Forgiving those who sin against others

From time to time one hears people exclaim: “I can never forgive what x did to y!”  Y is often a family member, friend or associate who has hurt someone close to us.  It’s a feeling we can also experience when some atrocity is reported, especially where children or vulnerable people are concerned.  It’s said with great feeling and, in some cases, is one that stays with x for many years, unless it can be resolved.  It can become like a weight x carries and usually causes pain and bitterness when recalled.   The weight, usually, is that of anger which lies hidden within us, like some wild animal trapped in a cage which roars when approached and lashes out when released.

But the fact is that we cannot forgive x for the wrong they do to y.  It’s not in our power to do so for we are not subject to the wrong that has been perpetrated.  We are, in a sense, ‘collateral damage’.

When Jesus taught His disciples to pray he taught them to ask that their trespasses be forgiven insofar as they were prepared to forgive the trespasses done to them, not to others:
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In Matthew the word ‘trespass’ is usually interpreted as ‘debt’ (Greek: ὀφειλήματα (opheilemata) Matthew  6: 12):
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtor”

and Jesus goes on to explain to His disciples: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14)  

Luke, however, gives us this reading:
“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” (11:4)

The change from ‘debt’ to ‘trespass’ in the Our Father first appeared in the Greek versions of the prayer by the 3rd cent. writer, Origen of Alexandria and this wording made its way into important English translations such as the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.  Whatever the reason for the various interpretations it is clear that Jesus here is telling His disciples that they have the power to affect a change of heart for themselves.  He does not tell them that they can forgive someone the sin done to another.

In Luke 17:3 Jesus tells His disciples: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.”  Jesus says we are to forgive him if he repents and admits his wrong, not regardless of whether he does so.  “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”  But this concerns how to respond to someone who repents and asks forgiveness.

At the end of John’s gospel when he recounts the appearance of Jesus to His disciples on the evening of the day of Resurrection Jesus says to them:

“Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”   (John 20: 22/23)   This verse has always been understood to give authority to grant forgiveness to those who repent and seek forgiveness for it needs to be held in the context of all other teachings about the matter which in the Scriptures.

But forgiveness does not cancel justice.  In his encyclical Dives in Misericordia John Paul II notes that the “requirement of forgiveness does not cancel out the objective requirements of justice. . . . In no passage of the gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence toward evil, toward scandals, toward injury or insult.  In any case, reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness” (DM 14).

Christians are called to pray that someone who has committed a grave sin will realise that they have done wrong and seek to make amends, but when the act is particularly evil then this may be almost impossible: “If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that.” (1 John 5:16)  However, when someone says: “I can never forgive x for what they did to y” they may be indicating that they cannot or will not let go of the anger they feel for what has been done and it usually concerns something that is acutely grave in character.

A helpful article states:
‘St. Thomas Aquinas tells us love is “willing the good of the other” selflessly (cf. I Cor. 13:5). In a sense, this is all God can do, because “God is love” (I John 4:8). God can do nothing other than will to share the infinite good of himself with every single person ever created or conceived—even the souls who reject his love and forgiveness, because a God not loving would be a God contradicting his own essence, which is absurd.

Thus God’s love is unconditional, because in one sense it has nothing to do with the other.  It comes from within, regardless of what happens outside of the godhead. This brings profound meaning to Jesus’ words: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). In essence, Jesus is calling us to love with that same unconditional love with which he loves as the God-Man.  Regardless of varying situations and relationships in our lives, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5) empowering us to “will the good of the other” regardless of what “the other” may bring our way.

On the other hand forgiveness is not unconditional.  It’s a two-way street.  God offers his forgiveness to all out of his unconditional love and, therefore, so must all Christians.  But here’s the rub. Because forgiveness is dependent upon the other, it cannot actually take place until there are willing partners on both sides of the divide. ‘  (Tim Staples. Director of Apologetics and Evangelization at ‘Catholic Answers’)

It might be that when someone feels they can never forgive another they are indicating that they carry a hidden reservoir of anger that erupts whenever they recall a particular incident.  It may be that the incident concerned the abuse of someone they love or inflicted pain and suffering on innocent victims and they feel angry about the incident whenever it is recalled.  And anger, if not addressed appropriately, can have a corrosive effect on the person who carries it and those connected to them.   People who have reflected on this matter have noticed that it takes less energy to love and forgive than it does to stay angry and hold a grudge.  Forgiveness brings peace to your life.   We need to forgive someone, not for their benefit, but for our own peace of mind.  The burden of anger we can carry can be enormous and our anger often only affects the person who carries it – not the person towards whom the anger is directed.  Someone has suggested that we should “Shift the focus, feel the pain and think of the thousands of others in the world who are also feeling the same pain, then send a loving-kindness message to everyone to be relieved of this suffering.”

One of the ways that this can be done is to direct a prayer, such as this, towards the object of our anger: “May … be filled with your compassion, O Lord.  May your Mother’s love enfold them.”  The danger of holding anger have long been realised.  S. Jerome said that “Anger is the Door, by which all Vices enter the Soul” and S. James had observed that: “anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:20)  But ‘anger’ against sin is may be ‘zeal’ and zeal is not a sin but is sometimes a duty.  Zeal at its core is an expression of love; anger is an expression of hatred.  So S. Paul tells us to ‘Put away from all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.’ (Eph.4: 31)

Righteous anger – or zeal – does not consume us but enables us to seek justice and mercy for all.  As human beings we need to cultivate a forgiving spirit for the contrary spirits of anger, pride, bitterness etc… can easily find a home within us.  Yet whilst we can cultivate a forgiving spirit we cannot forgive unless someone seeks to be forgiven, promises to refrain from sin and accepts the appropriate penance.  Even then ‘Penance requires . . . the sinner to endure all things willingly, be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1450)  The Catechism goes on to observe that absolution concerns the: ‘remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. (CCC 1473)

