How Can I Help Someone Forgive Me?

We must humbly seek, with all our hearts, our brothers’ forgiveness

Henry Mosler, “The Return of a Prodigal Son”, 1879
Henry Mosler, “The Return of a Prodigal Son”, 1879 (photo: Public Domain)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog pondering how difficult it can be to forgive another person. Forgiving another can be a terribly difficult thing to do; for more serious or complicated offenses it can be a process rather than a single event. For all its difficulty, however, at least the path is clear: forgive, forgive again, forgive seventy times seven times. But it’s also important to realize that for forgiveness to be complete, both the offender and the offended must participate in the act.  What if, instead of being the one who needs to forgive, I am the one who needs forgivenessMore importantly, is there anything I can do to help someone to forgive me?

There is no doubt that we must assist those whom we have offended, as Jesus says in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Over the years, I have often heard this passage portrayed as the need to go forgive your brother before you offer your gift, but that is not what Jesus says. Saint Jerome observes: “It is not, ‘If thou hast ought against thy brother,’ but ‘If thy brother has ought against thee…’” This instruction is not about forgiving my brother; rather, it is about seeking forgiveness from my brother. 

Beyond that, it is about helping my brother forgive me.

In a world that often rewards egotism, I might be tempted to think, “If my brother (or my sister or co-worker or friend or enemy) doesn’t forgive me, that’s his problem.” But Jesus is teaching that my brother’s difficulty in forgiving me is, most certainly, my problem and my concern. Further, seeking my brother’s forgiveness is not an optional counsel, but an essential precept of the Christian life. 

But what can I do about it?  It can seem as if Jesus is giving us an impossible precept. What if my brother is unreachable? Saint Augustine considered this question, answering that Jesus did not mean that we must necessarily meet our brother to ask his forgiveness. Though this might be required in some instances, it may not be possible for any number of reasons. As Saint Augustine puts it, we are not required to go over “land and sea to seek him.” We must, however...

...go and be reconciled with him, not with the bodily feet, but in thoughts of the heart, when in humble contrition you may cast yourself at your brother’s feet in sight of Him whose offering you are about to offer. For thus in the same manner as though He were present, you may with unfeigned heart seek His forgiveness; and returning thence, that is, bringing back again your thoughts to what you had first begun to do, may make your offering.

There is no doubt that Saint Augustine understood that people can be unreachable in ways that go well beyond geography.  But wherever he may be, as Saint Augustine explains, humbly seeking my brother’s forgiveness in my heart is a beautiful response.            

What else can I do? There is rarely an easy answer. Expressing words of sorrow can make a huge difference. But even if I am able to physically meet my brother, expressing words of sorrow and repentance may not always be the most prudent course of action. Saint Augustine’s conversion of the heart, along with the subtlety of a kind word or gesture might be a better prescription. I can pray, fast, and offer small sacrifices for my brother, that he may be showered with the graces needed to forgive me. I can offer a simple prayer: “Dear God, please help my brother forgive me!”  

Though we may not have all the answers, it is clear that every solution falls under the category of love.  However I choose to beg forgiveness from my brother—whether I can physically meet him or merely meet him in my mind—it all begins in my heart. I desperately desire—I will—that he forgives me.  And I’m not giving up on him, which means that I need to love him more. While I pray that my brother has the grace to forgive me seventy times seven times, I will pray for the grace to love him seventy times seven times. As we stand at the precipice of Lent, which always offers a peek at the glorious Resurrection of Christ, I pray that we may mystically celebrate the risen Lord together, forgiving and forgiven.