The Courage to Forgive and to Let Yourself Be Forgiven

June 7, 2016

Now that we’re halfway through the Year of Mercy, it would be a good idea to have an honest gut-check and ask yourself: “How am I doing?” Does your life feel any more mercy-full? Can you name one or two concrete instances in which you either extended or received mercy in a significant, lasting way? Has the resolve to be merciful gone the way of your last New Year’s resolution? In spite of how badly we say we want it, why is it that mercy can be so difficult to extend and receive? Nobody rolls out of bed in the morning and declares that they want to resist the opportunities for mercy that come along that day. So why do we struggle to embrace what we supposedly long for so deeply?

Answering that question requires admitting that the struggle with mercy is, at root, often a struggle with control. Mercy is one of the most powerful agents of freedom. A heart racked by guilt or shame; an unanswered plea for forgiveness or reconciliation; a self-loathing that renders accepting pardon impossible; a resentment or bitterness that we refuse to relinquish—all these instances of mercy resisted or withheld produce souls that are confined and restricted by despair or anxiety. Faced with the potential for such desolation, how could anyone possibly not opt for mercy?

Perhaps the reason can be found in the language of a common mercy idiom: to “hold” a grudge. We “hold on” precisely when we are afraid of losing control and spiraling off into chaos. A grudge, or resentment, or bitterness may not ultimately bring one joy, but it does provide a sense of order and stability: everyone is properly put in their place and there is at least a semblance of control. If I hold you in the grip of guilt or shame, then I always know who you are: you are the one who insulted me; you are the one who betrayed me; you are the one who embarrassed me—and by withholding mercy I can ensure that you will forever remain that person. Therefore, I have the right to ignore you and shut you out of my life. Then I will be safe. Then I will be free. Except, of course, such “freedom” is entirely ephemeral. It keeps me isolated and locked in a world of frozen relationships.

If you offer or accept mercy, then prepare for a wild ride. You will be placing yourself in the hands of another’s free will—they may be open or resistant, joyful or angry, contrite or prideful, grateful or scorning. But to enter the world of mercy is to enter the worldview of Christ, in which cheeks are turned, enemies are loved, and seemingly every rule of human nature that was designed to preserve order is cast aside. Take away grace and mercy can present an awfully frightening proposition. But that’s the difference the Paschal Mystery makes: the chaos of Good Friday need not devolve into the frozen rage of revenge or hatred. The chaos of evil can transform into the freedom of mercy if one is courageous enough to seek it. If you want mercy, pray for the courage to relinquish control.

Fr. John Kartje

Fr. John Kartje is Rector and President of Mundelein Seminary, also serving as Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies. A priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, he holds doctorates in Biblical Studies (Catholic Univ.) and Astrophysics ( more...