By: Rev. Robert J. Wagner, Staff Spotlight
When someone sins against us, what is the proper Christian response? Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches us the importance of forgiveness as both a reflection of God’s mercy and a means for healing and unity among all people. He speaks to us of turning the other cheek, praying for our enemies and showing mercy to our persecutors.
In His darkest hour on Calvary, Jesus offers us an extraordinary example of mercy when He prayed: “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they do” (Lk 23:34). Jesus offers mercy to those who sentenced Him to death and nailed Him to the cross. When we find it challenging to forgive another person, praying with this Scripture passage is a powerful and fruitful source of healing and motivation.
Forgiveness requires great virtue, including the exercise of humility, courage and compassion. It is in forgiving others that we grow in holiness and allow God’s grace to heal bonds that are so easily broken through our sinfulness and the sinfulness of others. Over and over again, we will have the opportunity to grow in holiness through the practice of forgiveness as Peter found out when He tried to find a limit to how often a Christian needs to forgive a person who sins against them: “As many as seven times?” Peter asked. “Not seven, but seventy-seven,” Jesus replied (cf. Mt 18:21-22).
In light of Christ’s teaching on forgiveness, the lesson we hear in the Gospel seems odd. Jesus tells us, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Our first instinct is to think this is the opposite of forgiving. Why would we confront the sinner if we are called to turn the other cheek? We assume they already know what we are going to tell them, that their sins have damaged us and others. What do we gain from this interaction?
We must realize, however, that Jesus is not telling us to confront the sinful party out of vengeance or righteousness. It is not an action to help us cope with and heal from the wounds the other has inflicted on us (although that may be a result). No, the reason for the interaction is not for us at all. We are called to forgive. We are called to love. We are called to compassion.
Jesus asks us to tell the sinner his fault for his sake — for his conversion, for his self-awareness. Perhaps he does not know the damage he has done. Perhaps he will be moved by seeing the pain he has caused us or react to the forgiveness we offer in our explanation. Perhaps we are giving him the opportunity to apologize and find healing. By approaching him, we allow God an opportunity to touch the soul of a sinner. We perform an act of charity for someone who has sinned against us.
Too often, when we are hurt by another, the last person we tell about the sin is the person who committed it against us. Rather, our first reaction is to find sympathy by complaining to others or to spread the news of a sinful act that will damage the other’s reputation. Unlike confronting someone out of care for their soul, this kind of response is selfish and sinful. It does not bring healing but instead brings more division and pain.
It is difficult to confront people who have hurt us. They have injured us, diminished the trust we have for them, and left a wound that requires forgiveness to be healed. May God give us the grace to recognize the people we have yet to forgive, the people we have forgiven but still need to offer the opportunity to apologize to us and the people to whom we need to apologize. Christ calls us to be one body in Him (Jn 17:21-23). Let us be instruments of that Christian unity in our lives and the lives of others.
Fr. Robert Wagner is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde’s secretary.
Staff Spotlight is — in an ongoing effort to get a range of content on Encourage & Teach — content from staff members within the Diocese of Arlington from contributors who do not write as a part of their day-to-day job.