Dear Father John, I have had this question regarding forgiveness ever since my husband filed for divorce and treated me terribly during the process. He never acknowledged his treatment of me nor repented and asked for forgiveness, yet, in confession I was always told that I still must forgive him. Fortunately, eventually God gave me the grace to forgive him, as He made me see that, sinner that I am, in God’s eyes who am I to feel so self-righteous over the hurt my ex inflicted, when I myself am guilty of many hurts also.
Yet, when I read the first part of Luke Chapter 17, Our Lord says that if our brother sins against us 7 times, and repents and asks our forgiveness 7 times, we must forgive him. I understand that. So, why are we expected to forgive someone when they do not ask for our forgiveness? Also, it is my understanding that, while God still loves us, when we sin against Him, we must turn back to him and repent before we receive His forgiveness. If that is correct, then why are we told by so many priests that regardless of how much someone hurt us, if they do not ask for our forgiveness we still must forgive them?
Forgiveness is central to Christianity. So central, that Jesus made it part of the prayer he taught us: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And that is the first answer to your question. The passage from Luke 17 is not the only passage in the New Testament on forgiveness. We need to read it in context of the whole New Testament, and of all the Gospels. When we do that, we see that Jesus never meant for us to hold a grudge until someone asks us for forgiveness.
Forgiving without Limits
The core of Our Lord’s teaching in this area is that God’s mercy is unconditional and unlimited, and so our mercy must be the same. This is clear from the parable Jesus uses to explain the passage in Matthew that is parallel to the Luke 17 passage you refer to. This is the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18). The King calls him in to pay a huge debt, but the servant can’t pay it. So the King orders him and his family to be sold into slavery. Then the servant begs for clemency and the king mercifully forgives the debt. Then that same servant runs across someone who owes him a much, much smaller debt, and treats him without any mercy at all. The King, infuriated , calls the servant back, reinstates his original debt, and sentences him to be tortured until he pays it back in full. Jesus then explains the moral of the story: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart” (Matthew 18:35).
When Jesus explains the Our Father, he makes the same point: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14-15). Dying on the Cross, Jesus didn’t wait for his enemies to ask for forgiveness before forgiving them; while they crucified him he prayed for them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). If he hadn’t forgiven them himself, he could not have pleaded so mercifully on their behalf with the Father. And this unconditional forgiveness, which we receive from Jesus, is the model for how we are to forgive others: “…be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:32).
Forgiving and Being Forgiven
We still have to face two related questions. The first has to do with what you mention about the difference between forgiving someone and that same someone receiving the forgiveness. We can never force someone to receive our forgiveness, but we can still forgive them. If we forgive them, they are forgiven – from our perspective. But if they refuse to repent and take responsibility for their offenses, it is impossible for them to receive that forgiveness. In that case, they are not forgiven – from their perspective.
This helps us understand how God’s mercy can be unlimited, but some people don’t experience it. It’s not that God is holding it back; it’s just that they are not open to receive it. I can offer you a glass of water, but if you don’t take the offer, you won’t quench your thirst. Forgiveness is like that. God doesn’t wait for us to repent before he forgives us – his mercy is constant, overflowing, and limitless. But unless we repent, we will not receive that mercy, and we will remain unforgiven – just as someone who refuses to open their eyes remains in the dark.
In our next post on this topic, we will talk about that in order to grow in our spiritual life we need to know the importance of forgiveness and that forgiveness is more than just feelings.