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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Strategies for Prayer -- eleventh in a series (Forgiveness)

Lord, teach us to pray (Luke 11:1).

The Church teaches on the parable of the merciless servant: [Jesus said] "So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." It is there, in fact, "in the depths of the heart," that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2843. Bold is my emphasis).
In the last essay I wrote about confession as a prayer strategy. Today I’ll address forgiveness, and how this “strategy” opens or closes the gates of heaven to our prayers.

The Lord Jesus made it clear in many places that God’s forgiveness of us is inextricably linked to our forgiveness of others. Perhaps the clearest example of this principle is found in the verses just after the “Our Father” in which Jesus warns, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:14-15).
Forgiveness is a choice. It is an act of the will, independent of our ‘feelings’ of forgiveness.

It’s the choice Jesus made when He prayed for the Father to forgive those who mocked and crucified Him – even though they had not asked for forgiveness. It’s the same choice St. Stephen made when, as he was dying at the hands of the mob stoning him, he asked the Father to not hold that sin against them – even though they had not asked for forgiveness.
Everyone who has read my books knows I killed my baby more than 40 years ago in an abortion clinic. Four years later, when I discovered Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, I offered Him my life, repented of my sins, and entered the waters of baptism. For the next 44 years I was (and remain) absolutely certain God forgave not only that terrible crime, but all of my other despicable offenses against Him as well.

However, in early October 2011, while watching a DVD at a men’s meeting devoted to the subject of abortion, I had a terrible epiphany. As if for the very first time my eyes opened to the bottomless depth of my abortion sin. A sword of shame ripped into my gut. Blood gushed from the wound and my bowels lay eviscerated on the floor. Guilt – horrifying, unrelenting guilt – flooded over me like a tsunami, first sucking away my breath, only to return relentlessly churning and tossing ravaged, grievous memories through my heart.

I couldn’t watch any longer. I grabbed my coat and rushed from the building. It was all I could do to get into my car before uncontrollable sobs wracked my body.

“What are you doing to me!” I shouted at heaven, confused, angry, horrified. “What was that all about? I don’t deserve to live!”
I could not fathom why God, who’d forgiven me four decades earlier, who’d buried my crimes in the sea of Christ’s blood – why had He brought me to my knees like this?

It was not until hours later, after struggling to process what God had done to me, that I understood. That is to say, I think I understood. I had never before known such grief for my sin. But neither had I known for what and for how much He had forgiven me.
And then the Holy Spirit connected the proverbial dots.

Like the slave in Jesus’ parable cited in the Catechism paragraph above, who do I think I am to keep a grudge against another? What gives me the right to hold an unforgiving spirit toward family, friend – or even enemy? I owed God a debt that I could never repay. But He paid my debt in full. Every penny.

And He paid it with His blood.

Do I really think I can live close to Christ if I am unwilling to live as Christ? Do I really think I can hope for His forgiveness if I remain unwilling to forgive others – even those who don’t ask for forgiveness?
I learned on that day in October that of all the prayer strategies I could ever practice, if confession and forgiveness are not at their core, I might as well stop jabbering at God.  I learned that forgiveness is a choice. And that by exercising the right choice, I permit the Holy Spirit to supernaturally turn injury into compassion and hurt into honest intercession.

Lord Jesus, please. Conform my choices more and more to yours.

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