Why Does God Only Forgive When We Repent?

Dear Father McCloskey, why does God only forgive after we repent and turn back to Him, while we are asked to forgive regardless of whether or not the “offending” person asks for our forgiveness and repents?

Dear Sister in Christ, you are not alone in your perplexity: I have wrestled with this question myself.

The answer simply is that we owe God everything, including our life and redemption and the possibility of eternal life in heaven. On the other hand, we will be given mercy to the extent we extend it to others, even if they do not reciprocate in asking our forgiveness.

Remember, of course, that all of salvation history from the fall of our first parents is the story of God’s mercy. As St. Paul says in one of his epistles, “God is rich in mercy.” St. John Paul II wrote one of his first encyclicals, Rich in Mercy (Dives in Misericordia), on this topic.

In my old office at the Catholic Information Center in downtown Washington, DC, I prominently placed a large framed photo of the pope’s meeting with the man who had attempted to assassinate him.  (I checked recently and the photo is still there!) Of course, we do not know whether his attacker asked for pardon when he met the pope, but we are certain that St. John Paul forgave him in any case.

We need not go into detail about the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son, but suffice it to say that the pope used this particular piece of Scripture (Lk. 15:11-32) more frequently than any other in his talks and preaching.

Indeed, we can be sure he forgave even the Nazis and then the Communists under whom he suffered from his university years through middle age. Remember that the father in the parable seeks out the son and does not judge him–he even defends him. As the pope puts it, the father “goes beyond the norm of justice. He is faithful to his fatherhood and having compassion on his son, restores their proper relationship.”

Simply stated, justice is not enough. Our standard must be to have a disposition to pardon freely those who offend us and to be a person who tries to reconcile rather than condemn.

Of course, living up to this standard may be complicated if an injury has been done to us; after all, justice is also an important virtue that must be considered, particularly when other people are involved. I should add that we should also exercise prudence. At times we will even need to employ fraternal correction, but generally after having determined with the help of a spiritual adviser that the correction is warranted. Hence the importance of consulting people we trust–a priest, a spiritual director, and when necessary even a trusted lawyer.

Each of us is called to be another Christ in our dealings with others, and we are never so Christlike as when we wholeheartedly forgive those who offend us. Besides, holding in anger and resentment is unhealthy spiritually as well as physically. And if you need further motivation, we will occupy a higher place in heaven as a result of our generosity in forgiving, especially when we forgive those who do not ask for it. Finally, we will bring many people to Christ and His Church by our example of unconditional forgiveness.

Fr. C.J. McCloskey III is a Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, DC. To learn more about Fr. McCloskey click here

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