The Works of Mercy: Bear Wrongs Patiently

Me assuming the task of writing about “bearing wrongs patiently” is like asking the Incredible Hulk for anger management counseling or seeking out Britney Spears for tips on marriage and child-rearing. I don’t bear wrongs very patiently. Why should I? Those people are wrong! They need to be set right! I’m only doing my Christian duty of admonishing the sinner when I inform that jerk that he’s a jerk. I’m not indulging the sin of anger! What could ever make you say such a hurtful thing, you moron? I’m Jesus in the temple, taking a rope of cords to the moneychangers! Anybody who gets in my way is not lovingly rebuking my unjust anger or asking me bear wrongs patiently. He is a wishy washy coward who cringes in the face of Real Evil and is going all Neville Chamberlain when what is needed is Righteous Wrath!

You laugh. But that’s exactly how it feels when you are in the grip of vengefulness and it’s why “bearing wrongs patiently” is so bloody hard to do. And don’t kid me. You’re no different—and with good reason.

The reason you are no different is that the work of mercy called for is not “Bear Imagined Wrongs Patiently”. It’s talking about real wrongs, when the other guy really is a dirtbag who, very deliberately and with sociopathic malice aforethought, publicly slanders, yells at and reduces to tears a good Christian widow with small children all because of his envy of her and his own rankling (and richly deserved) sense of inferiority. It’s talking about when some bitter little twerp publically attacks a holy old priest who has served God’s people for 50 years and tells lies about him with granite impenitence. It’s talking about that punk kid who keyed your car and got away before you could get his license. It’s talking about the cancer your kid sister got, despite years of healthy living. It’s talking about that person (you know who they are) that did that awful thing that one time and has not only never apologized, but still likes to remind you of how they embarrassed and hurt you—or worse still, hurt your loved one. It’s talking about everything that has ever happened to you or those you love that was truly unjust, unfair and, well, wrong.

Now, I know, as you probably do, those people who really seem to be able to bear such things patiently. Saints, both living and dead, who have encountered great tragedies or (what is sometimes harder to bear) small and persistent misfortunes and annoyances and come out the other side praising God and full of joy.

I’m not one of them. At least, not yet (though I hope in God that this will eventually change). I have trouble dealing with mere misfortune, much less sins against me. Indeed, I find misfortune in some ways more difficult. After all, with humans you can at least chalk things up to free will and sin against a good God who didn’t want to see you harmed. But when life just sets you up for some random tragedy because you happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, I have the sort of mind that almost instantly goes into full Job mode. My immediate temptation is toward the hissing voice that says “God is not there and besides He is evil. He’s laughing at your cosmic pie in the face! He does this for His sport!” When the wrong that I must bear patiently happens because God, in his Divine Providence, let it happen, it feels like God is playing a cruel joke on me. So I become a seething cauldron of anger at God and counsels to “bear it patiently” strike my sinful ears like the sick counsels of an abusive parent saying “Smile! Daddy beats you because you cry so much.”

Not that my response to human sin is much better. Generally, my reaction to those who sin against me and against those I love is to grind my teeth and take walks or showers where I formulate the Perfect Riposte to That Jerk. Recently, I was fantasizing about throwing a drink in somebody’s face if I ever had the misfortune to meet him in person. On my weaker days, I let fly with words calculated to hurt. On my stronger days, I simply stew in my juices and have to work long and hard to really hand those people over to God and ask that they be forgiven. And even then, I have my strategies for clinging to my anger.

For instance, I’m enough of a Christian to know the extremely unpleasant teaching of our Lord:

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)

But I’m also a clever enough Christian that I can often fool myself (though not God, I am sorry to say) into believing that so long as I cherish hatred against a person when they wrong somebody else and not myself, then I am being a noble knight defending the honor of a maid and not somebody looking for an excuse for the sin of anger and a chance to kick butt. I find it as tempting as it is for anybody to pretend that I am under no obligation to forgive jerks who sin against those I care about. I like to forget, as most people like to forget, that if the clown who robbed my friend’s house is on the receiving end of my anger for their act of theft against my friend, then I have likewise assumed my friend’s obligation to forgive. As Jesus says:

And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. (Mark 11:25)

There are lots of other tricks I know (as do you in all likelihood) for avoiding the terrible command to forgive “anything against anyone”. One is to conflate forgiveness with impassiveness, as though forgiving somebody means doing nothing about the evil they commit. It is a standard strawman argument that we Vengies like to tell ourselves just before we run off to commit the opposite evil of clinging to bitterness. It goes like this:

