When Peter asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive someone who sinned against him, Jesus told him, “seventy-seven times,” a Semitic way of saying something like “every time, every day, for the rest of your life” (Matthew 18:21). But sometimes the pain of what has happened to us is so deep that we wonder if we will ever be able to forgive.
That’s where Linda was—bitter, broken, and unable to forgive her former husband. And she’s not alone. Think of the mother whose young daughter was sexually abused by a family member. Think of the man whose wife is killed by a drunk driver. Or think of the woman whose husband lost all their money gambling. Situations like these can be so traumatic that forgiveness seems simply out of the question.
At the same time, there are a number of smaller offenses that, given the right circumstances, can inflict a lot of pain. Think about how someone who is already hurting from many other wounds might react to a bit of gossip or a broken promise. They may be small offenses in the grand scheme of things, but they can still make that person just as bitter and unforgiving the larger offenses can.
Forgive and Forget? Linda may have had her own faults, but as far as she was concerned, her commitment, her love for Brad, and everything that she did to try to save their marriage far outweighed her failings. What Brad did, however, fell far outside the bounds of what was acceptable or just. For nearly a year, Linda felt paralyzed in her grief and anger.
Things began to change one Sunday after Mass when her pastor, Fr. Tim, caught up with her and asked, “How are you doing?” She broke down in tears, telling him how much she was still hurting. By the end of their conversation, Fr. Tim had given her two suggestions. First, he told her that sooner or later, she would have to forgive Brad and move on with her life. And to help her get there, he asked her to read a couple of books on forgiveness and then meet with him again in two weeks.
Seeing how much this divorce was burdening her but knowing that she couldn’t yet forgive Brad, Linda decided to read the books and get together with Fr. Tim as soon as she could. During their next appointment, a few action steps emerged. Fr. Tim suggested that Linda look at the mural of her life and begin to verbalize her feelings toward Brad. He also told her to read the psalms after she got her feelings out and to keep a journal of her thoughts and feelings. Finally, he told her that when the time was right, she had to forgive Brad.
Mercy Begets Mercy. On our own, we can find it very difficult to forgive, especially when it comes to the deep hurts of life. But that changes as we come to understand how merciful Jesus is toward us. Essentially, there are two ways that we can learn this. One is to meditate on how much Jesus suffered for our sake, especially on the cross. The second is to embrace the fact that he freely and generously chose to forgive us of every sin, no matter how offensive it may be.
Scripture tells us that Jesus was like us in every way but sin (Hebrews 4:15). That means that he knew what it felt like to suffer the hurts of being rejected and sinned against. As a young boy, he and his family had to flee into Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous rage (Matthew 2:13-23). Once he entered into public ministry, it didn’t take long before people began scrutinizing his every word and action, trying to discredit and destroy him (Mark 3:6). Finally, Jesus must have felt very much alone and abandoned on the cross. He even cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Were you ever humiliated? Did someone ever purposely make fun of you, embarrass you, or spread gossip about you? Has anyone ever rejected you or tried to harm you physically? Has anyone ever exploited you for selfish gain? All of this happened to Jesus. He felt rejection from his people, even from his own townsfolk. He felt hatred from members of the religious elite. He felt indifference and misunderstanding from the people he had come to save. He didn’t just feel the physical pain of the cross. He felt the full weight of its emotional pain as well.
Yet despite all that he endured, Jesus practiced what he preached. He loved them all. He interceded for them. He asked his Father to forgive them even as he himself had forgiven them.
Of course, Jesus was never alone. His Father never left him. His mother Mary, the disciple John, and a few others stood by to support him and pray for him. Their presence and prayers must have offered him some comfort, but they could not possibly have taken away the tremendous amount of pain that he was suffering.
You may feel alone at times, but never forget that Jesus is with you. He knows what it feels like to suffer from life’s hurts, and he wants to help you. He knows how difficult it is to forgive. He will always ask you to forgive, but he is also patient. He loves you even when you can’t forgive. He loves you so much, in fact, that he offers you his own divine power to help you forgive. He wants to see you whole, at peace, and free enough to show people the same mercy he has shown you.
“Father, Forgive.” At every Mass, the priest holds up the chalice and, in the name of Jesus, says, “This is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Now, imagine yourself before St. Peter at the gate of heaven. Peter opens the scroll of your life, and you see that the list of your sins stretches on and on. Overwhelmed, you say, “I can’t believe I committed so many sins!” You fear that things won’t go well for you. But as Peter reads out the first sin, it disappears from the scroll. Then the next one disappears. And the next one. And the next one. God’s mercy has triumphed, and you are completely forgiven!
Forgiveness is a father running to meet his prodigal son—who has rejected him, left him, and hurt him—with open arms. It is God comparing himself to Hosea, a prophet who took his wife back after she had committed adultery (Hosea 1–2). It’s Jesus wanting to give a Samaritan woman a share in his living water despite the fact that she had been divorced five times and was living with another man out of wedlock (John 4). It’s Jesus, hanging on the cross in agony, praying, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34).
No one on the face of the earth has been hurt as much as God. No one has been treated more unjustly. No one has more of a right to withhold forgiveness than our Creator. Yet he chose to forgive us. And he chooses to forgive us over and over and over again. He sent his only Son to us to make the ultimate sacrifice of his life—all so that he could make things right between us (John 3:16-17).
Grace Fills the Void. No matter who you are, no matter how great your sins are, God loves you. He forgives you. He wants to heal you and draw you close to his heart. As much as we can understand this amazing truth, we will find ourselves willing to forgive—even those people we would consider our enemies. Just as hatred has the power to beget hatred, God’s love has the power to beget more love.
As Linda learned about God’s mercy and forgiveness, she began to feel his grace and comfort filling her heart. Her times of verbalizing her hurts became opportunities to push it all out of her. They became times when she could feel the Holy Spirit filling the empty spaces with his presence. She was being healed by the power of God. She had come to the point where Fr. Tim could ask her to forgive Brad just as Jesus had forgiven her.