We’ve written a lot about forgiveness, about the need to forgive others not just because Jesus’ commands us to do so but because it liberates us to receive love. As we approach 30 years of marriage, like most long-married couples we understand the relevance of forgiving the other all too well.
But what about receiving forgiveness? All of us have messed up in our marriages at some point. We’ve made selfish choices or stupid mistakes. We’ve hurt our spouse and harmed our kids. We’ve let pride or laziness or anger take precedence over love and charity and service.
Yep. We’ve stuffed up. We have sought forgiveness and our spouse may (or perhaps may not yet) have forgiven us. The question is, have we forgiven ourselves? Sometimes we are our own worst enemies in the area of forgiveness.
It’s the feast of Divine Mercy this Sunday, a universal church event that commemorates the appearance of Jesus to Saint Faustina, a twentieth century Polish nun. The message of Divine Mercy is pretty simple; there is nothing, NOTHING, we can do that Jesus is not willing to forgive if we seek him earnestly. His mercy and forgiveness is always available to us.
In today’s hysterical culture of blame and shame, it is a radical thought that we can always be forgiven by God… if we are prepared to ask.
We think of Andrew, who had a demanding job that required long hours away from home. As things got tense with his wife, he more and more found solace in the affirmation of his work place, where there was no shortage of women who thought he was amazing. Working back late and accepting the request to travel became easier and easier as it avoided home where he was increasingly greeted with resentment and criticism for failing in his responsibilities as husband and father.
His own troubled childhood also left him unprepared for the havoc and demands he now found in his midlife. The trauma of his parent’s divorce in his early years left deep wounds, especially as his father had largely disappeared from his life afterwards. He thought he was over it but, under stress, feelings of inadequacy and the fear of failure drove him deeper into work where he found the approval and validation for which he hungered.
The gradual pressures over the years came to a head where, after a few drinks one night on a business trip he slept with one of his colleagues. He knew instantly that he had crossed a line.
It wasn’t that he didn’t love his wife and family. It wasn’t that he intentionally sought out an affair partner. He never intended to betray his wife or to risk causing the same trauma to his kids as he experienced. It was a mistake out of weakness… but there he was, now what to do?
At first he didn’t know what to do, but as he gradually walked the hard road if seeking forgiveness from his wife he found that, racked with guilt, the most difficult challenge was to forgive himself. Although his wife had long forgiven him, he found it impossible to move back to a wholeness in their relationship without resolving this.
One of the most valuable resources at our disposal is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which helps us process our guilt in three important ways.
Firstly, preparing for Reconciliation requires us to prayerfully reflect on our lives and on how we are failing to live fully in the light and love of Christ. This helps us to get in touch with how we are acting out and causing pain to others. Generally, we reflect far too little, and though technically we could do this part without going to the Sacrament, it is a good forcing device.
Secondly, verbalising our failings by confessing to the priest literally puts our sins outside of us where they can be seen more clearly. In this space, it’s easier to recognise the connection between our sin and our injuries, which allows us to know ourselves better and to treat ourselves and others more compassionately.
Thirdly, the Sacrament enables God’s grace to have more direct access to our hearts. When our sins are absolved, we remove some of the barriers we have erected between God and ourselves, allowing grace the opportunity to heal and resolve some of our pain.
And as we forgive ourselves and enter into a space of healing, we are able to avoid operating from a place of dysfunctional inner conflict and so make sounder decisions about what we need to do in our relationships. Through this process we gain better insight into ourselves, enabling us to approach the areas where we have hurt others with greater wisdom, compassion and generosity.
We love the feast of Divine Mercy!
It speaks so powerfully to the modern tendency to deny our sin behind the arrogance of self-righteousness or the weakness of self-defensiveness. It calls us to recommit to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as one of the most liberating and effective ways to resolve our guilt and address our woundedness.
In a world of brokenness, the confessional is indeed the field hospital for our soul.