Monday, September 12, 2011

More on Forgiveness

Confession time: I received a thoughtful comment from "Do Not Be Anxious" who follows this blog and after writing my own comment in reply, I could not figure out how to post it. I've posted comments before but for some reason couldn't do so with this one and didn't have the time to play around with it. So, I decided to create another post responding to the comment.

"Do Not Be Anxious" wrote: "I subscribed to Touchstone magazine for a year, and the first issue had an article explaining how you could not forgive someone unless he asked for forgiveness --- ala the sacrament of Penance. I wrote a comment that Matthew 5 and 18 call us to reconcile with others, whether we have sinned against them (5) or they against us (18) --- and they have the same obligation. However, in 18 it says that if they do not seek forgiveness, we are to shake the dust from our shoes and move on. But, as I commented, nowhere does it say in the bible that we cannot forgive someone, even if they do not seek forgiveness. I've had many discussions about this, forgiving others even if they do not seek forgiveness. It seems to be an open question in Catholic teachings, never specifically addressed. Perhaps it gets down to a definition of forgiveness: is it a two-person thing, a reconciliation between people which requires both to participate (as confession implies) or is it merely a cleansing of one's feelings?"

My response: I would make a distinction between "forgiveness" and "reconciliation." I think every Christian is called to be ready to forgive. We are called to be like Jesus who prayed for those crucifying him and who therefore weren't seeking his forgiveness. He asked the Father to forgive them. We must have a heart like the Heart of Jesus that is always ready to forgive rather than condemn. When Jesus tells Peter to forgive 77 times--a symbolic number representing "always"--he wasn't asking Peter to do something that he was not ready to do himself.

But, as "Do Not Be Anxious" points out, while we must always be ready to forgive, that forgiveness may not be accepted. And until it is accepted, reconciliation has not happened. I may say to people who have hurt me, "I forgive you," and they, denying that they did anything to me, may reject my offer of forgiveness. I have forgiven but it has not been accepted and reconciliation has not occured. That person who rejects my forgiveness continues to be "bound" by denial and by the sin against me. This could be one way of looking at Matthew 18: 18 "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven." Our binding is simply allowing the person to hold on to the denial and sin that they have chosen instead of our forgiveness.

If someone does not seek or accept our offer of forgiveness, we can, as "Do Not Be Anxious" points out, follow Matthew 18: 15-17. We can bring others and the Church with us. If they refuse even in the face of this, Jesus says: "treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector." That isn't quite shaking the dust from our feet, an image that is used in other places with regards to the apostles' preaching being rejected by a particular town. I've always found this line ambiguous because while the good Jew of Jesus' time--the Pharisee--would reject the tax collectors as sinners and would view the Gentiles as doomed--Jesus reaches out to them. Are we, in treating them like Gentiles and tax collectors, to continue reaching out to them with love and forgiveness? I think we could say that in doing so we would be following Jesus' example.

But I think there comes a time when, while we might be always ready to forgive, it doesn't help the process of reconciliation to keep confronting people who deny they've done wrong with their sin. Then it's best to pray quietly and constantly for them. This prayer keeps our hearts from becoming resentful.

"Do Not Be Anxious" also wrote: "Perhaps it also comes down to a question of the benefits of forgiveness. Does God benefit by my seeking forgiveness --- He is God, what can he gain? I can understand that I might gain something in a renewed relationship with someone if we reconcile together, but what do I gain if I unilaterally forgive him? Does he gain anything?"

What does God gain from our forgiveness? God desires reconciliation and peace for his children. We are helping to realize God's plan for humanity when we are ready to forgive and praying for it. Our prayers, we have to believe, can play a role in the conversion of the person who has hurt us. If heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents (see Luke 15), it must also be true that God rejoices over his children who have not let resentment take root in their hearts. God rejoices in his children whose hearts have become more like the Heart of his Son. Our desire to forgive, even when it is rejected, gives joy to God. Even if reconciliation does not occur, I gain because I have not allowed my heart to become hardened, and the offending party gains--my prayers and my love, even though they are at that particular time rejected.

"Do Not Be Anxious" ended the comment with: "Much to be thought on, on this thing called forgiveness." So very true. Thank you for the opportunity to continue the reflection.


  1. Thank you, Father, for making the clarification of the differences between forgiveness and reconciliation. That helps clarify matters. That also gives more clarity to the name, The Sacrament of Reconciliation, in which forgiveness is given AFTER an act of contrition is made.

    I've heard many a story of how a priest denied "forgiveness" in the sacrament to a person who was not sorry for his sin, but perhaps a better expression would have been to say that the priest denied "reconciliation."

  2. I loved loved loved your homily on the St Pat's site. I hadn't heard the story about Tim McVeigh or about the Flight 93 guy (can't remember his name :-( but stories always stay with me the best so I appreciate them! And you!