We tell ourselves (in the tone of voice we reserve for saying, “You just stirred my tea with your used Q Tip”), “Merciful people—those gooey Peace n’ Justice types—are nothing but wimp symps and pacifist bedwetters who think I should allow evil to go unchallenged when it is in my power—and clearly my responsibility—to challenge it. Those people yammering about mercy all the time are basically enablers of evil. Mercy for Osama bin Laden? Forgiveness for some monster like Maciel?” It’s an inviting and easy thing to say. Bin Laden has never paid for his slaughter. Maciel gives every impression of having died as impenitent a monster as he lived. And not a few abusive priests managed to avoid the just punishment of the law because somebody thought it would be “unforgiving” to call the cops. We know that this is rubbish and feel the frustration of any morally sane person at such passivity in the face of such evil. We know perfectly well that the task of the Christian in such a situation is to report the crime to the police lest other innocents suffer. Forgiveness, we shout in exasperation at the ruin wrought by Maciel and our other pervert priests, does not equal passivity in the face of evil.

But then we make the fatal error. We go on to imagine that suckling at the breast of fury and unforgiveness constitutes “doing something” about priest abuse, or the war, or whatever other issue arouses passion.

The reality is that unforgiveness does nothing—nothing whatsoever—about defeating evil or establishing justice. It does not get rid of bad clerics, help victims, stop terrorism or bring a single person closer to God or to the communion of saints. The only actual, practical results of unforgiveness are that people who refuse to forgive evils are filled with bitterness, feel an ever weaker grip on their faith, “encourage” one another in small (but growing) ways to consider the possibility of schism, hatred of their country or the enemy, and nurture an ever deeper cynicism and bitterness. St. James is right: the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God (James 1:20).

Some people believe they can play the “I don’t have to forgive until my enemy says ‘sorry’ game”. If we buy that, we have to realize that we are directly disobeying Jesus Christ, who says “Love your enemy” not “Love your former enemy.” Moreover, we need to know that the punishment for the sin of refusing to forgive is found in the sin itself. For our unforgiveness punishes ourselves, not our enemy. When we refuse to forgive, we hand our happiness over—forever—to people who may not even know we exist, much less care. We chain ourselves to misery for all time and enslave ourselves, often to people long dead. It’s folly. And it’s why Jesus is right. Refusal to extend forgiveness (for “justice’ sake”, as we always tell ourselves) is one of the most deadly manifestations of pride in the world. It achieves nothing of what it promises (“Someday that jerk will say he’s sorry and you’ll be vindicated for all the world to see!”) and it ruins not just our life, but typically, the lives of those around us who must suffer our descent into unrequited rage.

Indeed, refusal to forgive trains us for nothing but misery. We think we will find peace when They say they’re sorry. But if we’ve trained ourselves to live in bitterness and cynicism, we will be stuck there no matter what They say (because who can ever believe Them anyway?) And besides, if one of Them says sorry, there are always going to be plenty more who don’t. So we hold on to our bitterness in any event. Bottom line: Strength and vindication do not come from refusal to forgive. Nor do safety, security or any other good thing. Only slavery.

The command of Jesus is to extend forgiveness to enemies. It is not to pretend the sin never happened. It is not to pretend the impenitent person is penitent. It is not to be non-confrontational, or bend over and take it, or see no evil. It is not to refuse to take practical action, up to and including jailing or (in a just war) even killing your enemy. But it is to forgive nonetheless. It is to wish their good, to refuse to let cynicism master faith, hope, and charity, to hope for the best while keeping a firm eye on reality. Refusal to extend forgiveness (extend, mind you: it is up to the sinner to repent and receive it) does only harm—and primarily to the person who refuses to extend forgiveness.

But still we look for strategies to withhold forgiveness. These strategies include the notion that extending forgiveness means offering “cheap grace”. It’s the notion that if you don’t go on hating that husband who ditched you, if you don’t keep repeating to yourself every day the litany of wrongs your mother-in-law has done you, then your enemy will have gotten away with it! The crimes will go unpunished if you do not make yourself the Eternal Repository of Memory. The thought, “I must not let them off the hook!” sums this up. In reality, what it means is that you are drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

I sometimes run across people who chew the cud over sickening headlines about sins in some other part of the world and who rationalize feeding their growing bitterness by saying things like, “Love does not permit continued sin. I do not love an abusing priest or an enabling bishop by telling him ‘That’s ok, I forgive you and God will forgive you’ when there is no reason to suspect they will repent and sin no more. They have demonstrated that they will do it again, if I let them off the hook. Forgiveness does not include a license to repeat the sinful action, and that is what forgiveness at this point in time would mean.”

