In some ways, I wonder if a history of sin is a mercy. Knowledge of it forces one to abandon the barriers that might be established by self-righteousness. Sinfulness makes it easier to forgive.
But those who have been righteous might find it harder to forgive and more difficult to exercise mercy. You don’t see yourself as a co-participant in the other’s sin, because you are not aware of your own failings. Being an innocent party can be its own kind of hell. It enables callousness, bitterness, and resentment, to which non-innocent parties are not entitled.
The recognition of your own sinfulness brings freedom. You don’t assume malice from others, because you know the times that you have gravely sinned without malice. You exercise compassion when there is malice, because you know you have been forgiven of your own maliciousness. You give when you don’t have to, because you have received when you were not deserving. And you know the other can be drawn out of sinfulness, because you have been driven out of sinfulness.
I suspect that the gravest sinners have a unique capacity for gentleness, mercy, and compassion.
Looking back at a difficult time in my life when I was hurt by another, I now see that I was in a kind of hell when I thought I was an innocent party. Secretly, I expected extravagant apologies that would never compensate for the ways in which I was harmed. I saw it as a cruel fact of a disordered cosmos that my transgressor would move on in a happy life without making amends.
My spiritual director once told me that bearing resentment is like taking poison every day while waiting for the other person to die. My innocence was killing me.
Freedom in that situation came when I realized that I was largely responsible for the bad situation, that I had harmed the other, and that I needed to apologize as a participant in sin and also for the ways in which my continuing resentment had harmed him. And with that apology came an open-heartedness and freedom that I hadn’t experienced before. Freedom came with the identity of a sinner.
This freedom isn’t easily come by. It takes work. It takes humility. And it takes an ongoing forgiveness when there is an ongoing harm. But it’s good. It’s worth pursuing. And it leads to a deeper happiness than any innocent man might find.
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