I forgive you.
Why is it often so hard to say these three words? Perhaps because this is something we say to someone who has hurt us—and sometimes that hurt is still stinging. We all know how difficult it is to be forgiving and merciful.
Yet Jesus told us, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). He promised that the more mercy we show toward other people, the more we will be capable of receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. And given the amount of hurt there is in the world, this Beatitude has a special importance for us. So let’s explore it further.
A God of Mercy. Imagine what must have been in the Father’s heart as he shepherded his people, Israel. For generations God had been urging them to love him and to love one another as he had loved them. Despite all the ways he had blessed them, however, the people continued to waver. Israel was God’s chosen people, a family, and yet the rich oppressed the poor. The powerful ignored the weak. And the lure of false gods led them to ignore God’s call to be a holy nation. God wanted to give them so much, but their failure to follow his commands left them a wounded, conquered, occupied people.
And yet through all those centuries of sin and disobedience, God never wavered in his love—and his mercy—for them. He sent them prophets to call them back. He forgave them over and over again. Ultimately, his mercy compelled him to send his only Son to teach them, to reveal his will to them, and to pour out his life to save them. God’s decision to send Jesus wasn’t just one act of mercy or one brief decision to pardon them. It was the fullest expression of the merciful love God has for his people—and for the whole world—from the start. It was God’s attitude of mercy put into action.
This Is Your Story. The story of God’s mercy for his people is the story of his mercy for each of us as well. Your Father in heaven sees everything about you, the good and the bad together. He sees your compassion for people as well as the divisive thoughts you have against some of them. He hears the words of encouragement you offer as well as the hurtful words you speak. He sees your acts of love as well as those times when you fall short. And he loves you through it all. As he did with the Israelites, he continues to work with you, to teach you, and to form you. He loves you far too much to give up on you!
This is the great good news of the gospel: God loves you just as much when you fall to temptation as when you stay strong, just as much when you wander from him as when you are faithful to prayer. His love compels him to say “I forgive you” every time you return to him. His mercy moves him to forgive you the very moment you repent—every single time.
The Other Side of Mercy. Every day that he walked the earth, Jesus treated people with mercy. He told a woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11). He told a man stricken with paralysis, “Your sins are forgiven. . . . Rise, pick up your mat, and go home” (Mark 2:5, 11). To a woman known for her immoral lifestyle, he said, “Your sins are forgiven. . . . Go in peace” (Luke 7:48, 50). And through his parable of the prodigal son, he tells all of us, “You are here with me always; everything I have is yours” (15:31). As Pope Francis has often said, Jesus is “the face of God’s mercy.”
And yet there’s another side of mercy, one that goes beyond forgiving sins. Jesus showed us how God’s mercy is an attitude of love and forbearance and not just a series of “I forgive you” statements. Think of all the times his disciples said or did something that truly disappointed him. Think of the disciples’ fear and lack of faith during a storm at sea while Jesus slept peacefully beside them (Matthew 8:23-27). Think of James and John desiring to be close to Jesus and at the same time selfishly angling for positions of power (Mark 10:35-37). Think of Thomas doubting that Jesus had risen (John 20:24-25). Again and again, Jesus ran up against his disciples’ pride or selfishness or weak faith. And yet he never wavered in his commitment to them. He kept working with them patiently and hopefully. His mercy for them covered not only their sins but their mistakes and weaknesses as well.
This is the other side of mercy. Even when someone hasn’t directly sinned against us, God still wants us to act with the same love that Jesus had for his disciples. Even if what they are doing isn’t really a sin but still bothers us, he asks us to show mercy, compassion, and patience. One story from the early Church shows us what this kind of mercy looks like (Acts 15:36-41).
Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark. When he took his first missionary journey, the apostle Paul was joined by two other people: his close friend, Barnabas, and Barnabas’ cousin, John Mark. It was a difficult journey, and John Mark left Paul and Barnabas in the middle of their travels. We don’t know exactly why John Mark left, but there is no sign that sin had anything to do with it. Perhaps he had become unsettled by the challenges and the dangers of missionary life, and he wanted to go back home.
John Mark’s defection stung Paul deeply, and when it came time for him and Barnabas to set out again, Paul refused to let John Mark join them. Barnabas disagreed; he wanted to give his cousin a second chance. After a serious argument, Paul and Barnabas parted ways. Paul took Silas with him, and Barnabas took John Mark.
Unlike Paul, Barnabas was willing to be patient with John Mark. He continued to teach him and form him, and it paid off. John Mark learned how to serve the Lord selflessly and gave himself for the Church.
For his part, Paul ultimately found the ability to treat John Mark with the same mercy Barnabas had for him. He counted him as one of his “co-workers,” and he specifically asked St. Timothy to bring John Mark with him when he came to visit Paul in prison (Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11). Early Christian tradition even holds that this John Mark, whom Barnabas had treated with such mercy, is the same Mark who wrote the earliest Gospel. Imagine what our Bible would have been like if Barnabas had given up on him!
Showing mercy is more than a matter of letting someone off the hook. It’s a matter of knowing that we are not the judge; God is. Mercy urges us not to hold grudges against anyone. It teaches us to look at everyone as beloved children of God, worthy of a second chance and a third chance and even a seventy-seventh chance (Matthew 18:22).
It’s Love, Not a Business Transaction. Jesus promised, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). It can sound as if he is proposing some kind of transaction, as if God issues you a pardon each time you pardon someone else. Something much more important happens when we treat each other with mercy. When we forgive someone who has sinned against us or when we practice patience and forbearance, we are softening our own hearts. We are acknowledging that we are just like everyone else, and that attitude of kindness and compassion opens us up to experience the mercy that God has for us.
This week, try to practice mercy, forbearance, and forgiveness. Jesus promised, “The measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you” (Luke 6:38). So do your part. Take the following questions to prayer, and ask God to help you answer them:
Is there someone who has wronged you or sinned against you that you need to forgive? Ask for God’s grace and strength to forgive that person, even if he hasn’t asked for forgiveness.
Is there someone whom you need to show forbearance to, someone who hasn’t sinned against you, but you still find hard to be around? Ask the Lord to help you forbear and speak only words of kindness and peace.
Just as a steady rain falling on a field gradually softens the ground and feeds the grass, little acts of mercy, forgiveness, and forbearance can soften our hearts and make us more open to the Holy Spirit. The more we practice mercy, the more we will discover that God’s abundant mercy, love, and forbearance have been available to us all the time!