We are reminded of the importance of forgiving others every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer and ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But there is another side to forgiveness that is less prominent in Christian, including Catholic, teaching. That side is helping others to forgive us.
The admonition to forgive others for their offenses is first offered in the Old Testament (see Genesis 50:17 and 1 Kings 8:50). It is then repeated in different ways in the New Testament, the most famous being in the Lord’s prayer (Matt 6:12), immediately after which Jesus explains further, “if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
Jesus makes the point even more dramatically in response to Peter’s question about whether he should forgive someone seven times. Jesus responded, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Matt 18:22) In other words, we are to forgive beyond counting.
In contrast to the admonition to forgive others, the “other side” of forgiveness is directly expressed in only one biblical passage. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his disciples, “if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” (Matt 5: 23-25)
Here Jesus’ lesson is not about forgiving those who have wronged us but instead seeking forgiveness from those we have wronged. This is the “other side” of forgiveness. Though Jesus does not explain the difference, he movingly illustrates it in the parable of the prodigal son, who first rehearsed and then said on his return home, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight: I am no more worthy to be called thy son.” (Luke 15:21)
We cannot say whether the father in the parable would have offered forgiveness even if the son had not acknowledged and expressed regret for his offense. But we can say that the son’s contrition made it easier for the father to forgive. We can say, as well, that those whom we have offended will find it easier to forgive us if we acknowledge and apologize for our offenses.
It is difficult enough to forgive others, as I pointed out in a previous essay, but it can be even more difficult to seek forgiveness from others. One reason is that the psychological states are very different. When we have been wronged, we see ourselves as victims who deserved to be treated better, so though our image of the other person is damaged, our self-image remains intact. In contrast, when we have wronged others, our view of the other person is intact but our self-image is damaged, and that is both painful and embarrassing.
To forgive others requires transcending our disappointment with them. To seek forgiveness from others requires resisting the temptation to deny an unpleasant truth about ourselves. To do this requires humility.
A further reason that it is harder to seek forgiveness than to forgive others is that contemporary culture has conditioned us to value self-esteem over all other qualities, including honesty. We have been taught that self-criticism robs us of the positive self-image we need for psychological health. In reality, however, it is only through introspection and self-criticism that we can recognize our failings and gain the humility to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt.
The two sides of forgiveness are synergistic, each advancing the other. When we forgive others, we learn to value harmony in relationships and to appreciate the importance of humility in maintaining that harmony. This helps us overcome the pride that prevents us from acknowledging our offenses. And when we seek forgiveness, we practice humility, realize the struggles others experience in acknowledging their offenses, and deepen our compassion for them. Moreover, when we demonstrate both sides of forgiveness, we provide a powerful example to others.
Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved