By Chip Prehn
The more one knows, the more one’s mercy grows. He who knows all things is the most merciful of all. Lately the Sunday lessons from Holy Scripture appear to teach the same doctrine, whether the text is from the Old Testament or the New: our heavenly Father is willing to give second chances to anyone who owns sin, repents, and sincerely intends amendment of life. My first response to this powerful theology is more or less impious. I want to know how I can also do what is so “easy” for God.
I have been preaching forgiveness but not practicing it in a particular case in my own life. I have been having great difficulty forgiving some people who treated me poorly a few years back. Their ungrateful behavior to one who served them with dedication and love, and their violence against me, still boils my blood. I am a Christian. I have been praying for them. I have been repeating that ancient prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” You see, then, that I am aware of my sin. It comes under the heading of the deadly sin of anger.
Asking God to forgive these people is indeed a step in the right direction. But what about my responsibility to forgive them in my heart? I pray for the grace to forgive them. The Lord does not seem to be giving me that grace. What’s the problem? What can I do?
I am making progress in this important area by contemplating how God forgives. Naturally, God’s love is infinite. His superabundant love provides him with inexhaustible mercy. I have realized that my first step toward truly forgiving the people who wronged me is to have mercy on them. If I can have mercy, I shall be able to forgive.
In order to walk down this road, I have tried to remember the times both other people and the Lord have been merciful to me. There have been so many such times that I cannot count them. This has been a most fruitful exercise. One of my strongest memories is of a man who often wept after receiving the sacrament. He would go up to the altar cheerfully, return to his seat, and weep. One time he was sobbing so audibly that people next to him patted him on the back for a time. Thinking that the man might be a little deranged, I later asked someone who seemed to know the weeper what was going on with him.
“Vietnam,” he replied.
“Oh,” I said. “That explains it. Some terrible memory.”
“Yes. Horrible! My understanding is that he was part of a platoon that got into a combat situation where women and children were killed.”
“Oh, what a burden of guilt!” I exclaimed. “No wonder he cries.”
“Chip, you don’t understand. He weeps for joy. He just can’t believe God has forgiven him.”
I am not surprised that this man went on to serve in parish ministry and was a most effective priest until his retirement. I know that his great guiding doctrine was God’s mercy and willingness to forgive anyone who repents. He was a Ninevite astonished at God’s love and generosity. He believed in God, not himself. None ever had a keener sense of his need for God’s grace. He understood indeed St. Paul’s great and powerful words, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
In 2016, I went over to Oxford to help one of my sons move into his digs at St. John’s. The Sunday before I was to fly home, we went to worship at the cathedral. As we made our way forward to receive the sacrament, I came upon something I had never noticed at Christ Church. In the queue moving toward the high altar, I walked over four inlaid images in the stone below my feet. I was delighted to see that it was the four cardinal virtues. I piously walked over Prudentia, then Temperantia, then Fortitudo, and finally Iustitia.
But there was another. What could it be? As I came to it I looked down to see that the image placed closest to the altar of God was Misericordia. “How true!,” I thought. Surely, to have mercy is to be virtuous on a higher level than the other virtues. I think in this context of the command of Jesus that we “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). It is impossible for us mortals to be like God, except in one way: we can show mercy, we can try to understand others better, and we can love. This must be my program now. I shall have mercy and then, with God’s grace, I’ll be able to forgive.
Lord, make me merciful, that I may in my heart forgive. Amen.