Forgiveness: The New Love of the Gospel
“Not to hate one’s enemies, not to return evil for evil, to refrain from vengeance and to forgive ungrudgingly were all considered at that time unusual behaviour, too heroic for normal men…. But Christ wanted to teach his disciples — you and me — to have a great and sincere charity, one which is more noble and more precious: that of loving one another in the same way as Christ loves each one of us. Only then will we be able to open our hearts to all men and love in a higher and totally new way.”
St. Josemaria Escriva
Friends of God, no. 225
Maybe more than any other of His teachings, our Lord’s command to love our enemies, to pray for and do good to them, triggers an unholy resistance within us. There is an ugly, unredeemed part of each of us that wants to deny to others the mercy that Christ shows to us. Fallen people find it easier to punish than to pardon.
But even at our best, the command to love and forgive our enemies may also create an apprehensive, uneasy feeling in us: that we must become indifferent to good and evil, ignore our feelings, and not care about being hurt. Is this really what the Lord is asking of us? How do I love someone who makes me unhappy or causes me pain of some kind? How should I feel about loving them?
But if we only look at forgiveness through our feelings, then we will never arrive at the place where Jesus wants us to be. He commands us to be perfect without compromise, and the place where perfection is fully realized is on the cross. The place Jesus wants us to reach is the cross, because only on our own cross will we experience the full force of His mercy and love, and so find the strength to give it to others.
Jesus Himself loves us from the cross, speaks to us from the cross, forgives us from the cross. From the cross He says, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” From the cross, He gives us His Mother to be our Mother. Everything good comes from the cross of Christ—most especially, the mercy that saves us.
Saint Josemaria says about this courageous charity to which we are called: “Not to hate one’s enemies, not to return evil for evil, to refrain from vengeance and to forgive ungrudgingly were all considered at [our Lord’s] time unusual behavior, too heroic for normal men…. But Christ wanted to teach his disciples — you and me — to have a great and sincere charity, one which is more noble and more precious: that of loving one another in the same way as Christ loves each one of us. Only then will we be able to open our hearts to all men and love in a higher and totally new way.”
The pathway to this heroic love—a goal which I would ask you right now in your heart to decide if you really want to attain or not—the pathway to this goal is through continual mercy, forgiveness, pardon—not approval of or turning a blind eye to evil, but our heroic refusal to hold anything against anyone. For “your Father who is in heaven… makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Forgiveness is never approval of evil. If someone has done something bad, it will always be bad—it cannot suddenly become good. What we mean when we say “I forgive” is that I, as a child of my Heavenly Father, also want my “enemy” to be a good, obedient child of God. I want him to be saved. And yes, the path to his salvation will involve his conversion, and probably a lot of suffering; there must be a cross for him, just as my own salvation takes the path of conversion and suffering, and of the cross. But may God enable him to walk it as He enables me.
The Catechism puts it so beautifully and succinctly: “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” (CCC 2843). And this underscores what the Lord is really asking of us: He is issuing an uncompromising challenge, not to our feelings, not even to our memory, but to our love.
Listen to how blunt Jesus is: “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brethren, what is unusual about that? Do not even the pagans do the same?” Jesus is “mocking” the small, mean heart that is satisfied with being small. To those who think it is enough to love friends only, the Lord says that if you follow and imitate Him, you must leave all limits behind.
The truth is, unless you love your enemies you will not even love your friends and family rightly. Because there are many times when those closest to us will push the boundaries of our patience, kindness, our sense of what’s fair, our generosity. The boundaries of our charity will be pushed to the point where we will feel that too much is being asked of us.
The Lord is gently but surely pushing us to go beyond the borders of comfort to love those who will not love back, to forgive those who do not ask to be forgiven. And the justification that Jesus gives is always the same: that you may be perfect like God, children of Him “who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
In place of the sinful reactions to the real evils and offenses that we face, we must continually have in mind the remembrance of God’s mercies toward ourselves. Let’s not forget that the higher and new love to which we are called springs from hearts deeply aware of having been not only forgiven for past sins, but preserved from many others by the same Jesus who knew and loved us before we knew and loved Him. It is this same Lord who calls us to do the same: to love before love is returned, and to keep loving even if we never see it returned, “that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
The content is published by the St Josemaria Institute for the free use of readers and may not be copied or reproduced without permission from its author © Fr. John Henry Hanson, 2014.