‘Mercy, Pity, Peace’: The Power of Forgiveness

January 9, 2020 Updated: January 9, 2020

“… forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us …”

I remember the exact place and time when the meaning of those words smacked me upside the head. It was February, and I was 41 years old and standing in the kitchen of our bed and breakfast, listening to a recording in which a female comedian, her name long forgotten, says the Lord’s Prayer, only to be interrupted by God again and again for her failure to practice the tenets of the prayer. When she delivered the above line, I realized that with those words we are asking God to judge us as we judge others.

Terrifying, if you are a believer.

Pardon Versus Resentment

Some people have a knack for forgiveness, a built-in ability to let go of insults or wrongs committed against them, water off the proverbial duck’s back, so to speak. When another wounds them, they seek explanations instead of resorting to anger, understanding rather than bottling up hatred and resentment. Depending on the wrong committed, such people may not forget the harm done to them, but they know the liberating power of forgiving the transgressor, of letting go, and moving on.

Then there are those who don’t forgive, who remain prison-pent in bitterness, stuck behind walls and bars of hatred they themselves have built. Blinded by animosity, deafened by resentment, they dream of revenge. Sometimes they become consumed by this desire to get even, rubbing salt into the wounds they have suffered, unaware of the healing and interior freedom forgiveness can bring.

When It’s Personal

Many of us have witnessed firsthand the ugliness that results when pardon and clemency are nowhere to be found. When I was a kid, for example, my grandmother and her sister had a falling-out—I don’t remember the cause—and they didn’t speak to each other for years. Since then, I’ve known plenty of other families fractured by a lack of charity. Friends, too, sometimes turn away from each other, forswearing the good times and intimacy they’ve shared, often over a misunderstanding—a badly worded email, a disagreement over politics, even the misreading of a facial expression—that an explanation or an apology might set right.

Quite often, the hardest person in the world to let off the hook is the self. We may find it possible to dispense mercy to a coworker who slanders us, or to a spouse who has deserted us, but after we have hurt someone, extending William Blake’s “mercy, pity, and peace” to ourselves can be one tough mountain to climb.

In my own case, I generally find it simple to forgive others, even, in two or three cases, people who have done me horrible wrongs, but forgiving the self—that is another beast altogether. A memory from 40 years ago can pop to mind, and I wince. My worst sins can return with unbidden ease, casting dark clouds over the brightest day, and not all the confessional booths in the world can clear those skies. 

Begging Your Pardon

To forgive can be tough, but to ask for forgiveness can be tougher. Yet to do so can have profound consequences. In 1997, a deranged Jordanian soldier gunned down seven eighth-grade Israeli girls. King Hussein of Jordan visited each family of the murdered girls, knelt before family members, and with tears in his eyes begged forgiveness for what had happened. This act of repentance changed the relationship between Jordan and Israel, and provided a powerful glimpse of hope in a region rampant with hatred. 

After the First World War, the victors imposed humiliating terms of surrender on the Germans. The Treaty of Versailles showed little clemency or mercy to the Germans, and the resentment it provoked among them helped give rise to Nazism. In contrast, when the Second World War ended, the nation-states of Western Europe, which for six years had fought one another as bitter foes, decided to seek healing rather than revenge and recrimination. 

As Joseph Ratzinger points out in “Western Culture Today and Tomorrow,” “Charles De Gaulle once explained the meaning of this: although there was a time when it was our duty to be enemies, now it is our joy that we can be friends.”

So what to do? How can we extend the hand of mercy and forgiveness to others and even to ourselves?

5 Precepts

Here are some universal precepts associated with forgiveness. 

• Understanding is key. Few people are psychopaths or evil. Instead, men and women make mistakes. They misjudge motives or circumstances. If we try to see events through their eyes, we may realize there are two sides, or more, to what we first mistook for wrongs committed against us. All too often, we seek self-justification rather than looking at the big picture. 

• Sometimes, we must offer forgiveness in absentia. Perhaps our alcoholic father who beat his wife and cursed his children has died. We can still forgive him. Perhaps a former friend refuses to have anything to do with us. We can still forgive her. 

• We can stop looking for what we perceive as slights or insults. Some people take these misperceptions to a whole new level. Once I was telling an older man how much I enjoyed giving parties for friends, most often parents of my students. “I used to throw parties, too,” he said. “Christmas. New Year’s. But we never got invited out so I stopped.” I explained that I rarely received return invitations as well, but the joy was in gathering together some people I loved or admired. I gave the parties because I wanted some fun. He gave parties expecting reciprocity, and when he was disappointed, he took his revenge by junking such entertainments.  

• Sometimes, it pays to be kind rather than right. That old axiom will see us through many a misunderstanding, and given today’s family squabbles about culture and politics, should probably be emblazoned on a banner over the dining room table at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

• And if we have wronged another? We have only to speak two simple words: “I’m sorry.” The 1970 film, “Love Story,” had as its advertising tag: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This assertion—and the vast majority of married couples will back me up on this one—is absurd and false. When we hurt someone we love—and most of us do that, intentionally or unintentionally, on a regular basis—we tell that person we’re sorry for the transgression and ask forgiveness. 

The Time for Forgiveness Is Now

This charity from the heart takes us out of prison and brings us new life. We are no longer like Marley’s ghost in “A Christmas Carol,” dragging iron weights of past sins as we plod through the day. Forgiveness dissolves those weights. 

A new year traditionally means new beginnings. What better time to give the green light to clemency and compassion, repair relationships, and make this winter the season of “mercy, pity, peace?”

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.