What happens when we forgive? – Francis Alvarez, SJ

John 20:19-31, Diving Mercy Sunday

“Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23).

The verse above has often been used to speak about the grace given to priests to absolve sins in the Sacrament of Confession. But I think it can also be read – in a different way and on a different level – to speak to all the faithful.

What happens when we forgive? When we forgive sins, they are forgiven. There is no promise that when we forgive, we will immediately feel better, that the broken relationship will instantly be healed, and that everything will return to normal and be like what it was before the sin.

There are some people who have hurt me whom I have forgiven from the bottom of my heart. But every now and then, something they say or do – sometimes it can also be just the way they look – triggers memories of their sin, and everything in my heart is turned upside down. What I thought was already neatly fixed, what I thought I had made peace with, suddenly is thrown into chaos, and I am a mess again.

A husband fathers a child with another woman; forgiveness does not erase the baby’s existence. A reputation is destroyed because of malicious rumors; forgiveness may cast the offended party in a better light, but it cannot stop the lies from spreading.

Forgiveness cannot really undo the past. It can help us move on and forge a better future, but there is no guarantee that the pain will not come back with a vengeance.
So what is the only thing we are certain will happen when we forgive? That the sins are forgiven. When we forgive, there is the possibility of being freed from our anger and hate. There is a possibility of friendship and love becoming stronger. There is a possibility, but there is no certainty.

However, when we do not forgive, we are certain that the sin remains. Whose sins we retain are retained. Retained where? Not always in the people who have hurt us. Sometimes, the people we struggle so hard to forgive do not even know how much turmoil we are in. So where are their sins retained? In us. What we do not forgive, we allow to fester. We continue to carry them in our minds and hearts; we let them consume us.

But when we do forgive, what can happen?

I have heard it said that we who are created in the image of God are most like God not when we create great art and not when we are able to look at our work and say, “This is good.” We are most like God when we forgive. This is not just another way of saying, “To err is human, and to forgive is divine.” How do we become more like God when we forgive?

I think it is very significant that right before Jesus said, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (John 20:23), our Lord proclaimed, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). We cannot forgive without the Holy Spirit. In all the times I was able to forgive, I know that I was not doing it alone. To forgive is a decision, but it is also a grace. To forgive is an act, but it is also a capacity. And the more we decide to forgive, the more grace builds on our capacity to be slow to anger and abounding in kindness – just like God.

How do we arrive at the decision to forgive? From my own journey, I know that the road is far from smooth. It is littered with a lot of questions and complaints to God. It is potholed with grief and fury directed at people and at God. There is anger at God, but it is also an anger with God. We wrestle with God, and as long as we keep on wrestling with him, God does not let us go until we are changed. We may walk with a limp afterwards, but we also walk blessed.

The road to being able to forgive is a road we travel with God. So what happens when we undertake the journey to forgive? We become more like God because we become closer to God.

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