“I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
The words of the Apostles’ Creed often pass our lips without a thought. Of course we believe that our sins will be forgiven. That’s the whole point of the Paschal Mystery — the core message of Christian faith. God sent His Son to become one of us; He lived and suffered and died to save us from our sins. But while all that is true, it’s also where things get sticky.
That’s because when we’re thinking of the “forgiveness of sins,” we usually mean the forgiveness of our own sins. We don’t always or immediately include the forgiveness we are called to give others. But we know that mercy does not flow in only one direction — from God to each of us. The forgiveness we have freely received must be freely given to others. And that can be hard to swallow, especially because it’s downright countercultural.
One thing is sure: our “world” does not believe in forgiveness. Increasingly, people label someone they find difficult or don’t like as “toxic” or “dangerous.” It has become acceptable to lock people out of our lives and hold others hostage to unrelenting grudges in the name of our own “truth” and “well-being.” Such practices tragically divide friends, parishes and even families, but we don’t seem happier for them. We discover it’s easy to cut someone out of our lives in the heat of anger or the sting of hurt; strategies for restoring those relationships can seem elusive.
Our Church has an antidote called “forgiveness.” Mercy isn’t just a good idea when we’re on the receiving end. We must resist sending those who have hurt or sinned against us into irrevocable exile. Underneath it all, we know that we are sinners too. We can hope for heaven, but none of us will get there without God’s forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not belong to this world; it is a centerpiece of the next. As citizens of heaven, we believe in the forgiveness of sins, not just for us, but for everyone. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to be like God, who is merciful. Unforgiveness is not an option — at least not if we want to be forgiven ourselves. Jesus made that clear when He taught His disciples to pray: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Obviously, accountability is important; so is authentic repentance. Most of us try to cover up our sins. When that doesn’t work, we look for ways to “justify” our actions, but to no avail. Christ, however, can justify us — not by justifying what we have done (or failed to do) — but by separating us from our sins by the power of His sacrificial death. The mystery of our faith is that while our sins cannot be justified, we can be. We call that salvation.
When Christians refuse to forgive, when we choose to bind a sinner to his sins, we act in a way that is contrary to the salvation Jesus won for us on the cross. The gravity of the sin is irrelevant. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that there is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive (No. 982). And the number of offenses? Jesus not only tells us, but showed us at Calvary, that there are no limits.
That is a forgiveness worth believing in. That is a forgiveness that sets us free, both when we are forgiven and when we truly forgive.
If the Church is to continue to carry out the ministry of reconciliation Christ entrusted to His apostles, there can be no room for the spirit of unforgiveness among us. In our judgmental and unforgiving world, mercy may be one of the best tools of evangelization at our disposal and our most powerful witness. Ironically, our most visible hypocrisy may not so much lie in the sins we commit, but in our unwillingness to forgive others.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a sinner, Catholic convert, freelance writer and editor, musician, speaker, pet-aholic, wife and mom of eight grown children, loving life in New Orleans.