Compassion in Forgiveness (Septemer 2002)

September 2002
Compassion in Forgiveness ©

The longer we plumb the depths of God’s love for us, the more mysterious becomes our discovery. We find layers of meaning we tend to describe in human terms: kindness, mercy, anger, compassion, and fear of the Lord.

All of these words can, for instance, be found within one single psalm (103). All reveal something important about the Lord. Yet each also seems inadequate. Why should we fear someone who is so filled with kindness? How can one so filled with compassion be provoked into anger, albeit slowly, particularly when he is praised for his mercy?

While it is often believed that “fear” the Lord refers to those feelings that we develop in the face of danger, the biblical use of the word is actually designed to illicit from us a sense of awe or reverence at the majesty of the Almighty.

In the Book of Sirach, we are told that anger and wrath, these are abominations. For humans, such feelings are commonplace but are the cause of great anguish. In fact, it is often noted that bitterness and vengeance cause greater injury to the offended party than to the one who provoked the anger in the first place. For God, words like vengeance are merely metaphors, reminding us of the cost associated with harbouring such life-destroying attitudes ourselves. When we read that the vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance, we are really learning about the consequences of our own attitudes.

In earlier times, it was easier to speak of the Lord as someone to be feared, rather than to speak of respect in terms that make the obligation to follow his law clear and necessary. Similarly, it was easier to speak of his vengeance than to refer to the direct consequences of actions that betray our created nature.

In other words, vengeance is not God’s judicial action as much as it is the direct consequence of our own sinful desire for revenge.

Immediately, the book of wise counsel follows this warning with an antidote: Forgive your neighbour the wrong that is done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. This is a clear and healthy alternative to vengeance.

It promotes healing and the subsequent blossoming of life: Jesus echoes this theme in his own teachings. In Matthew’s Gospel, at the conclusion of a parable on forgiveness, he declares that my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

In this teaching is found a pearl of infinite value. It is the key to forgiveness.

The master in the story chastises the slave who had failed to forgive a fellow slave, but expressed his anger with brutal wrath.

Sadly, this parable reminds us that receiving goodness is not sufficient to make us good. In our weakness, we are often inclined to perpetuate the evil we experience, even though we are also the beneficiaries of goodness.

We are then told that the slave is condemned by his master to torture. What a powerful metaphor! Is it not a fact that we are tortured in our soul when we fail to forgive? Is this not the natural consequence of our own failure to forgive.

Much has been said and written in recent times about the dynamics of forgiveness and the balm it provides to soothe our emotional and spiritual anguish. But some concepts are easier to grasp than others.

Happily, we find in the parable of the vengeful slave the key to effective forgiveness. It comes in two parts. First, we are advised to forgive as I had mercy on you. We are not condemned to find the means of forgiveness in darkness. Jesus has taught us the way. Second, he is instructing us to proceed to forgiveness by way of mercy …compassion.

Compassion is the grace that enables forgiveness. Arguably, without compassion – which is greater and more engaging than a simple willingness to forgive – genuine forgiveness is impossible.

Our Lord is rich in compassion, and like the father of the prodigal son, all his wealth is ours …if we chose to stay with him: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits. Like the prodigal son’s father and like the slave’s master, he crowns those who believe in his goodness with steadfast love and mercy.

One vital expression of that mercy is the healing we receive from Him who redeems your life from the Pit.

Again, Psalm 103 points out that it is the Lord who forgives all your iniquity who heals all your diseases. On the one hand, to beg and accept forgiveness is to have an onerous burden lifted from our spirit. On the other, perhaps more significantly, to offer genuine forgiveness to those who have offended us is to rid ourselves of a cancer that slowly saps the life within us. It is to be redeemed from what one author has described as the “inner hell” of hate, anger and resentment.

The Lord teaches us how to forgive by his words, by the illustration of his parables and by the example or his own life because he understands how important it is to our salvation …to the freedom from anguish that we so desperately crave. Significantly, he understands and underscores the role of compassion in the execution of forgiveness.

The Lord highlights compassion also because he knows that forgiveness must flow from a source deep within ourselves. It is not a superficial gesture, or if it is, it does not heal all your diseases. Indeed, following his teaching regarding the ungrateful servant, Jesus emphasizes that what is needed is to forgive your brother or sister from your heart …from your heart!

Facile or insincere words do not heal. Nothing less than a conversion of the heart is needed. And Jesus prefigures his powerful plea from the cross when he invites to taste and see the goodness of compassion …the grace of walking a mile in the shoes of those who have offended us or that we have offended. From the cross, he would reveal heartfelt compassion when, against the inexpressible physical and emotional suffering of crucifixion and abandonment, with his dying breath he would plead for those who tormented him by praying: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

The Lord became both the perfect form and the example of forgiveness by substituted his own suffering for the suffering of those who are enslaved by fear, bitterness and hatred.

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The idea that being forgiven is tied to the act of forgiving itself is so central to our faith that it is embedded in the single prayer that unites all Christians. Again in the Gospel of Matthew, in what is commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us how to pray, and adds to the formula the familiar phrase forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us.

Again, in the Gospel of Luke, we find similar words when replying to disciples who ask their Teacher for instruction on how to pray: When you pray, say Father…forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us.

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Our capacity for forgiveness is a grace …as are the numerous opportunities we have to forgive. Some are small and incidental; others are of enormous proportions.

On the occasion of the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, symbols of our clinging to economic and military might for the sake of security, we are provided with vivid reminders of human frailty. This frailty is either experienced as fear and vulnerability or as anger and hatred.

Shortly after these catastrophic events left North America badly shaken, Jean Vanier encouraged us to reject the tendency to “close up” by developing new forms of racism, and to “welcome those who are different”.

The events of September 11, 2001, constitute for all of us a form of loss. Though we may not have lost friends or relatives per se, we have all lost some of our innocence and naïve comfort.

As with all losses in life, this is an occasion to chose one of two determining paths – despair or hope. Despair is the beginning of a death spiral …it forces us to cling to what is familiar and to shun, if not destroy, that which is unfamiliar. Hope, on the other hand, rejoices in the many diverse manifestations of goodness and faces the unknown with mature courage and child-like wonder.

A hope this powerful, this transformative would not be accessible to us were it not for our faith in Love and our confidence as Christians in the mystery of the Resurrection in which we have a share because of our faith in Christ. Nor would it be accessible were it not for the example and teachings of Jesus as described in Gospel stories, such as the words spoken from the cross or his telling of the parable of the ungrateful servant.

Indeed, among those things that distinguish our faith from others, gifts to be sure, are learned hope firmly rooted in the Resurrection and the Christ-centred love that is expressed in its most glorious form as compassion and forgiveness.