Forgiveness From the Heart: Why and How?

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Dome of cathedral Saint-Sauveur d'Aix in Aix-en-Provence, a Roman Catholic cathedral in Southern France

By Fr. Nnamdi Moneme, OMV, Catholic Exchange, Sept. 21, 2017

“So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from the heart.”

I thought that I had forgiven a lay faithful many years ago for some slanderous comment that he had made about me. I know for sure that I had even prayed for him fervently and sincerely. Well, I saw him a few years later as I was offering Mass and he was standing in line for Holy Communion. For a moment the memory of his wicked words shot through my mind as I placed Jesus into his hands and he said, “Amen.” The only thing that took the sting out of that painful memory there and then was another prayer for him again and a prayer to Jesus, “Lord, help me to see him through your eyes.”

We may have heard that cliché that definitely does not help any of us struggling with constantly forgiving others: “Forgive and forget!” Can we really forgive and just forget as if nothing ever happened? Is God asking us to pretend that we have amnesia? Doesn’t our painful memories keep coming back with all its hurtful images whether we like it or not? Isn’t it more painful when the offending party never shows any remorse but continue to be a source of pain?

St Peter seems to have the same struggle too with forgiveness. He asks Jesus in today’s Gospel how many times he was to forgive someone who sinned against him. Jesus replies with a parable about a forgiven but unforgiving servant and ends with this warning, “So will my heavenly do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from the heart.” The heart is the seat of our choices and decisions, the place where constancy is formed and nurtured. To forgive from the heart means that our forgiveness has to be a well thought out and deliberate decision that must be renewed frequently. Forgiveness from the heart is both unconditional and without limit, “I do not say to you seven times but seventy-seven times.” If our forgiveness is truly from the heart, it just cannot be a one-time thing but an ongoing decision to forgive continuously no matter what.

Today’s Gospel parable also shows us why we should make this decision to forgive from the heart as Jesus implies. The first reason why our forgiveness must come from the heart is that we are sinners who have been forgiven by God. Because God places no limits or conditions to His forgiveness, we have gratuitously received and still continue to receive today divine forgiveness of sins in our hearts. We forgive first out of gratitude to God for forgiving us so graciously.

The wicked servant in today’s parable experienced something of this divine forgiveness that cancels a debt that he could never pay, “Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.” He was set free from his debt without any condition or limit.

The second reason why we should make this decision to forgive from the heart is that we want to remain free and to grow in that freedom that we have received from God’s forgiving love. When we are growing in that freedom that Christ has won, we can recognize and pursue the good freely and avoid all forms of evil in all situations. We slowly lose our freedom and become enslaved to many things and attitudes when we do not forgive others as we have been forgiven.

The servant who experienced the forgiveness of a debt that he could not pay lost his precious freedom the very moment he refused to be patient with a fellow servant who owed him a trifle, “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers (jailers) until he should pay back the whole debt.”

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we must make a decision to forgive from the heart over and over again no matter the magnitude or frequency of the offenses and regardless of the lack of remorse of the offending party. We must do so simply because we have been forgiven by God in Jesus Christ and because we want to keep growing in that freedom. In Our Lord Jesus Christ, the divine choice to forgive us is made present to us and God will never go back on that decision. When we put conditions or limits on our forgiveness of others, we show ingratitude and we slowly lose our freedom and become slaves of what we should be masters. We become slaves of addictive behaviors like pornography, alcoholism, gambling, sex, drugs, etc. We cannot seem to get enough of material things, pleasures and possessions. We are slaves of human respect, praise, appreciation, affirmation, etc. By our lack of forgiveness, it becomes difficult for us to choose virtues and reject vices and we unknowingly and easily “hand our hearts over to torturers.”

The journey to forgive others from the heart begins with frequent and fervent celebrations of the Sacrament of Confession. For us to forgive from the heart, we must first experience divine forgiveness for our sins in the heart. In and through this sacrament, we acknowledge our past sins, confess that we have sinful tendencies now and open our hearts to that grace to overcome sin in the future. Having experienced this diving forgiveness, the only forgiveness that has no conditions or limits, we are then set free and enabled to reflect this same forgiveness to others.

God became man and came to this world to make us His own children and to share with us the freedom of His own divine life, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”(Jn 10:10) We are called to that “glorious freedom of the children of God.”(Rom 8:21) It is definitely not the will of God that we lose our freedom, live as slaves of things, people and their judgement, and lose our power to choose the good and avoid evil. The only path to this freedom is through experiencing divine forgiveness and making an unwavering decision to reflect the same forgiveness to others from our hearts.

In this world where we are hurt frequently by our fellow sinners and “Forgive and Forget” just doesn’t do justice to our painful memories, the Eucharist we celebrate makes present the paschal mystery of Christ and reminds us why Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, “For this is why Christ died and came to life, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” Jesus Christ has offered His spotless body to the Father, shed His last drop of blood for us, and gave His own Spirit to us so that we become free like He is as God’s own children and not slaves of hurt feelings, resentments and all the slavery that they bring. He definitely does not ask us to pretend to have amnesia but to open our hearts to His grace and forgive others continuously from the heart. If we experience His liberating forgiveness and still choose to put limits or conditions to our forgiveness of others for whatever reason, we will surely lose our freedom.

Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!