The greatest challenge of Christian spirituality is to believe that no one is intrinsically unlovable, and no one is intrinsically unforgivable. No one can keep you from loving or forgiving, although you’ll find persons who will refuse to accept your love or your forgiveness. You are sure to find persons who cross your path in life who are simply hard to love and hard to forgive. That’s the challenge.
Remember, forgiving is not condoning an evil; it is accepting the evildoer with a spiritual love, which is not necessarily an emotional friendship love, or a romantic love or marital love, etc., but a “benevolential” love, as St. Thomas calls it. To use the words of St. Augustine, “you must hate the sin, as God hates the sin; but you must love the sinner, as God loves the sinner.” This obligatory type of love is also called agape love. ” It is exercised by the will, not necessarily the emotions; it is an interior act of “benevolence” by which we sincerely desire good for the person–the good of his salvation, not wishing his damnation; wishing for him the good of his repentance, and growth in holiness. It requires a form of Christian zeal of desiring the good of his repentance as well as his spiritual growth. Hence, forgiveness does not mean that you must like a person who offended you (and more importantly, offended God), but it means that you must love that person with a truly spiritual love—a benevolential love , a kind of “wishing-well” love, as explained above.
Read very carefully and prayerfully the four rules that Jesus proclaims about relating to our enemies (Luke 6:27-36): 1) love your enemy (with spiritual, benevolential, agape love); 2) do good to your enemy, not just refrain from doing evil toward him; 3) pray for your enemy; and 4) call down God’s special blessings on your enemy (things like happiness, good health, peace, joy, prosperity, etc.).
Those four commands of Jesus are the applications and also the sign of authentic Christianity: “By this will all know that you are my disciples, that you show your love for one another” That includes your enemies! And the love required is the agape love described above. When emotional love or romantic love, or friendship love or conjugal love is almost dead and hard to revive, this agape love is easy for any true follower of Jesus. We must strive, with God’s grace, to exercise that kind of love in every trying situation, and allow our example to show others how they can and must do the same.
In the words of Pope St. Pius V, “In loving our enemies, there shines forth in us some likeness to God our Father, who by the death of his Son, ransomed from everlasting perdition and reconciled to himself those previously hostile toward him. Following God’s example, we must desire for everyone eternal life; additionally, every Christian has the duty to respect and try to understand everyone without exception, because of his dignity as a human person, made to the image and likeness of the Creator.”
Check yourself by this critical test. If some hurtful episode happened not to you, but to a stranger down the street from you, you should, of course, be saddened that God had been offended by the sin of the assailant—the rapist, mugger, hit-and-run driver, or whatever. However, since you were not personally offended in that hypothetical situation, you probably would not be indignant or feel bitterness toward the assailant. However, if you were the victim, would you be embittered or hate-filled or indignant? If so, why? Because you were the victim. We should be equally indignant toward any sin, regardless of whether we were the victim or another person, friend or stranger. Otherwise the resentment or bitterness would show nothing but self-centered self-pity, rather than a deep concern that God was offended –far more than you were as the victim.
It is hard to forgive when we –not only others—are offended. We tend to forget Jesus’ words, “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Or the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us as we forgive.” In the words of James 2:13, “Mercy will not be shown to anyone who is not merciful. “ This mandate is most vehemently expressed by Jesus himself in Matthew 6:15: “If you do not forgive others, your heavenly Father will not forgive you your sins.” Any unforgiving person is not just immature, but remains in a horrible sin-soiled state that leaves their very salvation in peril.
Think about God’s uncompromising demand to forgive on the occasion of the next hurtful thing you experience from another. Ponder it well, not just now, but every time you are offended by anyone.
John H. Hampsch, cmf