Jesus, God’s mercy in the flesh, often spoke about forgiveness.
He even said that if we expect God to forgive us, then we must forgive others (see Matthew 6:14-15). It’s a requirement! Without forgiveness, we can become bitter, and bitterness can lead to other sins. As Christians, we have to forgive everyone—not just other Christians, but everyone.
It is difficult to choose a favorite Scripture passage about the mercy of Jesus—there are so many of them! There is the story about the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and then wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), the incident about the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11), or the story about the “good thief” who was crucified with Jesus (Luke 23:39-43). It is even more difficult to choose one among the many actions of Jesus that was merciful, such as eating with sinners and tax collectors or forgiving those who put him to death. We could say that Jesus was the personification of God’s mercy made manifest in human history. This is the first part of the mystery of forgiveness. It is not that we love Christ first, but rather that he loves and forgives us for all the ways that we reject him, turn from him, and run away from him and from each other. The Greek word for “forgiveness” is aphienai, meaning to “loose,” “let go,” “release,” or “omit.” It is Christ’s free gift.
Jesus forgives because that is his mission. He was sent by the Father so that God’s forgiveness would permeate human history. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). This gift has changed many hearts, both in the men and women whose stories are told in the Gospels and in countless others through the centuries. Through the grace of God, this forgiveness flows from the heart of Jesus to all of us, drawing us into the joy and unity of the Trinity. The Samaritan woman at the well is a fine example of this joyful response as she raced to tell all the villagers about Jesus—the very same villagers she had been avoiding (John 4:1-42).
Many saints have offered descriptions about the nature of God’s forgiveness and mercy. St. John Vianney (1786–1859) wrote, “Our sins are nothing but a grain of sand alongside the great mountain of the mercy of God.” St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622) proclaimed, “Where is the foolish person who would think it in his power to commit a sin more than God could forgive.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,
“There is no one, however wicked and guilty, who may not confidently hope for forgiveness, provided his repentance is honest” (Roman Catechism I, 11, 5). Christ who died for all men desires that in his Church the gates of forgiveness should always be open to anyone who turns away from sin. (982)
This means that each of us is faced with a life-defining and death-defying choice: will I accept this offer of the unconditional, forgiving love of Christ, or will I reject it?
Surrendering to the Gift of Forgiveness
During his first public interview, published in September 2013, Pope Francis rocked the world with his response to the interviewer’s first question, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Pope Francis paused for a few moments and responded, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner . . . I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon” (emphasis added).
Yes! The Christian is someone “whom the Lord has looked upon” with mercy and forgiveness. “As far as the east is from the west, / so far he removes our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). But do you really believe this? Do you know how to accept this gift? Do you surrender to God as a sinner? And do you know how to respond by forgiving yourself in God’s presence so that you can be free enough to forgive others?
God’s Invitations to Forgiveness
The second part of the mystery of forgiveness is that we are called to offer forgiveness to others. To forgive others, we must allow God’s Holy Spirit to work through us to love and forgive them. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). This is a bold spiritual truth that is meant to be the measure of every relationship. And if you are thinking that forgiveness is impossible on your own, you are right! Forgiveness can only be your distinguishing mark as a Christian if you are willing to fall on your knees and ask for this gift. Forgiveness and mercy are for those who are open to facing a host of decisions and conscious choices to enter into God’s mercy, over and over again, through an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ lived in the power of the Holy Spirit.
—excerpted from Mending Broken Relationships, by John and Therese Boucher, The Word Among Us Press, 2015. Available at wau.org/books