Forgiveness is something we all want, and yet at the same time, we often have a hard time asking for it.
When we do something wrong, we immediately try to cover it up: we move on to another topic of conversation, we distract attention from it, etc. We sweep it under the rug and act as if nothing happened. The truth is, we aren’t fooling anyone, but for some reason, it’s can be really hard to take that step of saying, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
Why is it so hard for us to ask for forgiveness?
- One wrong easily leads to another. Once we’ve transgressed in one way, it’s easier to transgress in another to try to cover it up or “fix” it. It’s easier for us to break another rule than for us to admit we’re wrong. We don’t realize that we’re just making it worse.
- Our pride and vanity make us believe that asking for forgiveness means lowering ourselves somehow, diminishing our stature or our image of perfection. We don’t realize that recognizing our failings and asking for forgiveness will actually make us more human, credible, and respectable.
- We try to silence our conscience and justify what we did wrong: “You did what you had to do” and “There was no solution …”
Refusing to be humble and ask to be forgiven is dangerous, because over time it can deform our conscience. Our conscience is our soul’s guiding companion, our moral GPS. However, it is open to being formed or deformed by the truths or lies we feed it. With each decision we make, following or rejecting what our conscience and reason tell us is right, we make our conscience either more strongly oriented towards the good or we lead it off track. If we justify the wrong we have done, the next time we find ourselves in the same situation it will seem less bad, and in the end it will begin to seem good to us. We won’t ask to be forgiven, because we will cease to recognize that we’ve done wrong.
We can see this deformation of conscience in people around us on a daily basis. In fact, we see that there are people who never ask for forgiveness, despite being responsible for serious crimes. Other people, even if what they’ve done isn’t so serious, never give an inch to admit they’ve done something wrong. It’s hard to know how much they really believe in their own innocence, but in some cases it seems they have truly blinded themselves to their own faults.
How can we create an environment that facilitates asking for forgiveness?
In the first place, we must all convert. Conversion involves deciding to undo the wrong we have done, and not do it again. One way of practicing it is to make it a habit to ask for forgiveness every time we need to, even when we only fail in small things. This will prepare us to ask for forgiveness on the day when (and if) we commit a more serious offense. But conversion of heart is, as believers understand it, a gift from God, who never denies good things to those who ask. We must ask Him often for the gift of contrition and conversion.
Second, we have to help others who have done wrong to seek forgiveness. When an opportune moment arises, we can explain to them what they have done, and help them to understand why it was wrong and why they need to ask for forgiveness (and when we’re the offended party, we should make it clear that we are willing to forgive). We need to let them know we love them despite their failings, and that we acknowledge our own faults and need to be forgiven.
In the third place, we have to be merciful towards those who refuse to ask for forgiveness. People who don’t ask for forgiveness carry suffering in their soul. They are miserable, even if they don’t admit it to themselves; they deserve our compassion. St. Augustine of Hippo says that “mercy is true compassion for others’ misery, born in our heart. It leads us to feel compelled to help them, if we can.”
In the fourth place, forgiveness gives a range of benefits to those who have done wrong. It can bring much-needed reconciliation, sometimes after many years. When the benefits of receiving forgiveness are clear, it can be a strong motivation for people to admit their failings and ask for pardon.
Asking for forgiveness is tough, but worth it.
Even if others may not forgive us, the act of humbly recognizing our failings and asking for pardon (from God and from those we have offended) frees us from the burden of guilt. Contrition is that much more authentic and complete when those seeking forgiveness actively seek to repair the harm they have done.
By setting an example of both forgiving and seeking forgiveness, we create a world of greater honesty and transparency, where relationships are stronger and peace is possible. The bitter taste of “eating humble pie” is the only path to the sweetness of reconciliation.
Forgiveness sets our hearts free and allows us to start anew. Forgiveness gives hope. Without forgiveness, the Church is not built up.
There’s a right way to apologize, and it’s more than just “I’m sorry”