Simplicity of forgiveness


In the Gospel reading (Mt 6:7-15), Jesus teaches his friends the prayer that we now call the “Our Father.” Among features of this prayer are (1) recognizing that God is our father–not only mine, but also yours, that we are together all God’s children; (2) recognizing our dependency on God, as evident in our dependency on daily bread (all our material needs that come first from God, but also Eucharist); and (3) recognizing that we must constantly practice mutual forgiveness. This practice of forgiveness depends on the other two: seeing all as God’s family, and remembering dependency.

Lent is especially a good time to practice forgiveness, as we repent for our own sins, and welcome back in to relationship with mercy anyone who has sinned against us. Often, in a relationship where forgiveness is needed, the sin is two-way. There is a way that one person’s weaknesses tend to feed off those in another, as anyone married for a long time knows! Somehow we manage to find people in life where the very people that we love are also those who most reveal our own weaknesses to us, who somehow manage to engage those aspects of us most in need of healing and redemption. This is also true for many of our relationships that are in need of reconciliation: the psychological patterns are complicated, and there is a lot to unravel in fully grasping what is at work.

Jesus, though, gives us a prayer where the initial answer is simple and not at all complicated: forgive. Although the process of reconciliation, or restoring relationship, can be lengthy, the first step is actually quite simple: forgive, because you also are a person in need of forgiveness. Even in cases where the harm seems to be one way (the person who cut me off on the road on the way to work; the family member who is unrelentingly rude and aggressive), Jesus has us remember that we have other places in our lives where we have sinned and need forgiveness. We are encouraged to remember that we are no better or worse than any other human being in this regard, neither higher nor lower than any other person.

Reconciliation is distinct from forgiveness, and in this Year of Mercy, we are asked to do both. Forgiveness means letting go of any desire for another to be harmed, letting go of anger or a desire for retribution or revenge, letting go of fear. Forgiveness means choosing to will another’s good even in light of another’s sinfulness. Reconciliation is about restoring relationship, sometimes on very different grounds than before a break. For example, married couples who have the same conflicts over and over again might have to find their way to a new dynamic and build a different kind of relationship to be in a place of reconciliation and love. Reconciliation takes a lot of work, because it requires that we understand our own psychological dynamics better, have sympathy and compassion for those of others, and have enough trust in God and each other to try out new ways that can feel vulnerable, all for the sake of relationship. Often, reconciled relationships are much stronger and richer after reconciliation than they even before the conflict, because both people know and understand one another more deeply.

But all of that takes time. To start, Jesus shows us that each day, we can practice simple forgiveness: freeing ourselves and others from condemnation, and desiring only their good  (Or if we cannot forgive, we can pray for the grace to forgive.) That is what it means to love: to want the good for another and to do what we can in order to contribute to that good. We can forgive, accept forgiveness, and so begin the process of reconciliation and life in God again.