Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Most Dangerous Prayer: Part 5

For years, this next section of the Our Father has stuck in my mind as the most dangerous phrase of this prayer: and forgives us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  This phrase strikes at the heart of the Mission of Jesus Christ: the reconciliation brought about through the exercise of mercy and the forgiveness of sin.  It stirs up protracted discussions about mercy, forgiveness, justice, confession, retribution, and salvation itself.  Indeed, in St Matthew's  telling, immediately after the giving of this prayer, Jesus says, " If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions." (Matthew 6: 14-15)

'To forgive' means to 'no longer hold against'.  For example, we can forgive a loan.  This means that the monies owed are no longer owed, the lender cannot come back and demand payment.  We see Jesus draw this comparison in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-34)  To forgive does not deny reality; it does not change that a debt was owed.  It means the the debt is wiped clean through the exercise of mercy on the part of the lender.

To forgive sin means to no longer hold that sin against the person.  Once forgiven, that action cannot be brought up for later accusation and use.  When  God forgives us, the sin is no longer held against us.  This is not a condoning of the sin.  This is not an encouragement to further sin.  It is an act of mercy.  As stated before, in this protracted reflection, to call God our Father is to adopt the traits of the Father and His ways to ourselves.  If God exercises mercy and forgives, then we as His children must as well.  To refuse to forgive is to turn our back on our eternal heritage.  To value forgiveness means we understand that the idea of taking revenge, active or passive, is to turn our back on our heritage.  Note how the older brother's unwillingness to forgive in the Parable of the Prodigal Son leaves him estranged from his heritage in  Luke 15:28-30.  We cannot be like Amon Goeth in Schindler's List who says "I pardon you' as he shoots to kill.

I am convinced that the devil deludes us into thinking that to forgive means to condone.  To condone a sin is to give excuse to sin, to declare it okay or understandable.  God does not approve of our sins when He forgives.  No, he acknowledges we sinned and forgives nonetheless.  If we approach Him in sorrow and contrition for what we have done, He forgives us because he is mercy.

It is worth self examination, then, to look at how we treat those who have harmed us.  It is easy to say, 'I forgive you,' by comparison of actually forgiving.  Actual forgiveness means to 'no longer hold against.'   That is a much taller order.  That, at times, can require heroic virtue.  In actual forgiveness, we leave ourselves vulnerable to be hurt again.  If our forgiveness is contingent upon the offending party never hurting us again, it will be hard to do so.  While there is no guarantee that the person not sin against us, we must learn from the words of Christ to woman caught in adultery, "go, and sin no more."   Certainly, God would afford the grace to the person to do so.  When we forgive, do we help set up the circumstances for possible conversion, or push the person away as an act of self defense?  No doubt, people will turn to extreme cases like an abusive and violent spouse.   The overwhelming majority of the things we must forgive don't quite rise to that level.

Even in the case of an abusive spouse, why forgive?  If you look at the other phrases within the Our Father, each is a recognition that God is looking out for our good.  How, then, is God looking out for our good in mandating forgiveness?  Simple.  Forgiveness is the ultimate act of self preservation.  In forgiveness, we no longer allow the harm another did to control our actions and words.  In true forgiveness, we don't carry the onerous burden of the debt owed us by another.  I think of some of horrible things that have been done to me.  As long as I withheld forgiveness, I carried the burden of allowing those actions to define me and my responses.  Forgiveness frees us.  A loving God knows this and wants us to be free so that we may love as He does.  That ability to love as God loves is truncated while we hold tight to the shackles of resentment.  Without the ability to love as God loves, we shut ourselves out of the Kingdom of Heaven.  That love has as its heart mercy.

I go one step further. We live in a court of public scrutiny.  We display the sins of another and treat them as they were offenses against me as an individual.  I will take an example from today's headlines.: Dylan Root.  When that young man went into that church and killed those who had welcomed him, it was a heinous and evil act.  The family members of the victims and the survivors have a monumental task in forgiving him.  It might be even said that the other members of that Church have the same monumental task.  Certainly it is the duty of the people of law enforcement to deal with Mr Root and give a fitting punishment for the crimes.  We can argue whether the death penalty is fitting, but that is a different argument for a different time on this blog.  All this said, how is what happened my business?  Has Mr Root somehow trespassed against me?  Does he require my forgiveness?  Does he require my condemnation?  My duty to Mr Root is to pray for his conversion and the state of his immortal soul.  That is what my contribution is to be in this matter.  Far too often, in this culture we interject our nose into matters that are not our business.  We cannot call ourselves good Catholics on the one hand and then hold our thumbs in the ready position like the roman emperor in the Colosseum deciding the fate of the next criminal brought in to die for our entertainment.

Jesus makes clear here and elsewhere that God will give us what we give.  He will also withhold from us what we withhold.  Is ceding heaven worth nurturing our hurt?  Is holding onto the chains of our resentment worth hell?  This most dangerous phrase of this prayer is either a constant reminder to virtue or a damning self indictment.  As hard as it might be, forgiveness is an absolute necessity in the life of a Catholic.


  1. Now explain "lead us not into temptation". That one always stops me in my tracks

  2. I just discovered your blog today... thank you for your dissection of "forgive us our trespasses..." The piece was well-written and concise, and the Dylan Roof example thought-provoking. Thank you! God bless you!+