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?
In our first post, we considered briefly how forgiveness is central to Christianity — we must have no limits when it comes to forgiveness, and the difference between forgiving and being forgiven.
The Danger of a Closed Heart
The second question has to do with why forgiveness is so central to our spiritual growth. In the first part of your question, you show that you already understand this. You recognize that it is hypocritical to receive God’s forgiveness for our own offenses while refusing to forgive those who offend us. A deep theological truth underlies that reality.
God is love. There is no one whom God does not love. There is no one to whom God does not offer his mercy. He holds no grudges. If we, then, consciously exclude someone from our love, from our mercy, by refusing to forgive them, we are cutting ourselves off from God. We are telling God that we love him, but we don’t love others whom he loves. So we are not in full communion with him. In that case, our hearts are closed towards certain people to whom God’s heart is fully and constantly open. Here’s how the Catechism explains it (#2840):
Now – and this is daunting – this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see. In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father’s merciful love; but in confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to his grace.
By the way, the Catechism also stresses that this unconditional forgiveness is beyond our natural powers – we simply cannot live that depth of interior freedom without God’s grace (Catechism 2841: “This crucial requirement of the covenant mystery is impossible for man. But ‘with God all things are possible.’”) This is why forgiveness can be so hard. Our fallen nature tends towards self-righteousness. But our redeemed nature tends towards Christ-likeness. The battle between the two natures will rage as long as we are pilgrims on our way to the Father’s house.
Forgiveness Goes Deeper Than Feelings
In this battle, it is critical to remember that true forgiveness does not always feel like forgiveness. I can truly forgive someone who has grossly offended me, but I may still experience strong emotions of anger, resentment, and just indignation. After all, if someone needs forgiveness, it’s because they did something wrong, and someone was hurt because of it. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean pretending that no damage was done or ignoring the destruction. As we grow towards spiritual maturity, however, our emotional life will become more and more in synch with our spiritual life, and the best way to speed up this process is – in the arena of forgiveness – to pray for those who have offended us. To turn to the Catechism once again (#2843): “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.”