This is a very serious request made to the Almighty. We are aware that we are sinners — as the Psalmist says: ‘My sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee alone, have I sinned' (Ps Sl.3, 4). And when we think about it, it is extraordinary that we can plead with God, who is so mighty and upright, to show us mercy and remove our sins. By sinning, we have let him down.
And bearing in mind his greatness and goodness, we still have the nerve to go before him and ask for forgiveness. If we could see matters in their proper light, such behaviour might seem very daring. We can only do so because of what has been revealed: ‘But there is forgiveness with thee (O Lord)‘ (Ps I 30.4). We do not add that we are forgiving just to strengthen our case, as if to say ‘if we can forgive, surely you can`, but to indicate that we desire to be fully loving.
An Awareness of Sin
We need always to strengthen this. When we come before the Lord, this tends to make us feel small and feeble. So many weaknesses can strike us. We are not sufficiently open to him — to his way and plan for us. It is then fitting for us to feel like the publican and pray, ‘Lord be merciful to me a sinner` (Lk IB. I 3).We inadequately grasp how much our sins make us displeasing to the Almighty. Yet we realize more easily how they lessen and block us. We know that our living is too centred on ourselves and that we are selfish. There may even be a vicious or nasty side to us. We are struck by how narrowly we see everything. And doesn't God view us, and even our sins, in a wider context — always in the light of his mercy. We reflect that we judge or condemn others too readily. We are slow to forgive those who hurt us — and may be happy if ill-luck strikes them! Our attitudes and actions often reveal mixed motives.
An Appeal to Love
Sinners who turn to God for forgiveness know that they are appealing to a quality of his love, namely his mercy. The Almighty is frequently spoken of in this way in the Bible — as a God rich in mercy: ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ex 34.6).We are familiar with the refrain, ‘The Lord is merciful and gracious' (Ps 1O3.8).This is a characteristic of God that the sinner mainly comes in contact with. It is interesting that the Almighty reserves a part of himself especially for such people. Even though they may be rejected and looked down on by individuals here below, there is always an element in divine love opened out to them — welcoming them. They are not abandoned or despised by the Master of all, who shows special interest in them. He is ever ready to rescue the erring.
Sinners may come to realize that they have failed to love God. Their hearts have become dull, and they lack a warm and flexible spark. They have become too stone-like, and this needs to be softened. Only God and his might can shift the solidity or stubbornness of their wickedness, and so sinners themselves have to look for divine help. These, when they turn to the light, want true love to touch them, and to leave a deep mark on them. When they approach the Almighty, their state is one of repentance. The sinner; in God`s light, wants to escape from what is evil.
The fact that God is willing to forgive our sins is something enormous. It shows how kind he is - how understanding and how generous. His love so overflows, that it welcomes us ever anew, no matter what we have done, and allows us to restart. His creativity is marvellously seen in his forgiving us. He brings forth light out of darkness in our lives. When we bear in mind the infinity of his mercy our trust or confidence in him is greatly magnified.
When we ask God to forgive us our sins, we do not (or should not) petition him to adopt an attitude towards us that we ourselves do not show to others. We would be in a contradictory situation, if we were to say, ‘You, Lord, be especially good to us, even if we don`t have a merciful spirit’. We have to be sincere and upright — flowing with love. We cannot let grudges block the breadth of our love. Therefore, we must do our best to forgive others, even those who have done us great harm. We let them off with what they have done, and we wish them well. And we realise that the harm they have done to us may eventually work for our good.
When we ask God to be merciful to us, we should be in the state of being merciful ourselves. In this way we rise to a new level of creativity, and seek a new beginning. We want to have a new outlook on life. We are eager not to be caught, tied, or crippled by a past happening. We may not forget something and we may have been made more cautious, but we should still bear no ill-will.
Fr. James Kelly, SJ