How do we grow in greater Christ-like charity? How do we become perfected by the Divine Love in order to love others as He loves them? Often we think that growing in charity means simply loving those who love us in return. It means loving those who agree with us or who treat us well. The people within our own circle. This means that we can cast off those who we don’t agree with, those who hurt us, those who betray and reject us, and those who abuse us. Our culture tells us to only love those who love us in return, but this is not what we are called to as Christians.
We are called to the deeply difficult path of being perfected in agape. A love that by the end of our lives should look like Christ Crucified on the Cross. It is kenotic love, a love that pours itself completely out in love for God and others, that paves the way to the Resurrection. One of the ways we grow in this level of charity is by coming to love those who reject, hurt, betray, and even persecute or abuse us. This does not mean we will have close relationships with these people, but it does mean that we must above all else learn to forgive and to will their good.
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas who teaches us that “to love is to will the good of the other, as other.” What is the ultimate good we can will for another person? Salvation. Love requires that we desire for all people to be saved in Christ Jesus, which means we must learn to forgive and to seek the sanctification of those who hurt us in the hope that they will be with us forever in heaven.
There are many ways this is accomplished. Some of it is through concrete actions and through seeking to mend and heal relationships that have been broken through our sin or another person’s sin. At times, certain relationships are too destructive or abusive for this to happen, and so we must seek to forgive and work for their good from a distance.
Two ways we learn to forgive and to love others at the spiritual level are through prayer and reparations. Prayer works to transform each one of us, as well as those around us. Our intimate communion with the Most Holy Trinity in prayer is what gives us the strength, wisdom, patience, faith, hope, and charity we need in order to love well. It is not easy loving those who hurt us, those who are indifferent to us, or those who reject us or betray us. In our fallen state, we can only accomplish this through the grace Christ gives to us in the Sacraments and in prayer.
We must pray for those who hurt us and in our prayers ask God to give us the love we need to forgive and desire their ultimate good. Prayer brings us face-to-face with our own sins and failings which opens our hearts to mercy. It is through mercy and an acceptance of the weaknesses of others—weaknesses we cannot control or fix—that we learn to forgive. It does not excuse their sin, but it makes us more mindful that we are all weak and every single person is in need of Our Savior.
Forgiveness is a non-negotiable aspect of Christian discipleship. In order to progress in holiness, we must learn to forgive and wage the battles against our own ego and the taunts of the Enemy to love those who hurt us, especially those who seldom or never seek to make amends. Christ forgave the men driving the nails into His flesh and those who demanded His death. That is the kind of self-emptying forgiveness we are called to.
There is another gift, a deeply difficult one, that is also given to us by God so we can learn to truly love and forgive those who wrong us: reparations. It seems counter-intuitive. Why would we offer reparations for sins committed against us? We are the injured party, so reparations should be done by the person who hurt us, right?
If we truly love with the heart of Jesus, then we will come to understand that offering reparations for those who sin against us is the path to true freedom. It leads us away from a desire for vengeance and into the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. St. Paul tells us in Romans: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” If Christ was willing to die for us while we were sinners and continually sin, then we too must love those who sin against us.
Reparations allow us to move into a deeper love of God and our neighbor because, as much as we hurt, we can choose to turn the hurt into redemptive suffering that will be used by God for the sanctification or conversion of the person who has wronged us. This is a spiritual powerhouse that we so often fail to employ because it is painful to willingly suffer or sacrifice for someone who has injured us.
I have frequently spoken to my brothers and sisters in Christ about this very thing in relation to the clergy sex abuse scandals. More often than not, people scoff at my suggestion that we as the laity should be offering reparations and sacrifices for the sins of priests, even the egregious sins of sex abuse of children. The reality is, however, that this is one of the ways God heals His Mystical Body. St. John of the Cross said: “Where there is no love, put love—and you will find love.” The answer to evil is love.
By desiring the sanctification of those who abuse, and even those who hurt us in our daily lives, we are putting love where there has been a privation of the good. Our offerings of reparation, when done for love of God, love of those who commit evil, and those who have been hurt, shine light into the darkest places the Enemy wants to keep dark and shame-filled. If we want a holy priesthood, then we must be willing in love to do our part to sacrifice and offer reparations for the sins of priests, all sins, not just abuse. We must do the same for those who hurt us personally.
The deepest desire within our hearts as Christian disciples should be that all souls attain eternal life. If we fix our eyes on heaven, rather than the pain of this life, then we will be free enough to love and suffer for those who hurt us. We will be willing to enter into the freedom of forgiveness even when no apology or healing takes place. True freedom is found on the Cross where the Son of God poured everything out for love of us. Freedom cannot be found in resentment and nursing the wounds we all carry. That is exactly where the Enemy of our souls wants us to dwell. Offering spiritual reparations for someone who has hurt us sends the Enemy to flight.
Forgiveness is attained through a movement of charity. It is a movement towards someone in the spiritual life through an act of reparation for the sins they commit against us and a willingness to surrender our hope that all wounds will be healed by them and even the hope that we will be loved by everyone we love. In this Fallen world, every single one of us will experience the heart-wrenching reality of loving certain people who refuse or are incapable of returning our love. This does not mean that we should not love them. It means we must love them, but with the persevering love of Christ.
The degree of charity we attain is not up to other people. It is not dependent upon the love we receive in return. It is not based on those who reject us, hurt us, or betray us. It is completely dependent upon God and our willingness to allow Him work in our souls. We are called to love and if that love is rejected or we are hurt by someone then the guilt falls on the other person and they are in need of our prayers and reparations in order to come to the truth and repentance. The entire litmus test for this life is charity and a lack of charity in ourselves or in others is in great need of God’s grace and mercy. Our mission is to continue to love, even when it is agonizing to do so.
The next time someone hurts you, pray for the grace to forgive and then offer a sacrifice on their behalf as a reparation for their sins. It can be extra prayers, fast, give up a meal, cold shower, get up earlier, etc. The options are endless. When you make the first step to love in this way, Christ will meet you in His self-emptying love and you will begin to experience the freedom of loving and forgiving as He forgives.
It will still hurt and the Enemy will be there to mock you along the way, but you will find within you the peace and love that only Christ can give. You will also find yourself desiring the salvation of all people, even those who persecute you, abandon you, or reject you. That is the love of the Cross.