"Return of the Prodigal Son" (detail) by Murillo

“Return of the Prodigal Son” (detail) by Murillo

Have you ever held back from forgiving someone because they hadn’t met your conditions?

That happened to me once. I inadvertently offended someone and I sincerely apologized three times. I noticed that the person did not accept my apology or offer forgiveness.

I finally said, “You know, I have now apologized to you three times very sincerely. I really am sorry for what I have done. However you have yet to offer me even the slightest token of forgiveness.”

The person replied, “I don’t believe you have shown true contrition. I would like to work through a further process with you.”

At that point I gave up. I couldn’t be forgiven even though I had apologized and the person who wouldn’t forgive continued to wallow in his resentment and sadly, we still aren’t friends.

Is Forgiveness Conditional?

Is forgiveness conditional? Yes and No.

God’s forgiveness and mercy is unconditional because it is part of his nature. He forgives because that’s how he is made. He has mercy because he is the source of mercy.

However forgiveness is conditional inasmuch as we need to claim it to make it real. It’s a gift on offer, but God will not force us to receive it.

Therefore, not only do we need to ask for forgiveness in order to receive it, but we have to act on that request. We tend to separate our actions from our intentions. God doesn’t see it that way. The action and the intention are one. Therefore, if we ask for forgiveness, but we are unwilling to do what it takes for that forgiveness to become real, then the request was hollow. What we need to do to make the request real is to act on the request and make reparation and part of that reparation is to be willing to forgive those who have offended against us.

I am skeptical when someone says to me, “Father, so and so offended me very greatly, but it’s ok… I’ve forgiven them.” It sounds too pat. It sounds too easy. It sounds like they’re talking to themselves and making it all nice again in order to continue the self delusion that they are nice people. I tend to think that if a person says, “It’s all right, I’ve forgiven that person,” that they weren’t really hurt that badly to start with. Either that or they’re fibbing.

We Need God’s Grace to be able to Forgive

What I am more likely to find authentic is the person who says, “Father, that person offended me badly and I feel awful because I just can’t forgive.”

“Exactly!” is my reply, “The Pharisees were right when they said, ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone.’” Consequently I advise that we cannot forgive on our own. We can only do so through the grace of God and the benefits of the cross and the action of Christ’s forgiveness through us.

Therefore when we are asked to forgive others the prayer should be, “Lord, I can’t forgive, but you can. I am giving you this person, this situation, this impossible offense. You forgive because I can’t. You help me to let it go. You forgive through me.”

Now that’s a prayer that works, for Jesus promises to take these offenses and forgive through us. It is his blood, shed on the cross, that forgives and nothing else. We can claim that redemption and it is our duty to do so. Thus we can forgive as we are asking forgiveness for it is one and the same action. Christ forgiving us and Christ forgiving others through us.

As a result, our prayer and our own forgiveness becomes a wide spreading mercy. Our own forgiveness is not simply an individualistic thing, but a corporate.

This is why in the Confiteor at Mass we say, “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters…” This is because sin offends the whole community and as we ask forgiveness we do so in the corporate sense as well. So “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” echoes with a deeper meaning and a more eternal and cosmic significance than simply, “Help me to forgive the people who have hurt me.”

Instead it becomes a great intercessory prayer pleading for forgiveness not only for ourselves, but for the whole world.

I don’t blame my friend for not having the power to forgive. None of us have that power on our own. But if he had seen forgiveness as part of the larger action of God and his church he may have found the power to forgive, receive forgiveness and be free.

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