Mother Angelica, the spunky Italian nun, once quipped, “If it wasn’t for people, we could all be holy.” And it’s simply true. Which of us has not thought at one time or another that the path to sainthood would be so much easier if it were not for so-and-so who is a real thorn in our side?
Relationships can be messy, fraught with misunderstandings, and at times not infrequent, a real source of anxiety. People can be jerks. They can be entirely insensitive to us and our needs. They can outrageous with their rudeness or disregard for our wishes. They can annoy us with their grating personalities or frustrate us with their stubborn inflexibility. Grudges can be held. Tempers can flare and hot words can be exchanged.
Sometimes, these slights are perceived—mere misunderstandings manufactured by our minds. Other times, the cruelty and wounds inflicted can be very real and our hurt justified. People are imperfect, and no matter how hard we strive to maintain peace, we will encounter relational strife at one point or another. It is inevitable as the rising of the sun. That is why it is no exaggeration to say that forgiveness is the condition of all relationship. You simply can’t relate to anyone without having to forgive them to one degree or another, for they will wrong you.
The Necessity of Forgiveness
Our Lord was no stranger to strife. Not only was he hunted and persecuted by the religious authorities of his day, culminating in the cruelest rejection of the cross, but he was also scorned and mocked by a great deal of the people who should have been his most devoted followers. Moreover, his disciples were constantly bickering about the most petty things. Though they were grown men, they frequently acted more like quarrelsome children.
Despite this constant relational turmoil, Christ forgave with patience and love. Even when he was being hoisted on the cross, he cried out to the Father, begging him to forgive his executioners. His forgiveness, both then and now, was infinite.
Likewise, he taught his disciples to imitate his infinite forgiveness. One of his hardest sayings was the commandment to forgive. Even St. Peter found it hard to swallow. After our Lord taught about the importance of reconciliation with others, Peter came to him and asked about the limit of this forgiveness. “Lord, should I forgive seven times?” he asked. That seemed extreme in his mind, but at least there was a limit to it. But Jesus’ answer was even more extreme, “No, you must forgive until seventy times seven.”
Saying seventy times seven, in the terms of his day, was equivalent to saying forgive infinitely, without end. That was not what St. Peter wanted to hear. But to reinforce the point, Christ goes on to tell the parable of the unmerciful servant, who was forgiven an enormous debt only to demand that he be paid back a much smaller debt. His lack of mercy got him thrown in prison and punished severely. The point was clear: We must give mercy if we want to get it, and forgive without condition and without end.
One of the most frequently offered excuses for unforgiveness is that an apology must be extended in order for forgiveness to be given. The conditions for said apology are often unrealistic—things like: they must catalog all the wrongs they committed, acknowledge their wickedness in full detail, and express true contrition for each act until the hurt party is fully satisfied.
In one sense, the desire for this detailed apology is understandable. We all want satisfaction. But the truth is such apologies are rarely if ever given. And even if they were common, Christ did not leave us a loophole for withholding forgiveness until we get an apology (or any loopholes for that matter). He simply tells us to forgive and to seek reconciliation, even if it is ultimately rejected.
Relational brokenness is a fact of existence. The outcome of this brokenness, however, is up to us—it is determined by how we choose to respond to it, for it can make us either bitter or better.
That is not to say that forgiveness is always easy. Depending on the depth of the wound inflicted, it can be extremely difficult and take a great deal of time, effort, and prayer. At times, it can be even be one of the most difficult things we do. Yet, our Lord does not make exceptions on a case by case basis. We must forgive.
Forgiveness is so essential that Christ tells us that we will not be forgiven by God if we do not forgive. The degree of mercy we receive is in exact proportion to the amount of mercy we extend. If you want God to forgive you without end, you must forgive without end. Do not expect great clemency if you will not extend it yourself. “As the Lord has forgiven you,” says St. Paul, “so you also must forgive.”
We all crave the benefit of the doubt from others. We all want others to forgive us and see the good intentions behind our actions. And we enter the confessional time after time, expecting full forgiveness and mercy from God for our sins and wickedness. Yet, despite these expectations, we so often judge others severely, hold petty grudges, and think the worst of everyone. It is simply wrong.
It’s all about Communion
Communion isn’t just another word for receiving the Eucharist—though the Eucharist is indeed the fullest expression of communion on earth. Communion means participating in the life of another; sharing in that life so intimately that your happiness is bound up in theirs, that you become part of eachother’s existence.
As Christians, we are called to communion both horizontally and vertically—with God and with our neighbor. We are called to commune with the Divine life, to share in the life of the Trinity in love. It is a tremendous truth. But it doesn’t end there. We are also called to commune with our neighbor in love. Who is our neighbor? That person right in front of us, no matter how annoying or hurtful they may be.
Unforgiveness is a poison that severs communion. It destroys the very relationships, horizontal and vertical, for which we were made. And that is why we are called to forgive. For just as God restored communion with us by forgiving our sins, we must restore communion with him and with our neighbor by forgiving those who have hurt us.
Forgiveness restores communion. It breathes life into what is dead, it restores and heals what is broken. In that sense, it is one of the most holy and God-like things we can do. Let us resolve to always have hearts full of forgiveness, for he who extends great mercy without end will receive it in the same measure.