Forgiveness can be a deeply challenging topic and, at times, an even more frustrating practice. In a time where justice seems elusive and retribution creates an endless downward spiral, forgiveness may well be among the most important focal points of any attempt we make, as a society, to move through the present milieu of violence, bitter anger, and vitriolic division.

I can barely scratch the surface in a single article, but in this short space I’d like to offer some thoughts that, I hope, might help unlock some of the journey for you. I want to focus on the relationship between mercy and forgiveness, because if we don’t understand that, our efforts to forgive will almost always flounder.

The Latin word for mercy is misericordia, and its etymology indicates its essence: miseria means misery and cor denotes the heart. Misericordia, according to St. Augustine, is “heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress,” a sympathy that impels us to alleviate the misery however we can. Mercy thus begins in a movement of the heart toward another’s suffering and culminates in activity that blesses. Mercy has many forms: almsgiving, visiting the sick, leniency in just punishment, and praying for the dead, to name a few.

Forgiveness is a particular expression of mercy, and it is distinct from other forms by an important detail. Every act of mercy has a particular subject, an “other” toward whom it is directed; for example, almsgiving renders blessing to the poor and leniency in punishment benefits violators of the law. In interpersonal forgiveness, our merciful activity is oriented toward a uniquely challenging “other”: our own offenders.

When we have been hurt by someone else, there are typically two divergent response-pathways: revenge or forgiveness. If we’re honest, we realize that many of our frustrated attempts to forgive are issued from the midst of our trudge down the road of revenge, and for this reason never amount to much. At first mention of our enemy, all the anger and resentment stir up again, and we lose our control and our peace —  precisely because, deep down, we still want them to suffer in the way they have made us suffer.

We can distinguish superficial forgiveness from what we might call deep or authentic forgiveness. “Superficial” here doesn’t signify “fake,” as the colloquial use tends to suggest. Rather, when our attempts to forgive are superficial, they are simply efforts that do not arise from the depths of the heart but come from a place closer to the surface. Knowing that we should forgive, we might say “I forgive you” and try to set our anger aside. But beneath it all, we’re still writhing in pain and holding on to bitterness in battle-posture.

For forgiveness to move past the surface, it must be something more than an anxious effort to get rid of our pain. Authentic forgiveness comes, in Christ’s words, “from the heart” (Mt 18:35). It might sound obvious, but here’s the most important piece of what I want to point out: For forgiveness to truly issue from the heart — and thus for forgiveness to actually bless as it sets us free — it has to be a form of mercy.

Remember, mercy looks upon another who suffers, and forgiveness is mercy toward one’s offender. Forgiveness requires not only a departure from the pursuit of revenge, wherein we still view the other as an enemy, but also a shift of the entire way we perceive our enemies. To forgive someone who has hurt us, we have to become like Christ.

How so? Consider how Christ looks at each one of us from the cross and every time we approach Him for forgiveness. We offend God with our every sin, and we deserve punishment. Yet, as God sees us in our sin, He looks past the surface and sees our misery, the pitiful state out of which we act every time we sin. Instead of giving us what we deserve, He offers us so much more.

St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that mercy is maximally attributed to God; to act mercifully toward another is to act like God. Christ’s commandment to love our enemies and forgive those who offend us is actually about heeding the call to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).

Here’s a vital fact: God is always merciful. He offers us forgiveness whether or not we repent. Of course, God’s mercy only reaches our hearts when we do repent, but the heart of God stands in mercy toward all who have offended Him. This truth illumines a pathway out of the trap of our intensely churning emotions.

At the interpersonal level, our offenders may or may not repent. If they do, our offer of forgiveness will bless them. But like God, the ideal is that we stand ready to forgive always. For us, imperfect as we are, that requires some deep work within well before we even engage the possibility of confronting our enemies. This is why forgiveness begins in the heart of the one who has been hurt, even without interaction with our offenders. And it’s why we can experience the freedom of forgiveness even when our offenders show no contrition.

With time and much virtue, we can learn to look past the surface of the wickedness we have suffered at the hands of others. We learn to perceive, behind each of our offenders, a story of personal pain and sorrow that led them to hurt us as they have. This towering task, of course, is perfected only with God’s help.

With the assistance of grace in the midst of our pain, we can opt to no longer rage against those who have hurt us. Instead, we beg God to resculpt the inner sanctum of our hearts to be more like His as He longs for the salvation of sinners. Gradually, we are more and more moved with “heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress,” namely the distressing fact that our enemy is mired in the deadly misery of sin. We can actually move from wishing ill to longing for the well-being and salvation of those who have harmed us. This is the form of deep forgiveness to which Christ calls us. Wonderfully, He goes before us in this work, a work that has directly benefited every one of us as recipients of His mercy.

This is why forgiveness actually changes the world. An enemy expects retaliation, and the choice of forgiveness over revenge is actually as disruptive as it is unexpected. Certainly, justice and righteous anger warrant adequate consideration in every scenario. Yet as we grow in conformity to Christ and share His longing for the salvation of souls, we realize that the souls of our grave offenders are in great danger.

The heroic beauty of forgiveness lies in the fact that we choose to end a cycle of hatred and, in a most disarming fashion, opt to love someone who does not deserve it but desperately needs it. This is, in the end, the story of the cross, a story that has the power to break open even the hardest of hearts to save them.


This post was originally published on Reform Wellness and is reprinted here with permission.

Read more from Fr. John Burns’ own story on healing and forgiveness here

Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash

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