As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us
God has a maddening, yet effective, way of answering our prayers for virtues: He places us in situations that require us to use those virtues. This teaching method is brilliant in its logic and simplicity: If we want to learn to swim, our Father brings us to the water, guarding us as we splash about and smiling with encouragement, no matter how much we grumble or cry out that we've changed our minds and would gladly be stuck on shore again.
Perhaps those who pray for mercy find ourselves in the deep end of God's training pool when we interact with people who especially need forgiveness. Jesus, after all, promised that "the merciful ... will receive mercy" (Mt 5:7) and that the heavenly Father will not forgive us "if [we] do not forgive [our] brother or sister from [our] heart" (Mt 18:35). If we must forgive in order to be forgiven, and if we pray that God will "have mercy on us and on the whole world," then we can expect Him to respond with many opportunities to practice mercy ourselves.
I got married in July, and in the nearly five months since my wedding day, I have heard nothing from my wedding photographer. She won't answer her phone. She won't respond to my emails or voice mails, which have run the gamut from polite to pleading to threatening to resigned. I am becoming very afraid that after paying a lot of money to this woman and entrusting her with the most valuable photographs of my life so far, I will have nothing to show for it.
That kind of fear has a way of making even relatively calm people draw their swords. How many typically levelheaded, soft-spoken mothers, for instance, have suddenly become growling mama bears when they feel their children's health, development or happiness is being threatened? Of course, I'm not comparing money or wedding photos to the well-being of a child, but the mama-bear image has provided a helpful touchstone as I've tried to understand how I, who have never complained against a business in my life, have suddenly morphed into a strident avenger who yells into voice mailboxes, writes emails with threats of small-claims court, and posts comments on wedding-planning websites warning future brides to stay far away from the photographer I hired.
People who know the situation have told me that I'm right, that anyone would react this way or worse, but after a while I started wondering, what about Jesus? Would He tell me I'm right? Would He react this way? He is the only One with whose behavior and heart I'm supposed to compare mine, and I have to admit that I can't imagine many of my thoughts and words about this photographer finding a home in His mind or His mouth.
As Christians, we may be tempted to wonder if the "seventy-seven times" rule (see Mt 18:21) still applies when we are victimized or someone we love is victimized. Does Jesus' command to turn the other cheek mean that I, for example, should quietly allow this photographer to give me nothing for the money I paid her? I don't think so. Forgiving does not mean condoning. Forgiving means that, while we must decide which behaviors we can and cannot accept in our lives, we leave all of the judging to God and live our lives at peace with everyone in our hearts.
Saint Faustina prayed, "Help me, O Lord, that my tongue may be merciful, so that I should never speak negatively of my neighbor, but have a word of comfort and forgiveness for all" (Diary, 163). At the same time, she lamented that a certain sister consistently lied to her and got away with it (Diary, 901). Saint Faustina knew that forgiving the sinner does not mean allowing the sin to continue if there is anything we can do about it.
We must always consider our motives, however, and pray that love alone guides our actions. It may be appropriate to turn to the law for help when I am being treated unfairly, but it is never excusable for me to hurt someone on purpose. I recently felt called to apologize to my photographer (to her voice mail, anyway) because one of the emails I wrote her was designed to hurt her. I don't have to let her get away with cheating me, but I can and must leave her unscathed by malice.
When I have trouble forgiving, it helps to remember how much more Jesus has forgiven me. If it is absurd to compare the value of money or photographs to that of a child, it is equally absurd to compare the offenses committed against me to those I have committed against God. Failure to deliver wedding pictures is nothing compared to the rejection, mocking and crucifixion of Love of which I know I am guilty.
Jesus told St. Faustina, "Do not lose heart in coming for pardon, for I am always ready to forgive you" (Diary, 1488). When everyone we meet sees that same readiness in us, we will know that our prayers for mercy have been fully answered.
Marian Tascio is a writer and English teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.