Five Objections to Forgiveness

Lent is the ideal time to let go of what holds back true forgiveness.
by Melicia Antonio | Source:

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sound familiar?
Put aside for a moment the fact that you’ve prayed them a thousand times in your life and try to reflect on their meaning as if for the first time ever. Forgive me, Lord, but I promise in turn to forgive anyone who has offended me, in any way whatsoever.

No one admits that true forgiveness is easy. Mercy is not forged into a heroic virtue without the crucible of suffering. To forgive and not merely to forget... to pardon and not merely to put aside. The difference is in the attitude: one can seem to have forgiven his enemy in the public square, but in secret hold onto a judgment passed in the personal courthouse of conscience. Deep down in conscience, what objections could prevent perfect forgiveness? 

Objection 1: If I forgive, I feel that I’m approving of what the person did. He or she will have no motive to change if I simply “forgive”.

Victor Hugo invented a character named Javert who professed this exact philosophy. Fortunately for Jean Valjean, Hugo also created a saintly bishop, who trusted that the convict hardened by years of prison could be softened by a single act of disinterested mercy. And his bishop proved to be right.

Forgiveness does not extend the vicious cycle of hate; on the contrary, it breaks it. Sin is not cured by the death of the sinner, but rather by his conversion. Neither is it cured by tossing the sick man into a plague ward and telling him, “You got yourself into this mess. You figure it out.” Imagine if Christ had adopted the same attitude towards us. Jesus, submitting his innocence to the vicious cycle of our sin, created a new way out for anyone willing to change.

Not only is our forgiveness a path of salvation for sinners, but also for us. Antoinette Bosco, in her article The Language of Forgiveness, tells the story of the Reverend Walter Everett who was struck with terrible sorrow when his son, Scott, was murdered. Hoping to find reconciliation and peace, he visited his son´s assassin, Mike Carlucci, in prison. “It blew me away,” Mr. Carlucci said. “I had never had anyone forgive me in my life. I started crying. He said he wouldn't be able to live his life the way he lives it if he didn't honestly forgive me for this.” Reverend Everett commented that having forgiven Mike “doesn't remove the pain of Scott's death. But the additional pain of anger at Mike? I don't think I could have lived with that. By offering forgiveness, I freed myself from that hurt.” Reverend Everett went even a step further in manifesting his pardon, officiating at Mr. Carlucci´s wedding some years later.

Perhaps the forgiveness God asks of you is not as extreme as what he asked of Reverend Everett. But believing that sinners can change is the precise moment when we stop thinking like humans and start thinking like God.

Objection 2: He never asked for my forgiveness. Why should I forgive him?

There is an old saying of Benjamin Franklin which goes, “God helps those who help themselves.” In other words, one gets what he asks for, and if he wants something, he should go for it.  After all, who are we supposed to be? Our brothers’ keepers?

Jesus, the great expert on weak human nature, asks Christians to go the extra mile and take the initiative in forgiveness. His reason rests on both truth and realism: all sinners need forgiveness, but some aren´t strong enough to ask, some are too proud to ask, and some, like Mike Carlucci, don’t even know that they can ask for it. “Turn the other cheek to your enemy” (Matthew 5:39), in other words, forgive even in the moment that he continues to offend you.
Notice that Jesus often forgives in the Gospel without the sinners having asked for it: the paralytic, the adulterous woman, even his executioners. He cleanses the soul of each new-born Catholic child in baptism, long before it has the capacity to understand what original  sin is. Just as you would never question whether or not your body needs water, so mercy has been given to you as a free gift. Isn´t this a gift which you should also freely give? “I forgave you all that debt because you besought me, and should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18: 32-33).

Objection 3: This person has committed an unforgivable sin. I can forgive any sin but this one.

