This is the fourth installment in our series “Father of Mercy.” Recall that if we could simmer down God the Father’s attributes to one word it would be mercy. As Saint John Paul II said, “Mercy is Love’s second name.” In other words, God is Love and Love expresses itself by mercy. It can be concluded that if God the Father expresses love to us by means of mercy, then mercy is also the human father’s most powerful and magnetic way of attracting his children to himself and to the heavenly Father. As St. Thomas Aquinas said: Mercy is the greatest of all the virtues that we can apply to our neighbor. Recall also that mercy has only two conditions: first that we must receive it, and second that we must give it. During our last session we discussed one of the ways in which we fathers can apply mercy to our children: protect to inject. Today we will discuss a second manner in which we can apply mercy to our children: forgive to live.
Forgiveness: The Very Heart of the Gospel
One of the most powerful, impactful, and enduring lessons a child learns is how to be forgiven and how to forgive. Forgiveness is at the heart of mercy. Forgiveness is the full expression of the compassionate heart, a heart that sacrifices itself in order to reconcile with the person who has wounded, betrayed, denied, or neglected it. Forgiveness is at the heart of Christ’s Gospel and is the very measure by which we will all be measured. Jesus, after teaching his disciples the “Our Father,” stated, “For if you forgive men their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you your offenses. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offenses” (Matt. 6:14). In fact, the very words of the “Our Father,” “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” can actually be the very words that condemn us eternally or afford us eternal life. By praying these words, we ask the Father to forgive us in the same manner and measure in which we forgive others—especially our wives and children. It can be concluded that our prayers will avail us very little unless we, as Christ commands, “forgive our brother from our hearts” (see Matt. 18:35).
The Challenge of Forgiveness
Forgiveness can be very difficult. Actually, to forgive another from the heart is perhaps one of the most challenging acts of mercy because it costs us much. To forgive another may cost us our very attachment to our own likings, our dispositions, our rights, the very justice that is owed to us when someone has unjustly robbed us of something—especially our human dignity. We cannot gloss over this challenge and difficulty. For those who have had the misfortune of working with crooked financial advisors who have robbed them of their hard-earned income, or those who were sexually molested by a relative, neighbor, or a trusted person in authority; for the husband whose wife has cheated on him, the men whose friends have revealed their innermost secrets; for dads whose children have destroyed their good reputation, for all of those and others, this is by far the greatest challenge of this life—to forgive his betrayer from his heart.
The Lesson of Forgiveness
Recall that fatherhood is much like cell diffusion. The molecules in the area of the cell that are most concentrated flow to the area of the cell where there exists less molecular concentration. What we, as fathers, are richest in—whether it is virtue or vice, spiritual poverty or spiritual riches, love or lust— is supernaturally and naturally transmitted to our children. Again, one of the greatest, most impactful lessons a child can learn is how to be forgiven and how to forgive, which indicates that we fathers must learn to forgive and be forgiven. An acquaintance shared an incredibly painful yet moving story that conveys the great challenge and power of forgiveness. Years ago, he and his two-year-old son were playing together in his backyard. The father began tending to some odd jobs, not realizing that the fence gate was open. His daughter, who had just learned to drive, was at that moment backing the car out of the driveway. Tragically, she ran over her little brother, killing him instantly. It was within the very horror, terror, and trauma of that moment, while holding the dead body of his son in his arms, that this father had the wherewithal to grab ahold of his daughter, embrace her tightly, draw her close to his chest, and assure her of his love. He immediately embraced his daughter, her failure and deadly error, and bore her tremendous pain with her. He lost one child, but refused to lose two in the same day. This father has a compassionate heart that paid the price for his daughter’s failure. Today she is a God-loving mother and has children of her own. Her father’s love, forgiveness, and mercy enabled her to forgive herself.
