Q: Forgiveness is one of the highest expressions of love and love without forgiveness is no love at all. Jesus’ emphasis on the absolute necessity to forgive repeatedly and from the heart is so very clear. But what is not clear is this: whether forgiveness comes unilaterally from the injured party or not. Jesus on the cross asked the Father to forgive those who were killing him and yet the perpetrators certainly did not ask for forgiveness. Were they forgiven? Is anyone forgiven their sins who does not ask for forgiveness from the heart? If a penitent should say to the priest: “These are my sins but I do not ask God to forgive me,” would absolution be at all possible?? And yet Jesus taught us to love our enemies. The corollary to that must be that He wanted us to forgive them even though they had never asked for forgiveness and might not ever do so. The prodigal son never asks his father for forgiveness (although it is implied) and the father never even extends his forgiveness verbally, but it is obvious in his response. Please reconcile these conflicting directives. They continue to trouble me.
A: Let me frame your question in a different way. There is a saying “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” It should not be surprising that we humans love poorly. It is only a matter of time before we disappoint or hurt another intentionally or unintentionally. It is part of our humanity. And so to err is human. The other half of the statement “to forgive is divine” means we cannot give forgiveness on our own strength. We cannot offer it without divine help. Grace is needed.
Let me share another wisdom saying: “Forgiveness is never a matter of good judgment; it is a matter of self-preservation.” When we try to rationalize whether we should forgive or not, often it leads to righteousness and justification, e.g., “Why should I after what they did to me? They are not going to get off that easy!” You know what I mean. We hold on to our resentment or hurt, confident that we are right. But our lack of forgiveness eats away at us. It prevents us from giving freely; we hold back and tighten up in relationships. We the losers in all of this. Choosing and practicing the way of forgiveness is self-preserving for our health, peace of mind and growth into our fully human potential.
My forgiving of the other does not need an acknowledgment on their part or an asking for forgiveness; that would be reconciliation. Jesus on the cross forgave all humanity once and for all. We are always already redeemed even if we do not acknowledge it. God’s love is unconditional. The penitent in confession has already been forgiven by God; in your example, he is just refusing to accept the gift at this time. The priest will continue to keep the person in his heart by praying for him. A person is in a “state of hell” when they refuse God’s love in the form of forgiveness. The difference comes at the next level, which is reconciliation. Reconciliation is reciprocal and relational, where both parties are willing to give and receive forgiveness. Even if they do not, then forgiveness is still active. As the Scripture passage reminds us, we must forgive 7×70 times (Matthew 18:22), i.e., we cannot refuse to offer forgiveness.
When I look at forgiveness I see it in many different ways. Please see the attached article and the movements of the Prayer of Forgiveness. I look forward to your response after you have pondered the attached article and my reflections.
Download Fr. Carl’s Prayer of Forgiveness. These other resources are also available if you wish to learn and deepen your forgiveness practice:
- a Contemplative Life Program 40-day booklet on the Prayer of Forgiveness, available in both hardcopy and digital form.
- a self-guided e-course on the Forgiveness Prayer practice, co hosted with our partner Spirituality & Practice