Sunday’s gospel reading was about forgiveness. A main theme was that since God forgives us, we should never refuse to forgive others. Forgiveness, however, is a bit complex and commonly misunderstood. What does it mean to forgive?
First, forgiveness seems to have two related meanings found in Scripture and common usage: 1) forgiveness offered, and 2) forgiveness received. In the first sense, God in Christ has forgiven the whole world. In the second sense, all are not ‘forgiven’ since not all accept it.
Also, forgiveness is an act of the will, not an emotion. A victim can forgive while still being deeply hurt by their offender or while sustaining a righteous anger. Forgiveness is a decision to offer good will to the offender, despite the latter’s bad behavior.
Is this possible? Probably not by our own nature, which tends to seek vengeance for injury. But it’s very possible with divine grace. The old adage “To err is human, to forgive divine” is not off base.
But what if the offender is not sorry?
There are two reasons why harm-doers may have no remorse: a) They genuinely believe they did nothing wrong. If this is from invincible ignorance due to immaturity or mental illness, for example, they incur no guilt. b) They don’t care. In this case, when forgiveness is offered it is not received.
This means there can be forgiveness without reconciliation. There’s a reason the sacrament in which Christ forgives sins is nicknamed the sacrament of reconciliation. If a person sins mortally, God may forgive him in the first sense of the word above, but without contrition the sinner does not receive it, and remains estranged from God. Dying in this state means an eternity in Hell.
Further, forgiveness and even reconciliation between people do not necessarily mean a restoration of the relationship as it was. The injustice(s) incurred may have altered things to the point that it may be most prudent to love one’s neighbor from a distance.
Lastly, forgiveness does not necessarily mean retracting all punishment. If punishment will lead the sinner to remorse and repentance, it’s a good thing. Salvation depends on our contrition and repentance.
While the ideal of forgiveness is for the offender to express remorse, seek forgiveness, receive it, be reconciled, and have the relationship restored – in a fallen world perfection is not always realized. Nevertheless, it is our moral duty to forgive those who harm us, and this means willing their good – which ultimately means their salvation – despite any residual hurt or righteous anger that may remain.
God offers all people forgiveness, even though some may not accept it and remain dead in their sins. We must do the same: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:44, 48).