknowledgement is necessary for recognizing the debris we need to work around, but we should be careful not to mistake this debris for bedrock – the abuse or the failure may be very big, but it is not a foundational reality.

Jesus comes to reveal the foundational reality beneath the debris. Jesus is God’s own beloved Son, as we hear at His Baptism in the Jordan river, “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:11). During His entire ministry of preaching and healing, the Father was always well-pleased with His Son, and nothing Jesus did ever disappointed His Father. Yet God chose for Jesus to endure the most terrible forms of abuse: He was falsely accused, mocked, beaten with whips, and slowly tortured to death. God allowed this to happen while He watched, and forbade the angels to intervene.

God let this happen to His own Son so that we, weak and rebellious as we are, could know that no abuse can ever rob us of the dignity that God has given us. The broken are God’s children, the wounded are God’s children, the suffering are God’s children, and the cross stands as our constant reminder of this truth. This is our foundational reality, the bedrock on which we should begin to rebuild our live. We say, for example, “I am a child of God whose mother was an alcoholic,” or “I am a child of God and I need my heavenly Father’s help to avoid drugs.” The cross reveals to us that our suffering and failure does not define us, because the love of God is deeper and more real than anything we have suffered.

The victory of the cross
The victory of the cross is the victory of love over hatred. Jesus lost everything that is considered valuable by the world: He lost his honor, his reputation, his possessions, his rights, his friends, and received instead wounds, abuse, and death. Jesus lost everything that could be taken from Him, but He did not lose the love of God. The abuse could not disfigure Him so much that the Father would stop loving Him. Jesus died with nothing left to cling to but the love of God, and His resurrection from the dead proves that the love of God is stronger than death and deeper than suffering.

The victory of the cross has another side as well. On the cross Jesus endured the deepest possible pain, the pain that victims of torture and abuse feel, the feeling being abandoned by God. We know He felt this because He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mathew 27:45, Mark 15:34). Although He could no longer feel the Father’s love, He never stopped loving His Father. Evil unleashed its full fury on Jesus, but it could not make Him stop loving the Father, and it could not make the Father stop loving Him. This bond of love between the Father and the Son, unbroken by evil and death, allows the Father to draw His Son Him back from the dead, pour His life into Him, heal the wounds of the crucifixion, and make Him strong again. The resurrection confirms everything Jesus taught. This unbreakable bond of love between the Father and the Son is the foundation of the eternal covenant that Jesus made between Heaven and earth. It is eternal: no evil can ever break it.

As the Father has love me, so I have loved you

The first part of the good news of the Gospel is the proclamation that God truly loves us, and no matter what has been done to us or how we have failed, God has not stopped loving us. This love compelled Him to send His Son to rescue us, and through Jesus Christ He has won the victory over sin and death. The second part of the Gospel is even more amazing: we can share in this eternal covenant, we can be bound by this unbreakable bond, we can share in His victory over sin and death. If we accept the pure gift of that love, then no matter how far we have fallen the love of God can snatch us from our darkness and set us on our feet again.

Our bond of love with the Father is forged through His Son, Jesus Christ. In Baptism we are claimed in Christ’s name, purified of sin, and recreated as sons and daughters of the Father. In Confirmation we receive a deepening of the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is the bond of love between the Father and the Son. Through these sacraments, God claims us and seals us against the consequences of sin, giving us the strength of the Son so that we cannot be destroyed by death. In Holy Communion we receive Jesus Christ, who loves the Father in us and through us, and strengthens that eternal covenant, that unbreakable bond.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love,” Jesus says (John 15:9). As long as we live in this love, as long as the bond of love is not broken, God can pour His life into us, bring us back from the dead, heal our wounds, and recreate us in the image of His Son. This is the one who sits on the throne and says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

No power or force can break our bond of love with Jesus Christ. This is what St. Paul was talking about when he rejoiced, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35,38-39).

There is, however, one thing that can break our bond of love with Christ, and this is our own will. Choosing serious sin is a rejection of God’s love and it breaks our bond with Christ. This is why Jesus completes His thought by saying, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (John 15:9-10). If we break His commandments, we break the bond of love that connects us to the Father, we reject His love. Yet in the wonder of God’s mercy, despite our horrible sin, God reaches out again to us. Recognizing and repenting of our sin is the only way to allow God to establish that bond again. This is why Jesus gives us the sacrament of Confession, so that we can repent of our sins before God, and begin once more to live in His love.

God’s children forgive
Living in God’s love means showing to others the forgiving, merciful love that God has shown us. This is the third part of the victory of the cross. In the middle of His sufferings, Jesus is able to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This is the ultimate triumph of love. The men who have determined to destroy Christ cannot stop the Father from loving Him, they cannot stop Him from loving the Father, and they are also completely powerless to stop Him from loving them! This is the purest revelation of God’s relationship with us throughout history: we have rejected God’s love in every possible way, but His love is stronger than our rejection and He continues to seek us again, and again, and again until the very end.

Seeing how merciful God has been to us, He has forgiven us a very, very large debt. This is what the parable of Jesus tells us. If we see ourselves only in relationship with the people around us, certainly they have debts, they owe us for what they have done. If we see ourselves, however, in relationship to God, then we realize how much we have been treated with mercy that was completely undeserved. This is the core of forgiveness, to love others as God has loved us.

As we reflect on forgiveness, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Forgiveness is not the same thing as condoning what someone has done or dismissing their guilt or giving up our desire for justice. As I said at the beginning, our desire for justice is a good and true desire, and the evil that has been done is truly wrong. In faith, however, we need to let God be the judge and allow Him decide when and how to punish the person who has done wrong. Even the temptation to give God suggestions on how He might want to punish someone is an attempt to take God’s place in the universe.

Forgiveness is not the same thing as being in relationship with a person. Forgiveness and being in a relationship are two separate questions, and we need to keep them separated. Sometimes it is impossible or dangerous to continue a relationship with a certain person and we need to break off all contact. At other times a relationship is simply not God’s will and we need to give it up. Sometimes it is clearly God’s will that we be in a relationship with a person. This can be true with a father or mother, when it is clear that breaking off all contact is not possible. We might need to set limits on these relationships, such as never being alone with that person. I say this because sometimes we are tempted to hold on to the anger because we feel that it is the only barrier that can protect us from that person or from being hurt, but anger is a treacherous ally. Instead, love and the truth should be our protection and our defensive wall.

See also:
Part 2, Jesus makes forgiveness possible
Part 3, Five steps to forgiveness