The problem is that people who say things like this about sins that do not involve them and which they cannot possibly affect (except with their prayers for justice and mercy)… well, such people are living in a fantasy world which imagines that cursing at a computer screen or TV will somehow affect the actions of bad bishops, abusive clergy, police, prosecutors, politicians, criminals, miscreant movie stars, Korean dictators, Islamic radicals and so forth on the opposite side of the planet. But of course, somebody swearing at their TV in Ohio over some sin committed by a priest in Boston or some outrage committed in Iran is, once again, going to do absolutely nothing except corrode her own soul. Her refusing to let go of rage is not going Teach Somebody a Lesson, chasten a bad cleric, help the cops do their job, comfort a victim, put a corrupt pol in the slammer or overthrow some Third World thug. It’s just going to destroy her own heart. It’s a perfectly worthless act.

Related to this is another particularly silly argument that “Forgiveness cannot take place until we know the extent of what must be forgiven.” So if a person or persons continues to sin, we don’t have to forgive them, since we allegedly can’t forgive what they have not yet done or what has not yet known to have been done.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it: hogwash. Indeed, it is exactly backward from Christ’s approach. He does not wait until our lives our over to decide whether or not he loves us. “God commends his own love to in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He commands us to do the same. That is what “love your enemies” means. It doesn’t mean “Love people who pay back your emotional bank account by saying they are sorry and assuaging your rage.” It means “Extend unconditional love and forgiveness to nasty people who despise you and want to harm you. Desire their happiness. Do not cultivate bitterness against them. Fight their evil actions, where necessary and possible, but do not will them ill.”

That’s why, to paraphrase Malibu Barbie, “Bearing wrongs patiently is hard.” The command to bear wrongs patiently is, quite simply, the command to die, to kill your old self and live to God. It’s contrary to every impulse of our fallen human nature and it both frightens and angers us. It’s like being asked to submit like a sheep to the shearers, to be like a lamb led to the slaughter and to open not our mouth. It’s like being asked to watch our dearly beloved son go through a kangaroo court and be condemned by jaded and cynical bureaucrats who think nothing of putting your child to death in the most horrible and humiliating way possible if only they can cling to their power. It’s like being asked to imitate Mary, the Mother of Sorrows and her Son Jesus, who bore our wrongs patiently all the way to his death, even death on a cross.

It is there, on Golgotha alone, that we can find the grace and help from God necessary to bear wrongs patiently. Only there do we discover with clarity that God is not laughing at his dearly beloved Son’s misfortunes, nor at ours. Only there do the sins of scheming men meet their decisive defeat. Only there do the powers of Hell find all evils inverted and turned to the glory of God. Only there do we find God himself enduring all the suffering, abandonment and misfortunes of Job, as well as all the spite of men and devils—including our own rage at him as an abandoning parent, or an enabler of tyrants, or a cheerleader for evil people, or any of the other slanders we lay upon him in our rage at the evils of the world. And only there can we see the real source of power for all those saints and martyrs who have borne wrongs patiently and, with and in Christ, seen the fruit of the travail of his soul and been satisfied.

Bearing wrongs patiently is a work of mercy that is only possible, in a word, with the help of Christ crucified. Nobody has ever done it without the grace supplied by His Holy Spirit. That includes, non-Christians, because such is His generosity and humility that the Light Who lightens every man doesn’t care all that much about receiving the credit. Many a human being who have been ignorant of him or even hostile to what they think his gospel to be have born wrongs patiently—sometime very great wrongs—and received their proper reward of peace, growth in magnanimity, and the inner strength that comes in the life of just man justly rewarded. For those who do know Christ, we have a precious reservoir of grace and power we can draw on—and the knowledge of how badly we need it.

