A few years ago, I was struck by the fact that the only ‘ask’ of us in the Lord’s prayer is forgiveness. That’s it, everything else is what the Lord can do for us – give us our daily bread, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil. Combine that with the greatest commandment being love. Forgiveness is love and love is forgiveness – completely interwoven. Pretty cut and dry as to what is required.

As we continue our Lenten journey, let us recall that we are all broken, in need of each other’s forgiveness and mercy.  Catholic Social Teaching states that each and every person has value and is worthy of great respect; respect that is man-given, but ‘God-demanded’.  Forgiveness is more powerful than judgment and ‘whatever you do to the least of my brothers you do to me’.

In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter approached Jesus and said to him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Forgiveness is neither optional nor conditional and needs to be given without limits.

Webster’s definition of forgiveness is “to cease to feel resentment against.” This need to stop feeling resentment can come in all shapes and sizes. We may need to forgive a small transgression or something that wounded us deeply; it may be a family member or an outsider. The friend who betrayed our confidence or the family member who broke our heart, creates more of a challenge to forgive.

While forgiveness of behavior isn’t always appropriate, forgiveness for the individual within our hearts is. No greater example of forgiveness can be found in the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina forgiving murderer Dylann Roof. Relatives of victims said, “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you” and “we have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.” This also called to mind the massacre of Amish children that took place in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 2006. Members of the Amish families immediately expressed their forgiveness of the killer by visiting his family to offer pardon and condolence. In both situations they broke free of the self-seeking rhythm of exchange and demonstrated the existence and nature of the love of God. “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” – Paul Boese

The Matthew West song Forgiveness has incredible lyrics and fortunately with the air time it gets on Christian music stations (40 weeks on Billboard’s Chart, peaking at #2), serves as a great reminder. The song was inspired by the true story of Renee Napier, who chose to forgive Eric Smallridge, a drunk driver who took the life of her 20-year-old daughter. As West explained, “the story made me take a look at my own life and ask myself if I’d be able to do the impossible, just like she did”:

It’s the hardest thing to give away

And the last thing on your mind today

It always goes to those who don’t deserve

It’s the opposite of how you feel

When they pain they caused is just too real

It flies in the face of all your pride

It moves away the mad inside

It’s always anger’s own worst enemy

There is no end to what its power can do

The prisoner that it really frees is you

In Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” (6:37), Jesus said to his disciples, “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” Jesus’ teaching on the love of one’s neighbor is characterized by forgiveness.

However, forgiveness today seems to be lacking. I believe it may be linked to our growing secularization and an outcome of a less religious society. Secularization causes a loss of social and cultural significance tied to religious morals and values.  As we become more secular it is a movement away from forgiveness and towards an expectation of performance. That movement creates an elevated level of performance expectation, an unattainable need for perfection. Today forgiveness has been replaced by condemnation. Benjamin Franklin said, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.”

Forgiveness is an essential part of strong, healthy relationships. A 2003 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine showed that the health benefits of forgiveness come largely from its ability to reduce negative feelings of tension and anger; leading to decreased stress and blood pressure levels. The body manufactures “high voltage” chemicals like adrenaline and cortisone when you don’t forgive. Too many of these chemicals can result in health issues, some serious. In relationships that fail to forgive, imbalances are created. True closeness is an impossibility because the “offended” is in a position of holding the “offender” in bondage. The person who made the mistake or hurt the other is kept in a “one down” position of being indebted to the other.

Forgiveness and justice play against one another. Forgiveness keeps justice in check so that society doesn’t slide into brutality and anger. If most of the people want revenge, we would devolve into an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ society. A quick search of the history books shows that humanity has tried that approach a number of times with it being an abject failure. “While revenge weakens society, forgiveness gives it strength.” – Dalai Lama

In life, we should forgive because God forgives us and commands us to forgive one another in Ephesians 4:32 (be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ) and Matthew 6:14-15 (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). We need to grow the capability to forgive. It needs to start small and then we add to it – like weightlifting, like running.  However, before we can even start we need to get rid of the negative.  Can’t lose weight without stopping bad eating habits; can’t save money without stopping bad spending habits; can’t forgive till we stop our habit of judging and condemning.

Why does God ask us to forgive? Because He knows that forgiveness is the only way to break the power of anger, bitterness and pain. He knows forgiveness is the better way. The difference between “bitter” and “better” is the letter “i.” I get to choose which I become. “I forgive you not because of who you are, but because of who I am.”

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespassed against us.”

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