Just about everyone can recite the Lord’s Prayer from memory. That’s precisely the problem, though. We often rattle it off without really thinking about what we are saying.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Whenever we pray this line, we are asking God to forgive us exactly in the same way as we forgive those who hurt us. In other words, if we are harboring unforgiveness in our hearts as we say this prayer, we are calling a curse down upon ourselves.
Let’s face it. We are all in desperate need of the mercy of God. But time and time again, the Word of God makes clear that the greatest block to his mercy is resentment. In the Old Testament, the book of Sirach (27:30-28:7) tells us how wrath and anger, cherished and held tight, are poisons that lead to spiritual death.
Jesus thinks this is so important that he includes a reminder of this lesson in the central prayer that he teaches to his disciples. And to drive the point home, he tells us the parable of the merciless servant, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (18:21-35). As we listen to the story, we are incensed at the arrogance and hard-heartedness of someone who is forgiven a huge debt yet immediately throttles the neighbor who owes him a fraction of the amount he himself once owed. Incensed, that is, until we realize the story is about us. For all of us who have ever nurtured a grudge are guilty of exactly the same thing.
Bringing up this issue is rather uncomfortable because we all have been hurt by others. Many have been hurt deeply. Think, for example, of the widows and orphans of September 11 and other acts of terrorism. Is it wrong to have feelings of outrage over such crimes? Does forgiveness mean that we excuse the culprit and leave ourselves wide open to further abuse?
Not at all. First of all, forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling. It is rather unlikely that the Lord Jesus, in his sacred yet still human heart, had tender feelings of affection for those mocking him as his life blood was being drained out on the cross. But he made a decision, expressed in a prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 22).
In other words, there was no vindictiveness, no desire to retaliate and cause pain, suffering and destruction to those who delighted in causing him pain. Such desire for destructive vengeance is the kind of anger that is one of the seven deadly sins. Rather, Jesus prayed to the Father for their good even as they caused him harm.
Did Jesus ever experience anger against those who sought his life? Absolutely. Righteous anger is the appropriate response to injustice. It is meant to give us the emotional energy to confront that injustice and overcome it. Recall how livid Jesus was in the face of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, because it was blocking the access of others to his life-giving truth. But notice as well that he overturned the money-changer’s tables, not their lives.
Forgiveness does not mean being a doormat. It does not mean sitting passively by while an alcoholic or abusive family member destroys not only your life but the lives of others. But taking severe, even legal action does not require resentment and vindictiveness. Pope St. John Paul II did not request the release of the man who shot him. But note that he visited him in prison to offer him forgiveness and friendship. In so doing, he stunned not only the assailant, but the whole world.