Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, which the Church designates to focus on the profound mercy Jesus offers us by forgiving our sins. Most of us are grateful for God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness because we know we would be lost without it. We are also aware that we are called to offer forgiveness to others in response to the forgiveness God so freely gives us. The Our Father prayer indicates that offering forgiveness to others is obligatory if we want to ask it for ourselves – “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” However, it is sometimes difficult to take what we know in our minds and put it into practice. In this article, I would like to present a method by which we can have a more dynamic participation in the process of mercy and forgiveness, where we can work with the Lord in bringing about conversion.

My source for this dynamic process is a sermon by a Lutheran pastor, Larry Christenson (1928-2017). If you seek further information on this topic, please note that, as a Lutheran, some of his scriptural references are not perfectly aligned with Catholic teaching and that I am explicitly highlighting the main ideas that are not contradictory to Church teaching.

We are all affected by the sins of those around us. Sometimes, those sins are explicitly directed at us, like hurtful words and bad behavior that causes us harm. Other times, a sin is not directly aimed at us, but still hurts us, like a child who has left the Church or a pattern of behavior that we wish a person would change for everyone’s good, especially their own. Rev. Christensen astutely points out that whatever the situation, we are most likely suffering from the sin of someone with whom we have a relationship and not the stranger we bump into at the store. It is in our personal relationships where our Christianity, is more often genuinely tested in our willingness and ability to forgive.

Rev. Christenson also points out that when we lose our peace, it is usually not because of the other person’s behavior, but because of our reaction. For example, do you find yourself bitter over something someone has done? It is the bitterness causing your lack of peace more than the actual thing done to you. So, the reverend proposes a practical two-step process to help us enter into Jesus’ divine mercy and participate with him in these difficult situations where we are suffering and struggling with forgiveness.

Empathetic Repentance

The first step of the process is empathetic repentance. We all know we are supposed to forgive regardless of the other person’s repentance and desire to be forgiven. However, we can become frustrated when a person cannot see the error of their ways, the pain they cause, or even express a desire to apologize or change. Then, as we let that frustration fester, we lose more peace. We may even pray, “Lord, please soften this person’s heart and lead them to conversion,” but then find that the person’s heart does not soften, and they do not convert, which leaves us to wonder whether any change will ever happen. Thus, even though we are praying for something good for the other person (conversion), it is about asking God to give us something that we want.

Empathy is entering into another person’s experience and trying to understand what they might be feeling and what might be causing them to act this way. Usually, sin stems from disordered attachments, faulty thinking, and misconceptions, which we all suffer from in some form or another. Recognizing that each of us has some disordered thinking in our own selves, we can change our perspective and our prayer.

Instead of asking God to change what is disordered in another person, we can ask God to reveal to us the same disordered thinking in ourselves that we are judging in the other. Imagine a person in your life who is persisting in sin and for whom you have been praying to see the light. Now, change your prayer to sound something more like this:

“Lord, my child has turned from your Church. Reveal to me the times I have turned my back on you.”

 “Lord, this person has spoken hurtful words. Reveal to me the times I have hurt others with my words.”

“Lord, this person is obstinate in their disordered thinking. Reveal the times I have also been stubborn in my disordered thinking.”

The more you practice this way of thinking and praying, the more you will find repentance and conversion in your own heart, increasing your patience and understanding. This is empathetic repentance. God has now entered into your own heart, not theirs, and has paved the way for you to forgive that person more easily.

Unilateral Forgiveness

Throughout scripture, Jesus continually forgives people who never ask for it. There are some occasions where people express repentance, like when the sinful woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears (Lk 7:37-48) or when Peter “wept bitterly” upon realizing he had denied Jesus (Mat 26:75). Still, there is no explicit request for forgiveness. There are other times when the people involved express no repentance whatsoever, like at the crucifixion, where Jesus is being mocked and humiliated relentlessly and without remorse or any awareness of wrongdoing. No matter the disposition of the person standing before him, Jesus offers unilateral forgiveness, most notably in the words he spoke from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

We’ve already established that sin is typically rooted in disordered attachments, faulty thinking, and misconceptions, so it is difficult to repent when one is bound up with such things. Jesus’ method of unilateral forgiveness takes an empathetic approach, recognizes the spiritual blindness of the person at the time, and mercifully offers forgiveness even for what they cannot see. We now realize that we have the privilege of participating in the supernatural forgiveness that Jesus offers the other person rather than the lesser form of human forgiveness we can only offer in our sinful state.

With empathetic repentance and participation in the unilateral forgiveness of God, our prayers now look something like this:

“Lord, forgive this person for turning his back on your teaching, and forgive me for the times I have turned my own back on your teaching.”

“Lord, forgive this person for being angry with me over a misunderstanding, and forgive me for the times I have been angry with other people over a misunderstanding.”

“Lord, forgive this person’s inability to see the pain they have caused, and forgive me for the times I have been unable to see the pain I have caused.”

With this approach, you are no longer the one doing the work of forgiveness alone or using your prayer to ask for a change in someone else. Instead, with a disposition of humility and openness to your own conversion, you are putting your ego and emotions aside and allowing God to work in your heart along with the other person’s as well. Anytime we get out of our own way and let God do the work, the fruit is always far more satisfying, and the outcomes are always more conformed to his holy will over our own. Rev. Christenson suggests that by entering into this dynamic process of forgiveness, you will see miracles and changes in yourself and others that defy any other explanation beyond divine intervention.

This week, choose a problematic relationship in which a person is not repentant, and forgiveness is a challenge, no matter how much you will it. Spend a couple of days, first asking God to judge in your heart the exact behavior you are judging in that other person. Be open to experiencing the reality that you are not free from the same guilt and allow your perspective to become more empathetic to what that person may be experiencing. Then, spend the next few days asking God to forgive both of you for that same sin for which you were both unrepentant. Get out of the way and let the divine mercy of Jesus penetrate both of your hearts more deeply, and trust that conversion will come.

Pray the Chaplet of Mercy and Forgiveness.

To receive articles and reflections like these directly to your inbox, please subscribe.