HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED how quickly we sometimes pray the Our Father? So quickly, in fact, that we may even fail to consider what we’re asking. Take, for example, the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Many of us are eager to be forgiven but less eager to forgive others — and this shouldn’t surprise us. We live in a culture that’s often cynical, angry and lacking compassion. As the late archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, once aptly observed, contemporary culture “permits everything and forgives nothing.”
It’s all too easy for us to be swept up into this culture of finger-pointing, defamation and retaliation. What’s more, such attitudes are not reserved for public figures but can easily infect our personal and professional relationships. And it doesn’t take a scientific survey to see that our culture of anger and unforgiveness contributes to increased anxiety, loneliness and isolation. After all, each of us is one tweet away from public denunciation and loss of reputation.
When we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we are asking — among other things — to be delivered from this culture of comeuppance. We are not necessarily asking God to protect us from it, but praying for the grace not to engage in it ourselves. And more than that, we are asking for the grace to forgive those who have harmed us in public or in private, whether by malicious and false speech, by treachery and betrayal, or by another form of inhumane behavior.
In making this request of our heavenly Father, we are on good ground. Did not Jesus say to us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44)? St. Paul echoes the Lord’s words: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if your enemy is thirsty, give him something to drink” (Rom 12:20).
Jesus also tells us to forgive repeatedly and without limits: “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Mt 7:2). Indeed, forgiveness is a big part of loving our neighbors as ourselves. If we wish to prepare our hearts to receive God’s mercy for the sins we have committed, then we must strive to forgive those who have sinned against us.
Who of us doesn’t find this teaching difficult? It’s hard enough to forgive someone who has taken our money and possessions. But it’s even harder, I think, to forgive those who have betrayed our friendship, acted unethically in a professional relationship, or spread lies and half-truths about us — in a word, those who have reached into the interior of our lives to do us harm.
Yet perhaps those “who trespass against us” are doing us a favor by giving us a glimpse of how our own sinfulness offends God. When we sin, especially when we sin seriously, we are spurning and betraying his friendship and giving others scandal — that is, excuses for also betraying the Lord’s friendship. Sin is a wound in the heart of an all-loving God. This should bring home to us the immensity and preciousness of God’s gift of mercy. But unless we forgive those who have offended us, we are in grave danger of taking for granted God’s forgiveness — his mercy that is so readily available in the sacrament of reconciliation.
As we continue through this Lenten journey in preparation for Holy Week and Easter, let us take inventory. Whom do we need to forgive? And where will we find the capacity to forgive from our hearts? Only in the One who loves us and laid down his life to save us from our sins.
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