Condone or Condemn
Forgiveness demands that on one hand we do not condone bad behavior, sins, and the failures of the child, while on the other hand we must not condemn the child. The key to truly being merciful is to acknowledge the weight and gravity of sin while applying mercy to the sinner. As a young boy, I was a wild ass of a kid, consistently getting myself into all sorts of trouble. As a Boy Scout I attended a three-day Jubilee campout with hundreds of troops from many parts of the country. One evening, well after sunset, I had the hare-brained idea of going for a stroll and using my buck knife to slash some of the neighboring troop’s tents. As I was cutting a hole in a tent, a young scout inside the tent peered out and spotted me. I fled, hid in my tent, and pretended I was sleeping. But soon I was summoned to appear in a lineup and was eventually identified as the little culprit who had committed the crime. My dad could have condoned the behavior by ignoring it, sweeping it under the rug; or could have had me removed from my Scout troop to avoid further embarrassment; or he could have condemned me, upbraided me, lectured me about how I had destroyed our family’s fine reputation. However, my dad did something altogether different: he had me stand in front of the sixty Scouts against whom I had committed the offense and confess my wrong, ask for forgiveness, and allow them to dictate my fate by determining my punishment—all while he sat in a chair right next to me, bearing the burden, shame, and weight of my failure, sin, and dishonor. Afterward, while driving home, dad said, “Devin, I’m proud of you.” Then he took me out for ice cream. If only I’d known earlier that all I had to do was slash a tent to get my dad to take me out for ice cream! Today, I still feel the impact of his actions and words. It was through my father’s mercy—not condemning me, nor condoning the sin, but holding me accountable and yet forgiving me—that I was afforded a glimpse into God the Father’s mercy.
Meekness and Mercy
Consider that after the twelve-year-old Jesus’ first trek with his parents to the temple in Jerusalem, the boy remained behind in the Holy City without his parents knowing it. After a day’s journey, Mary and Joseph discovered, to their alarm, that their Son was missing. After three days of anxious searching, they located Jesus in the temple. The evangelist Luke reflects in his Gospel account that Jesus’ actions—though not sinful—caused Mary and Joseph great sorrow and pain.
Notice how Joseph handled the situation. He did not indulge Jesus, neglect him, or allow him to remain in the temple. Nor did he unleash his emotions, vent his anger, and berate Jesus with “How could you?” and “What were you thinking?” Joseph rather, in his strong, silent, resolute manner, animated by incredible meekness, had Jesus return home with him. Joseph did not condemn Jesus for his actions nor did he abandon his fatherly authority and condone Jesus’ actions by abandoning him. Joseph’s actions offer a very valuable lesson for fathers. A father’s anger communicates to his child the message, “You are an inconvenience, a problem, a thorn in my side.” Meekness, however, is the virtue that overcomes the vice of disordered anger. Meekness is power under control. St. Joseph did not ignore Jesus’ actions, nor did he condemn Jesus for staying behind in his Father’s house, but rather led Jesus in his return to Nazareth—to home—where the Son of God was fully submissive to his earthly father. Meekness enables a father to discipline with love and love with discipline. Meekness is at the heart of mercy.
Mercy Wins Hearts
Our children are very observant. They listen to half of what we say and all of what we do, and learn from our behaviors and habits—good or bad. In order for our children to truly live they must learn from us how to forgive, which indicates that we must allow God to forgive us. A friend recently recounted that his eldest son, during his teenage years, would run away from home, disappear for months at a time, leaving his parents to believe that he was dead. This dynamic continued for years. The father did all in his power to corral his son but to no avail. After years of condemning himself for being a terrible father, he surrendered his fatherhood to God and entrusted his life to God the Father’s mercy, which empowered him to love his son with meekness. Finally, his son returned home in his early twenties to tell his dad that his girlfriend was pregnant. His dad explained to his son that he did not have to marry his girlfriend. The son, however, said that he wanted to marry her and raise the child properly. The dad, dumbfounded, asked him, “How can you do this? You are irresponsible. You don’t have a job. How on earth do you think you will do this?” His son responded, “Because I’ve been watching you, Dad.” In other words, “Dad, your mercy is magnetic and I want to be like you.”
A father’s greatest attribute is mercy. Mercy attracts the child not only to his earthly father but ultimately to his heavenly Father. Mercy has the greatest power and potential to win over our children to God and his Church. Mercy cost my friend many sleepless nights. Mercy cost my dad his good reputation as he sat next to his condemned son. Mercy cost my acquaintance the heroic effort to overcome his bitter resentment at the loss of his little son. This is the point: We have received mercy from God the Father, and this mercy cost him dearly—it cost him his Son. Yet his mercy is magnetic—over twenty centuries, billions of people have responded to such mercy. Wrath and anger may initially make people fearful and obedient, but it rarely wins hearts. Mercy wins hearts because those who hearts are won know that the person who applied mercy believed that they were worth the cost.