God’s Love offers us forgiveness
Most of us are not criminals. Most people I know, sincerely try to be just, honest and kind. Most people also know how to cope with their own shortcomings and failings. But we do not have to be villains and guilt ridden to realise that we need forgiveness all the same.
We need forgiveness as individuals because we have done wrong, on occasion. A friend of mine told me how she had left home after a row with her mother. She felt so angry and frustrated that she had vowed never to see her mother again. Her resolve was tested when her mother was taken to hospital with a suspected tumour in the brain. Her mother sent a message for her to come. She refused. When her mother died after the operation, she suddenly realised what she had done. Her teenage rebellion had been justified, she knew. But failing to give her mother a moment of comfort when she needed it most, had been an act of cruelty. `How can I ever be forgiven?’, she said to me.
All of us carry the scars of our mistakes and sins. We have been cowards, mean, dishonest, unfair, unjust, unkind. Some of our faults may stand out in our memory. Others merge in the background of our general imperfection and selfishness. Of course, quite rightly, we do not always dwell on our shortcomings. We try to forget them, at times deny them. But as we grow older we may become more and more aware of the chances we have missed. My friend’s question may then assume a wider and profounder implication: `How can I ever be forgiven?’
The question applies to us all the more when we reflect on our share in the structural sins of our time. There are racial inequalities through which minority groups do not receive the support, the education, the opportunities for work and the respect they are entitled to. I am not personally responsible for all this injustice, but as a member of a society that perpetuates the injustice, I too share the guilt. I share the social guilt of our unfair consumption of the world’s resources, of the profitable sales of arms to Third World dictators, of our commercial exploitation of poor nations and similar injustices. As a citizen of a world where children starve in one part while harvests are destroyed in another, where violent crimes, wars and massacres are commonplace, and where the rich become richer and the poor poorer, I cannot disown complicity. Here again I may rightly feel: `How can I ever be forgiven?’
We Christians believe that such forgiveness is offered by God as the first step in a process of transformation. The word we use is salvation. Salvation does not take away our responsibility to mend our ways and continue to improve our world. It makes this responsibility easier by giving us a fresh start, by healing the wounds of the past and giving us a new vision to work from.
In Jesus Christ God manifested himself as Love. It is as if God tells us: “I know you. I understand you. I accept that you are sorry for all the things that you have done wrong. As the first gift of my love, I offer you forgiveness. Since I am the creative power that allowed you to become what you are, I can heal your past, wiping away your sins as if they never existed. I can make you new by the touch of my Love.”
Baptism is the sacramental expression of God’s forgiving touch of Love. If I may use traditional language, in baptism God both forgives original sin (the communal sin we share with the whole human family) and personal sin, and God establishes a new relationship by making us his adopted children.
If, later in life, I need forgiveness again, this is available to me in the sacrament of reconciliation. Provided I am truly sorry for my sins, I may confess my sins to a priest who will then forgive me in the name of God. “Whosoever’s sins you shall forgive, shall be forgiven (by God)” (see: 1 John 20,23).
If we have been healed by Christ, we ourselves can become instruments of reconciliation. For there are many deep divisions between people that can only be healed by a miracle of love.
An act of injustice will provoke the victim to vengeance and retaliation. Murder leads to counter-murder. Contempt leads to hatred, and hatred in turn to deeply ingrained hostility. Human history is full of escalations of violence and counter-violence, of the never ending spiral of hurt and revenge. Think of the conflicts between Arabs and Jews, between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, between neighbouring tribes in Africa.
Only an act of radical reconciliation can break the cycle of conflict. Jesus spelled out his recommendations in the Gospel.
- “I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, let him strike your left cheek too”.
- “Blessed are the peacemakers. God will call them his children!”
- “If someone sins against you seven times on the same day, and each time he comes to you saying `I am sorry’, you must forgive him.”
- “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who treat you badly.”
See: Matthew 5,39; 5,9; Luke 17,3-4; 6,27-28.).
We must read these texts carefully. Jesus did not advocate that we give free rein to criminals, or neglect to protect ourselves when prudence requires it. But he suggests that we transcend the human rule of quid pro quo, or tit for tat, which dominates our relationships. Instead, he proposes a higher principle, the principle of love, which can heal the past and create a new future.
Apart from being eminently practical in resolving conflicts, it makes sense in a universe which is, ultimately, founded on love.
“Dear friends, if this is how God loves us, then we should love one another. No human being has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God is present in us and his love is realised in us” (see: 1 John 4,11-12).
We should invite God into our home
In the book of Revelation Christ is presented as speaking in these words:
I know the kind of person you are. You are neither hot nor cold. If only you were cold or hot! But because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, you make me want to vomit!
You say: “I’m rich. I’m doing well. I don’t need anything.” Do you not realise that you are pathetic, pitiable, poor, blind and naked?
Therefore I advise you to buy from me gold refined by fire, as well as white garments to clothe you and cover the shame of your nakedness; and oil to anoint your eyes, that you may see.
The fact that I criticise you and challenge you shows my love for you. So come to your senses and be sorry.
Look, I stand at your door and knock.
If you hear my call and open the door, I will enter your home and share your food, and you will share mine.
The poet George Herbert (1593-1633), vicar of Bemerton parish, was very much struck by this image. He imagines us being invited by Christ to share a meal with him. Christ accepts us as we are. He welcomes us to sit at table with him and become his friend.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
from my first entrance in,
drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning:
“Do you lack anything?”
“A guest”, I answer’d, “worthy to be here.”
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I dare not look at thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply: “Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame go where it does deserve.”
“And know you not”, says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down”, says Love, “and taste my meat!”
So I did sit and eat.
G.HERBERT, “Love”, in The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, ed. N.FERRAR, London 1633.).
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of God as Love