Early in his career, Sir Elton John famously sang that “sorry seems to be the hardest word” to say — and with a bow to the beloved knight, I would add three other words to the ranking: “love your enemies.”
Actually, that command of Christ — found in Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-36, and alluded to in Mark 12:28-34 — isn’t so much difficult to say as it is maddening to, you know, do.
And from God’s perspective, it’s flatly non-negotiable: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Mt 6:14-15; see also Lk 11:4).
(Related: Listen to Oblate Father Thomas Dailey on loving your enemies and “lifting up your heart.”)
Smack in the middle of our faith is a divine order to look our offenders in the eye and, from the depths of our beings — with no eye rolls, grumbling, tongue clicks or gritted teeth — say and mean that we do not demand their eternal recompense for the harm they have inflicted upon us. The Lord offers us no escape clause, no fine print and no qualifier on this point. “Yeah, God, but…” won’t exempt us when we stand on the threshold of eternity after death.
Now what? We might be able to relinquish a grudge against a scheming co-worker or an inconsiderate driver, but how on earth can we truly forgive — and “from the heart,” as Jesus stresses (Mt 18:35) — an unfaithful spouse, a rapist, a murderer, a thief?
The first thing we have to admit is that we can’t, at least not of our own accord. The Lord himself has made our inability clear: “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). In the flesh, we may be able to eke out a thin-blooded cordiality to those who commit minor offenses — if only to keep up appearances — but grave wounds require God’s healing.
And lest we think the call to “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39) is somehow sadistic, we would do well to remember that the Lord — who forgave his own crucifiers even as they drove 6-inch Roman nails through his limbs (Lk 23:34) — knows our pain better than we do: “Are my tears not stored in your flask, recorded in your book?” (Ps 56:9)
While “it is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense … the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” for those who have caused us pain and sorrow (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2843).
That offering can stretch over a lifetime, but if we make it in faith and humility, we can be sure that the Lord will indeed “bind up the brokenhearted” (Is 61:1), “comfort all who mourn” (Is 61:2) and “wipe every tear from (our) eyes” (Rev 21:4).
Statesman, scholar and martyr St. Thomas More, whose faith cost him his life at the hands of Henry VIII, knew firsthand the struggle provoked by the decision to forgive one’s enemies. When we’re tempted to sue our persecutors in the court of the hardhearted, we would do well to instead let this eloquent and humble lawyer speak for us in his well-known prayer for enemies:
Almighty God, have mercy on N. and on all that bear me evil will and would me harm, and on their faults and mine together, by such easy, tender, merciful means, as thine infinite wisdom best can devise; vouchsafe to amend and redress and make us saved souls in heaven together, where we may ever live and love together with thee and thy blessed saints, O glorious Trinity, for the bitter passion of our sweet Savior Christ. Amen.
God, give me patience in tribulation and grace in everything, to conform my will to Thine, that I may truly say: “Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in coelo et in terra.”
The things, good Lord, that I pray for, give me Thy grace to labor for. Amen.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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