In the end it is God alone who forgives sin (CCC: 1440).  Yet the path to our sanctification requires us to practice God-like acts and to learn how to cultivate a forgiving heart:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?   For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.   If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6: 27-38)

Fr. John-Francis Friendship SMMS

‘ALL MAY, NONE MUST, SOME SHOULD’: The Sacrament of Confession and Companions

For many people ‘making your confession’ is something only Roman Catholics do.  However, Anglicans have always been encouraged to ‘make their Confession’ to a priest.  The Visitation of the Sick (Book of Common Prayer 1662) contains the following note: “… the sick person shall be moved to make a special Confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter.  After which the Priest shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it)…”

The Rite then gives the formula of Absolution:
‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church
to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him,
of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences:
And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins,
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen”

This is still the formula many priests use when pronouncing Absolution.  However, the practise of ‘making your confession’ fell out of general use after the Reformation and only returned with the 19th century Catholic Revival in the Church of England.  Many priests, who realised and sought to explain its benefit, were persecuted and even imprisoned.  Yet, gradually, the practice became more common and today is widely available.  Although every priest may hear confessions as a consequence of their ordination (see The Declaration – Ordination of Priests)not all wish to do so and  it is usually necessary for them to obtain the permission of their Bishop if they wish to offer this pastoral ministry on a regular basis.

It is clear that all of us carry the burden of unresolved issues – anger, guilt, sin, etc.  Research into human psychology has shown how important it is to be able to deal with these matters.  Whilst Confession is not the same as therapy, there are connections not least in the matter of needing to vocalise what lies deepest in the heart to another who is bound by rules of confidentiality.  It has been observed that many Christians would be helped if they realised they could unload the burdens they carry within the confidentiality of the Sacrament and it has wisely been said that the Anglican attitude to Confession is: ‘All may, none must, some should’.

Evangelicals and Confession
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

“If we’re not careful, we fall into cheap grace, we don’t pay any specific attention to a lot of the bad things we do.  A lot of people get two or three things that they struggle and those are the only sins that they only considered that they have committed.  Sin separates us from God.  It’s good to review what we are doing wrong.  If we say that we love Jesus but we want to do things that separate us from him then once again we’re lying and the truth isn’t in us.” (Prof. John Mark Reynolds: ‘The Christian Post’. Feb 2011)

Some Christians are concerned about the notion of confessing to a priest maintaining that only Christ, not the priest, has the power to absolve us.  However the priest only declares the reconciliation that Christ attains for us: it is not the priest’s absolution, nor any power s/he might have that secures forgiveness and reconciliation for us.  While it is true that the Sacrament may be celebrated only by an ordained priest its power does not belong to them.  The priest is “necessary” to the sacrament only as officiant, not as the person with the power, in and of himself, to forgive or absolve. That power is Christ’s and Christ’s only (see John 20:22/23).

Archbishop Justin Welby, whose background is as an Evangelical, has said: “It is enormously powerful and hideously painful when (Confession) is done properly … it’s really horrible when you go to see your confessor – I doubt you wake up in the morning and think, this is going to be a bunch of laughs.  It’s really uncomfortable. But through it God releases forgiveness and absolution and a sense of cleansing.” 1

Whilst many believe they don’t need to ‘make their confession’ nonetheless, we all carry a burden of sin which needs dealing with.   As John Newton observed: “We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it.  But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.” 

Confession and Conversion of the Heart
This Sacrament recognises our need to practice ‘continuous conversion’ of the heart.  “We have to be continuously converted all the days of our lives, continually to turn to God as children.” 2   And as God’s children the centre of our being – the heart – needs to be constantly re-focussed into Christ: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  Our Faith is all about that gentle re-ordering of the whole of our being in Christ and this process will reveal our need to be freed from those influences that draw the heart of who we are from God and His Reign.  “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.18:3).  This command is less about being barred from that Kingdom as our ability to enter it.  Through the use of this Sacrament we open our hearts to the Beatitudes, ask that our failings be forgiven and acknowledge our need to be converted to the Reign of God.  To confess our sins to God is not to admit to God anything God doesn’t already know but it admits to us what we need to know and to have the slate wiped clean.  

Companions and Confession
Those seeking to live out the charism of the Association will realise their need of this ‘continuous conversion’ and seek the means whereby they can re-focus their lives.  It is not necessary for Companions to make their Confession but, in seeking to enable members (Companions) to: nurture a ‘new heart’, the heart of Christ; to enable continuous conversion in the hearts of members.’ (Purpose of the Association), the Sacrament is a traditional means of grace and of renewing the heart – re-focussing our lives.  Companions ‘look to the Sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation) as a means of cleansing and for renewing their own hearts’ (Charism of the Association).  Whilst they recognise the Sacrament as a means of Grace they are not required to use it.  But they do seek to be living with that humility which recognises and admits the truth of who we are in God’s sight – beloved sinners seeking amendment of life.  As S. Augustine said: ‘The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” 3   And, one might add, it is the means whereby we find that peace which Christ offers his disciples.

So in our calling to be disciples of the Compassionate Heart of Jesus Companions will take seriously this call to be open with God about who they are, desiring that God might create in them clean hearts and renew the Spirit within them.

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
ash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
(Ps. 51:6-10)


1   Justin Welby: Daily Telegraph. October 9th, 2013
2   ‘Continuous Conversion’: Oswald Chambers. My Utmost for His Highest
3  S. Augustine: Tractates on the Gospel of John; tractate XII on John 3:6-21, § 13
4   ‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20: 21-23)