So how do we access that grace? Well, the old advice is best here, in my limited experience: Pray as if everything depends on God and act as if everything depends on you. Or, as Paul puts it, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). If you are having trouble bearing wrongs patiently, then do what you can to draw on the grace of God where it can be found: especially in the sacraments. In particular, Catholics should ask for the gifts of Confirmation (which is all about giving you the power to get up and do what needs to be done as a disciple of Jesus). We should also bring our anger and resistance to reconciliation to, well, the sacrament of Reconciliation. And, of course, we should take such matters to Eucharist where we can pray for those who wrong us and ask that the grace of the Eucharist be poured out on those who wrong us and those we love.

Another invaluable gift the gospel gives us is a sense of perspective. Our species has an absolute genius for turning trivialities into World Historical Struggles worth killing and dying for—and we Christians are not exempt. I had an English friend who used to amuse himself by reading sundry Christian websites devoted to vicious quarrels over minutiae. He never forgot a letter he once read from some reader who asked the site owner if the book of Daniel might date from the 2nd century BC. The site owner shot back, “THAT IS A LIE FROM THE PIT OF HELL!!!” To those of us outside the Bubble of obsession, the date of the book of Daniel doesn’t seem that crucial. But to the enthusiast within the Bubble, it is something worth sacrificing all their love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and the rest on the altar of volcanic rage. And, of course, that doesn’t just happen on the Web. Anybody who has lived in community, whether at home, or church, or in some sort of club or private organization can apply to their circumstances the witticism of Henry Kissinger who once remarked that the reason academic quarrels are so bitter is because the stakes are so low.

It is telling that Jesus himself ups the ante enormously in his demand that we bear wrongs patiently—and then reminds us that the ante is peanuts compared to the wrongs he himself bears. When Peter take his idea of mercy to the utmost limit when he proposes forgiving sins a whopping seven times. Jesus’ reply is famous:

Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:22-35).

This gives us some perspective. When it’s our soul on the line, we like to remind ourselves that Jesus bore the sins of Hans Frank, Nazi Gauleiter of Poland, to the cross, so we are pretty small beer in comparison. But when Jesus address the question, it is we who are the guys who owe the king millions and millions of dollars and it is the guy you are ready to choke to death who owes fifty cents. That’s a good place to start—small. Before seeing the guy who took your parking place as the living embodiment of the same kind of evil that overran Europe in 1940, try getting some perspective and saying, “It’s just a parking spot. There are plenty more in this town.”

St. Therese can be very helpful in this regard, because she too had to struggle with bearing extremely small wrongs patiently. Rather than the stoning, horsewhippings, and shipwrecks that characterized the hardships of St. Paul, Therese’ suffering ran more toward the sweat of exasperation she felt when the sister next to her rattled her rosary beads during evening prayer. As a general rule, this is the norm for most of us. And, as a general rule, this is the best place to start learning the practice of bearing wrongs patiently. It’s rather like prepping to run a race. You don’t just get up one morning and run a marathon. You start by running short distance and then build up your strength.

Just as the sin of unforgiveness is its own punishment, so the virtue of bearing wrongs patiently is its own reward. It (obviously) doesn’t prevent evils from befalling you. But it does transform the experience of suffering from meaningless garbage that just happens or (worse still) seeming evidence that God has it in for you, into the purgatorial pain unto life that Hebrews describes:

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?– “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:4-13)

In the end, the command to bear wrong patiently is the command to be like Christ. It is telling that the sacred writer introduces the subject of suffering by noting that in our struggle with sin we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. That’s a deeply Christian observation. Because the fact is, every single disciple of Christ is going to shed his blood for Jesus sooner or later. Oh sure, not everybody will be physically put to death by sword, bullet or bomb. So of us will die in our beds. But all of us will undergo death to self for Christ’s sake sooner or later. All of use will take up our cross and follow him—or not. If not, then they will die anyway—and experience the Second Death if they do not repent before their death.

The Greeks said that the love of wisdom is the practice of death. Bearing wrongs patient is one of the principal pursuits of the wise man, for wisdom means dying and rising with Christ, who is the wisdom and power of God. It enabled Socrates to face his death. It sustained the patriarchs and prophets through their trials. It was fully displayed in Jesus Christ as he faced the wrongs heaped upon him by enemies, friends and traitors. And it continues to sustain the martyrs great and small down through time. It is never too soon or too late to try to live it out and even if you are as miserable at it as I am, we have the great and consoling truth that whatever step we take toward doing it, no matter how feeble, God will accept it and strengthen us to do better next time. For as George MacDonald said, he is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.

(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).


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