November 15, 2019

The Most Frightening Words in Scripture

The most frightening words in all of Scripture are the ones most of us repeat every day: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

It’s all too easy to rattle off these words without thinking of their implication. And that’s what is frightening. The Lord’s Prayer petitions God to be only as forgiving of us as we are of others. And that is like saying, “Lord, if we don’t forgive others, don’t forgive us.” Our very petition can thus be a self-condemnation.

The problem is, it’s easy not to forgive others, especially in this age of inflated self-esteem that makes other people’s offenses, even slight ones, seem impossible to forgive. “How could she have done that to me? I deserve better treatment than that. She doesn’t deserve my forgiveness.”

So the very practical question is, how we can overcome the tendency to be unforgiving and put ourselves on the favorable side of our petition. And the answer is to invest a little imagination concerning those who “trespass against us” and consider some good reasons for forgiving them.

Possibility 1: They didn’t realize they were offending us. In other words, they spoke or acted without thinking and, even after the fact, had no awareness that we had taken offense, either because we gave no outward indication or their lack of perceptiveness equaled their lack of thought. Entertaining this possibility enables us to attribute offenses to bad mental habits rather than bad intentions.

Possibility 2: They were reacting to a real or imagined perception that we had previously offended them. This possibility raises the question of whether we did offend them or at least seemed to do so. Often as not, if we think about the context, we will see how something we said or did could have given them that impression. In that case, we can see their offense as a childish effort to get even with us and therefore feel more inclined to pity them than to take offense.

Possibility 3: They are ignorant of the Golden Rule. You might be thinking that ignorance of something so basic as the Golden Rule is never an excuse for bad behavior. But that is not quite correct. There is an ancient concept in moral theology known as “invincible ignorance,” which refers to ignorance so profound that it cannot be overcome by information or argument. For that kind of ignorance, the person is not morally responsible. The very possibility that those who offend us may be that ignorant (or even close to it) is a good reason to forgive them.

Possibility 4: They became aware, after the fact, that they had offended us, but pride prevented them from apologizing. Most of us behave this way, at least now and then, and many of us do so with some regularity. To admit this to ourselves enables us to feel sorry for others who display the same weakness.

Another important question is how we can remember these reasons whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer. One effective way is to make our recitation of the prayer more specific and personal by mentioning the people we have the most difficulty forgiving.

In other words, instead of saying, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we can say “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive Agnes and Louise and Benjamin and Lenny.” Doing so will not only keep us mindful of our personal difficulties in forgiving but also encourage us to conquer them.

Copyright © 2015 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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