Have you ever wondered how God can love you so much even though you are a sinner? It’s hard to imagine someone loving us even when we’ve done very sinful and terrible things. And yet God loves us unconditionally. It’s hard to wrap our minds around, especially when we have such a hard time forgiving others for the wrongs they commit against us. Sometimes we may even find ourselves withholding forgiveness from those who have hurt us the most. We want those people to suffer the way they have made us suffer. We refuse to forgive because they haven’t asked us for forgiveness or because we don’t believe them to be contrite. But does God withhold His love and forgiveness because we have yet to come to Him? No, He is willing to forgive us the moment we sin against Him. He wants more than anything to pour out His love and mercy upon us. He waits patiently for us, loving us the entire time. He knows we are frail, weak of body, mind and spirit, and that we fall. Still, He picks us up over and over, reassuring us of His love and His devotion to us. He calls us to respond to others in the same manner that He treats us.
During the Lenten season we are called to have penitent hearts. We are called to go to God and others to ask for forgiveness for our sins. But are we only called to ask for forgiveness of our own sins or are we asked to delve deeper into forgiveness and what it entails? We can look to the Gospels for this answer. Christ told us over and over again that we are to forgive others as God forgives us. But what does this have to do with Lent? During Lent we are asked to evaluate our lives to see where we can make changes that will lead us to a closer and fuller relationship with God. What better time is there than now, during this reflective time, to look at our lives to see where we may be withholding forgiveness; forgiveness that if given can bring us closer to the way Christ is calling us to live our lives? Christ is very clear when He says, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15 He also doesn’t mince words when Peter asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? “Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21-22
We have to ask ourselves how we can go to God asking for forgiveness if we have not yet forgiven someone in our lives. We expect God to show us mercy when we do not show others mercy. Christ would tell us in Matthew 5:23-24 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” and again in Luke 17:3-4 “So watch yourselves. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says , ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
Sometimes forgiveness seems almost impossible to give. What if the person is truly not sorry for the sins they’ve committed against you? Should we forgive anyway? As hard as it sounds the answer remains a resounding yes. Forgiveness is not saying that what others did to you was ok or right. It isn’t saying that you won’t safeguard yourself against getting hurt again. It isn’t pretending that the hurt didn’t or doesn’t exist, but it is about surrendering the hurt to God. It is saying you don’t need to hold onto the pain any longer. It is giving it to Him as an act of trust that He will continue to take care of you. When we give those hurts to God we cure our hearts of a sort of “cancer” that can take hold and destroy us. Forgiveness is essential to our emotional health and well-being. When we refuse to forgive, our hearts harden. A hardened heart has no room for God, it only has room for the hurt it clings to. To have room in our hearts for God we must forgive others as God Himself forgives us.
Soon, on Good Friday, we will see the ultimate act of forgiveness as Christ, hanging on His cross, calls out to God, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34 If Jesus can forgive those who have sentenced Him to this horrible death we should be able to find forgiveness in our hearts for those who have hurt us as well.
This Lenten season, as you ponder what it means to have a penitent heart, remember that while we are called to search our hearts and souls to find where we need to ask for forgiveness, we are also asked to provide forgiveness. When we provide others with the gifts of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love we benefit from the giving. We heal our hearts and allow God a place to dwell.
“He who knows how to forgive prepares for himself many graces from God. As often as I look upon the cross, so often will I forgive with all my heart.” ~St. Faustina