As you celebrate the fourth of July, spend a little time thinking about forgiveness.
Forgiving one’s enemies might seem unrelated to the day’s festivities, but Independence Day is a day to rejoice that we live in a free country. We are free as Christians to live the gospel we profess. And this gospel has as one of its golden rules to love others as we would want to be loved (Matthew 19:19). This love begins with God’s love for us, and from there, flows outward to our families, to our friends, and to the whole world.
Forgiveness and the “Logic of Love”
Loving others begins with forgiveness. In 1997, Pope St. John Paul II spoke of the urgent need for forgiveness: “Forgiveness can seem contrary to human logic, which often yields to the dynamics of conflict and revenge. But forgiveness is inspired by the logic of love, that love which God has for every man and woman” (Address for World Day of Peace, 1). These words seem so simple, yet our world is in such dire need for forgiveness and love. Even those who profess their faith in Christ can be lacking in mercy toward others.
To understand the “logic of love,” one must know him who is love. This is crucial, because the ability to love and forgive is first and foremost something that God does in us. God is love itself (1 John 4:16), and as we yield and bind ourselves to him, we receive his love and find ourselves able to share that love with others. We forgive just as freely as we have been forgiven.
Do you know God as love? The more deeply we know God dwelling in our hearts, the more deeply the Holy Spirit will inspire us to grasp God’s love and enable us to surpass the limitations of human reason. Certainly, logic is a wonderful gift from God that helps us to reason soundly and make right choices. However, by the power of the Holy Spirit, a relationship with God can take us beyond human capabilities and give us a share in God’s own divine nature. We can actually become like him. Baptism is our first step in this transforming process. Every day we are called to further our knowledge and understanding of God’s love poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5), until we reach the point where “God’s forgiveness becomes in our hearts an inexhaustible source of forgiveness in our relationships with one another” (Pope John Paul II, World Day of Peace, 1).
The Divine Capacity to Love
In the New Testament, God revealed the infinite lengths to which his love would extend. Throughout his public ministry, Jesus offered love and forgiveness to those bound by sickness and sin. He welcomed outcasts lovingly, and public sinners found mercy and compassion in him. He even answered the pleas of Romans and Canaanites. Jesus Christ, the very image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), was so filled with his Father’s love that he offered forgiveness and salvation to everyone he encountered (Luke 19:1-10), and it hurt him to see his gift of love rejected (Matthew 23:37-38).
Throughout his life, Jesus demonstrated the need to go beyond the human capacity to love. He taught us not to retaliate against those who hurt or persecute us, but to love them (Matthew 5:44). He manifested this love most perfectly at Calvary, where he poured out his very life so that we could receive God’s forgiveness. As he hung there, with the nails piercing his hands and feet, he heard the crowds mocking him and the religious leaders taunting him to display his power.
Jesus knew he didn’t deserve anything that he was enduring, yet he prayed: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus offered this prayer not only for those at Golgotha on that first Good Friday—his forgiveness extends to every one of us. As his people, filled with his Spirit, we can now rise above the limitations of human logic and extend this same love and forgiveness to anyone who has hurt us.
The Heart of the Problem
Even a superficial look at the world around us reveals the immense need for forgiveness rooted in the love of God. Violence and war have ravaged countries for years, producing generations raised in an atmosphere of hatred and vengeance. In the developing world, hunger and starvation have robbed entire nations of hope and reduced them to a life-long struggle for survival. In the Western world, few people have been spared the breakdown of family life. Many have seen members of their own family wounded by divorce or infidelity. Reports of child abuse, runaway parents, and domestic violence are all around us. Without the gift of genuine forgiveness, these problems will continue to produce an ever-deepening atmosphere of guilt, isolation, and hatred.
Many people live under a tremendous burden of guilt because they don’t know how to deal with the sins and temptations of daily life. Whether it is over major sins or minor transgressions, guilt robs us of the joy and freedom that is the rightful heritage of every Christian. When guilt is left to fester, it can lead to confusion, isolation, and even physical illness as it leaves a person bitter, defensive, and sapped of his or her self-esteem.
What is the answer to this plague of guilt? Jesus told his disciples: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you” (John 15:9). No matter our circumstances, our God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity” (Exodus 34:6). Through the Holy Spirit, God has poured his love into our hearts (Romans 5:5), and it is there—in the depths of our being—that we can experience a divine forgiveness that melts away guilt and shame. At any moment, we can turn to God and know his love and forgiveness. He wants to pour out his mercy, and the only thing he looks for is a repentant heart.
As God’s love is poured into our hearts, so much that we can almost feel it, we begin to sense that even we can have an effect on this plague of guilt and shame. Every day, we are called to love everyone around us—at home, in our neighborhoods, at work, and at school. The daily practice of forgiveness pleases God immensely, because it is a reflection of the mercy Jesus has for us. These personal situations may seem small when we compare them to the monumental problems facing humanity. Still, by bringing God’s love and forgiveness to bear in our hearts and in our relationships, we allow the power of the gospel to change our lives and the lives of everyone around us. In his day, Jesus preached only in a few towns in Palestine, and yet his words changed the entire world. We, his followers, can do the same.
Jesus’ love can release us from bondage to guilt on a daily basis. Every evening, before you go to bed, ask yourself: “How did I respond to difficult situations today—the little trials that tested my faith? How did these situations affect my relationship with the Lord and with those around me?” The gospel calls us first to confess our sins, accepting Jesus’ forgiveness, and then to offer forgiveness to others and accept their forgiveness. By asking these few simple questions, we will begin to see significant changes in our lives.
God’s Eagerness to Forgive
As Jesus becomes the foundation of our lives, we grasp more fully the love of God—a love so great that he gave up his beloved Son to win forgiveness for us. In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), we can see the interplay between God’s love and his desire to forgive. Even after the young man squandered everything, his father watched anxiously for his return. Finally catching sight of his lost son, the man ran to greet him, embraced him and showered him with kisses. In a similar way, God our Father runs to meet us and forgive us whenever we turn back to him. “He doesn’t even let the son apologize: everything is forgiven. The intense joy of forgiveness, offered and received, heals seemingly incurable wounds, restores relationships and firmly roots them in God’s inexhaustible love” (Pope John Paul II, World Day of Peace, 6).
“God is prepared to forgive me!” Nothing could be greater than this realization. God is so merciful that when we go to him, there is no bitterness, grudge, or resentment that might hinder him from pouring out his love. Just as Jesus washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-15), he wants to wash our feet as well. So much did Jesus love his disciples that he willingly became their servant. The only greater expression of his love came on the following day when he hung on the cross to free us all from sin. Now, every day, he is prepared to wash our feet as we approach him in prayer, seek his presence at Mass, and listen to his word in Scripture.
Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “The liberating encounter with forgiveness, though fraught with difficulties, can be experienced even by a wounded heart, thanks to the healing power of love, which has its first source in God” (World Day of Peace, 4). It is this kind of experience that enables us to love others. Let us open our hearts to receive his mercy every day. Let us ask him to make us as merciful and loving as he is.