Is forgiveness absolutely necessary for living the Catholic Faith?
Forgiving someone who hurt you can be hard.
You might be tempted to say it’s just too difficult and move on. After all, it’s not the only aspect of our faith.
But is this just a side issue you can safely ignore? Let’s investigate what Jesus had to say about forgiveness.
It might not be so easy to dismiss.
What Jesus said about forgiveness
Jesus actually had a lot to say about forgiveness.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls us to:
- show mercy to one another (Matthew 5:7),
- to control our anger (Matthew 5:21-26),
- to not retaliate (Matthew 5:38-42),
- and even to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).
In Matthew 6:12, when Jesus taught the disciples how to pray, forgiveness was one of the seven things he told them to pray about. In the Our Father we say, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls this “astonishing” because “our petition will not be heard unless we have first met a strict requirement. Our petition looks to the future, but our response must come first, for the two parts are joined by the single word “as.” (CCC 2838).
In other words, we are praying for God to forgive us in the same manner that we forgive others. That’s sobering.
The limits of mercy and forgiveness
Referencing a common excuse from Jewish tradition, Peter asks if we must forgive our offender seven times. To his amazement Jesus replies, “Not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). He reversed the former teaching that there was a limit to mercy and forgiveness.
Christians are called to forgive without count or limit. Do we still have to forgive if the other person is not sorry or hasn’t admitted their fault? While we can certainly protect ourselves from further harm, we are called to always offer forgiveness.
Finally, Jesus modeled forgiveness personally. Even in the face of unspeakable injustice during his passion and death, Jesus chose to act with that same mercy and forgiveness he taught. At his crucifixion he cried, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
The only acceptable choice regarding forgiveness
While forgiveness always remains a personal choice, for Christians the only morally acceptable choice is to forgive. Having said this, we need to acknowledge that forgiveness is often difficult and that many times it’s a process we need to walk through over time.
We need to become aware of our need to forgive, then make a decision to forgive and follow through with the work of forgiveness.
This process is complicated by our feelings of injustice, and at times guilt and shame. We may also need to work through feelings of anger and resentment.
We may need to let go of the desire to take revenge, even subtle forms of revenge such as talking negatively about the offender to others who don’t need to know about them, or engaging in passive anger or ridicule.
Does forgiveness mean being a victim?
Once again this doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to be victims. Jesus reminds his disciples:
“Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.” (Lk 17:3–4).
There are two important points in this passage. First, we have a clear, shared responsibility to pursue righteousness. We are not called to passively allow ourselves to be victimized, and can hold others responsible in the pursuit of justice.
But the second point is we need to be willing to forgive and even to forgive repeatedly.
Why would God ask us to do this? This is demanding for even the best. It’s because in offering forgiveness and mercy we’re imitating him. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Steadfast mercy, love, and forgiveness are what God is all about, and we are made in his image and likeness. It may seem difficult…it may seem impossible, but it’s who we are. We get into all kinds of problems when we deny this reality and do things that contradict it.
Jesus wants you to forgive so extravagantly because he knows it’s what will give you happiness and peace. It’s who you’re made to be.
A course on forgiveness
During the final weeks of the Year of Mercy, the Bishop Helmsing Institute is offering 4Given: A Four-Phase Model of Forgiveness.”
This workshop introduces you to a scientifically tested program of forgiveness based on the work of Catholic psychologist and forgiveness expert Robert Enright.
Using Enright’s proven methodology, we’ll give you a step-by-step plan to help you fulfill Jesus’ call of forgiveness. Over the last year, more than 370 people have participated.
Join us and begin your journey of forgiveness.