When Jesus forgives those who had unjustly convicted him and nailed him on a cross to die, his prayer, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” alludes to the reason all people sin—in the moment of making the sinful choice, the person steps out of God’s grace.
“They know not what they do” doesn’t excuse their behavior, but rather explains that outside of God’s grace, we are unable to access the wisdom or understanding that we need to make a holy choice. Outside of God’s grace, we are left, like the leaders of Jesus’ day, to make decisions out of fear or selfishness, rather than decisions that come from a place of love.
To forgive someone, perhaps we first need to look hard at the factors in that person’s life that led them to step outside of God’s grace.
Typically, the larger the sin, the more baggage the other person carries into the moment of sin. A difficult childhood suffered by a woman’s unfaithful husband can’t excuse his choice to have an affair. But it can help explain how he came to that choice.
Forgiveness falls into two types. In the first, the person who was hurt sees the person who has sinned clamoring to get back into the grace of God and the people in his or her life. An unfaithful husband, for example, might show deep remorse, start therapy, and show that he wants to learn what led to his terrible choice so he won’t do it again. His wife may find that this type of forgiveness often leads to a relationship that is even stronger than before the breach occurred.
The second type of forgiveness is more difficult. In this type, the person who is hurt sees that the person who sinned refuses to acknowledge his fault. The un-faithful husband minimizes the hurt he caused, doesn’t look into his own life to find the brokenness, doesn’t make a change. In this case, forgiveness means the wife begins to let go of the anger without being naïve enough to think her husband will change.
This type of forgiveness—which we hear in Jesus’ prayer from the cross—requires that the forgiver enter so deeply into God’s grace that she has access to the wisdom and understanding she will need to guide her in such a difficult circumstance.
Forgiving in this situation can allow the hurt person to drop the soul-corroding anger, hate, and resentment they are carrying. The person who has been hurt may choose to move on from the relationship, but this is not to punish the sinner—it is an action to protect oneself.
As a parent, forgiveness is complicated by our responsibility to teach our children consequences for their actions. Brigid, mother of four teens and preteens, explains it this way. “I use the language of ‘terrain,’ as in: The terrain or landscape of our relationship is altered. I might say to a child, ‘We have had some rough patches and it will take me a while to trust that the terrain will be smooth again. You will see some changes in my behavior while we rebuild trust.’ ”
Brigid says that she and her husband, Bob, then explain the actions they will take while trust is rebuilt: additional monitoring of the child, a temporary loss of a freedom or privilege. “I make a clear distinction between my disappointment in their choice as separate from the constancy of my love for them,” Brigid says.
When confronting a serious sin by a child, parents are wise to look as deeply as possible into the brokenness inside the child that led him or her to step so far outside God’s grace. Children who carry physical or emotional wounds will be more likely to make choices that hurt others. Discovering a deeper reason behind a child’s acting out, and getting the child help for his or her pain, can be the most beautiful way a parent can both forgive a child and help him or her heal.
By Annemarie Scobey, from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the Best in Class award in 2013 from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the past four years running. Here’s a sample issue.
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Photo: St. Sabina Parish/Tom A. Wright