For each of us there are sins to which we are particularly sensitive, especially if we suffered them ourselves. Assault, the murder of a loved one, rape, abuse, infidelity, forced abortion, imprisonment, calumny, public humiliation... There also exist sins which objectively weigh more than others, “mortal” sins we call them. But does there exist for God an unforgiveable sin?

The question is not so much whether God has the capacity to forgive every type of sin –to doubt this would be to doubt his infinite power- but whether he would choose to do so.  Does he choose to keep his arms opened to us?

St. Therese of Lisieux affirms that he does: “If the greatest sinner on this earth should repent at the moment of death, and draw his last breath in an act of love,” she said, “neither the many graces he had abused, nor the many sins he had committed would stand in his way. Our Lord would receive him into his Mercy.” 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us in number 1864 that the only “limit” to his mercy is the hardness of heart of the offender: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin." (Mark 3:29, Matthew 12:32, Luke 12:10) There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.”

The hardness of a sinner´s heart is a condition so intimate and personal that the task of judging it is best left to God. To us is left the task of imitating his magnanimous heart, of leaving the light on for his repentant children.  Those who commit grave sins are already tempted to believe that their sins are unforgiveable. Nothing would surprise them more than to discover that they are already forgiven, and that the grace of God is more powerful than all human weakness.

Objection 4: I can´t forgive. I´m still hurting inside.

Forgiveness unfortunately doesn’t work like a magic heal-all potion. We forgive, and the pain doesn´t go away. Yet those who have trod this path to healing assert that the alternative of harbouring resentment does nothing to heal the wound. Antoinette Bosco, whose son and daughter-in-law were murdered by a disturbed young man, writes, “I now clearly see the paradox: if we do not forgive others, we cannot heal; if we do forgive, then it is we, ourselves, who benefit the most.”

It is also a paradox that Christ saved his most merciful words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” for his most agonizing moment.  It can hardly be said that Jesus waited for an emotional high or a sunny day to be able to forgive. In fact, mercy is even more genuine when the victim has no other motive than mercy itself.

In the delicate art of forgiveness it is at times difficult to reconcile the adverse feelings we have towards an offender with this radical invitation from the Gospel. Each person is a mysterious world unto himself; some people move quickly, while others need time.  What we can be sure of is that God’s grace will assist us in the moment he asks us to pardon from our hearts and begin a fresh stage of life in which “forgiveness” will have a completely new meaning.  

Objection 5: How can I forgive if the damage which has been done cannot be undone?

Simmering underneath this question is the age-old topic of how God can draw good out of evil.  That he can do it is not doubted; there exist multitudes of testimonies which attest to his capability and creativity. It happens daily on the personal level and on the level of the entire Church; just when it seems the ship is ready to sink, miracles happen. Pius XI, in his encyclical Quas Primus remarked, “We may well admire in this the admirable wisdom of the Providence of God, who, ever bringing good out of evil, has from time to time suffered the faith and piety of men to grow weak, and allowed Catholic truth to be attacked by false doctrines, but always with the result that truth has afterwards shone out with greater splendor, and that men's faith, aroused from its lethargy, has shown itself more vigorous than before.”

The real question, then, is: “Can God do it for me? Can he draw good out of this evil consequence I am suffering, and perhaps will suffer until the end of my life?”

The answer can’t be written in this article; it is for each reader to discover. But there is much we can learn from what others have experienced. What does seem to be a common thread is that God uses sorrow to direct a person in another direction- towards Himself, closer to His own heart.  It is an entirely mysterious, unforeseen path for each person that results in something not so fearful: the powerful and comforting presence of God in his or her daily life.

“Harden not your hearts,” we read from Psalm 95.  Lent is the ideal time to let go of what holds back true forgiveness, to face the inner objections preventing inner peace, and experience God’s love waiting to reveal itself through mercy.

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Published by: Matthew Antonio Yee
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
very nice Melicia

Published by: Matthew Antonio Yee
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
very nice Melicia

Published by: Matthew Antonio Yee
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
very nice Melicia

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