To Forgive or Not to Forgive -- That Is the Question

August 18, 2013 | 8 comments

A man—I'll call him Robert—wrote to me recently telling me a horror story about his ex-wife. To say she acted uncharitably during and after their separation and divorce would be an understatement. Of course, I am only hearing one side of the story, but his question boiled down to this: “Am I required to forgive her, even though she is not sorry for anything she has done, and then to forget about what she has done because God 'forgets' when he forgives and calls us to do the same? I must confess to you that I just cannot live this because I believe she is dangerous to both me and our children.”

Unfortunately, scenarios like this are not rare. But they do end up raising some very important questions about the nature of forgiveness. There are at least five points to be considered for clarifying the issues at hand:

1. We are not called to go beyond what God himself does when it comes to forgiveness. Many Christians believe with Robert that they are obliged to forgive even those who are not in the least bit sorry for their offenses against them. And on the surface this sounds really . . . Christian. But is it true? God himself doesn't do it. He only forgives those who repent of their sins. II Cor. 7:10 says, “[G]odly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation.”  I John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, he . . . will forgive our sins."

Our Lord obviously has not and will not forgive the souls in hell right now for the simple reason that they did not ask for forgiveness. This seems as clear as clear can be. The question is, are we required to do more than God does when it comes to forgiveness?

Jesus seems to answer this question for us in Luke 17:3-4:

[I]f your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.

According to this text, and as we would suspect, Jesus requires his followers to forgive only those who are sorry for their offenses, just as God does. And this only make sense. Colossians 3:13 says we are to called to forgive each other "as the Lord has forgiven [us]." 

Some will say at this point, “Didn’t Jesus forgive everyone from the cross when he said, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’ in Luke 23:34?” Actually, he didn’t. He petitioned the Father for those who had beaten and crucified him to be forgiven, revealing his will that “all men . . . be saved” (I Tim. 2:4). But this was not a declaration that even these men were actually forgiven, much less a declaration that he was forgiving everyone for all time.

2. We have to distinguish between our calling to forgive those who are sorry and ask for forgiveness and our call to love everyone without exception, including those who have wronged us and are not sorry that they did. Sometimes these two concepts are conflated. 

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us love is "willing the good of the other" selflessly (cf. I Cor. 13:5). In a sense, this is all God can do, because "God is love" (I John 4:8). God can do nothing other than will to share the infinite good of himself with every single person ever created or conceived—even the souls who reject his love and forgiveness, because a God not loving would be a God contradicting his own essence, which is absurd.

Thus God's love is unconditional, because in one sense it has nothing to do with the other. It comes from within, regardless of what happens outside of the godhead. This brings profound meaning to Jesus' words: "Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). In essence, Jesus is calling us to love with that same unconditional love with which he loves as the God-Man. Regardless of varying situations and relationships in our lives, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 5:5) empowering us to "will the good of the other" regardless of what "the other" may bring our way.   

On the other hand, forgiveness, as we've said, is not unconditional. It's a two-way street. God offers his forgiveness to all out of his unconditional love and, therefore, so must all Christians. But here's the rub. Because forgiveness is dependent upon the other, it cannot actually take place until there are willing partners on both sides of the divide. 

3. But God says, "I am He who blots out your transgression for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins," in Isaiah 25:23. Shouldn't we do the same?

This was Robert's point. "When God forgives, he forgets. So if we must forgive, we must forget as well, right?"

First of all, in Robert's case, there is no imperative to forgive in the first place, because there is no evidence of contrition. But even if there were to be forgiveness here, forgiveness must be properly understood.

There is no such thing as divine amnesia. Jesus will not be forever in heaven asking, "How did these holes get in my hands and feet?" "I will not remember" is an anthropomorphic way of saying God will not forever hold sins against us that have been forgiven. This is not to say there are not temporal consequences for sin. Purgatory is a stark reminder of this.

I must interject here that Robert was actually very relieved when he discovered he did not have to turn his brain off and endanger his children in order to be a good Catholic. Poor Robert was thinking he had to forget everything his ex-wife did and act as though she didn't do anything wrong. And that is why he thought he just could not live the faith any longer. The truth is, God does not "forget" in that sense, and neither should we. Not only should Robert remember what his ex-wife had done, but he should act with precaution in order to protect himself and his children.

4. Jesus said "love your enemies" in Matthew 5:44. He did not say we have to "like" our enemies and he did not say we don't have enemies. If you proclaim and live truth contradicting a world receiving its marching orders from "the father of lies," you are promised to have enemies. We could start with the guys who want to kill us. Put them down in the “enemies” column.

Jesus calls us to “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us], so that [we] may be sons of [our] Father who is in heaven.” That means love is not an option, it is a commandment. But loving enemies does not mean you necessarily want to have them over to the house for supper. “Love” doesn’t necessarily mean “like.” Indeed, it may be unhealthy or even dangerous to even be around your enemy, as may well be true in Robert's case. 

5. So what do we do if we find ourselves in a situation like Robert's? 

The first step to loving and forgiving as God does is to recognize that we cannot do it apart from Christ. It is essential to meditate upon what Christ did for us on the cross and the fact that he loves us infinitely and forgives us over and over again. Ultimately, we have to get to the place where we acknowledge our powerlessness so that we can allow Christ to love and forgive in us and through us.

I recommended to Robert specifically that he ask God to help him to truly will the good for his ex-wife—and a telling sign of whether this is so would be when he could sincerely pray to God for good to come to his ex-wife—then he could rest assured that he is loving her as Christ commanded. 


Tim Staples is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization here at Catholic Answers, but he was not always Catholic. Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian...

Comments by Members

#1  Father Scott Hurd - Alexandria, Virginia

I have to say that I disagree strongly with this assessment. Mr. Staples confuses forgiveness, which only requires one party, with reconciliation, which requires two. God does not withold his forgiveness from us until we're sorry. He's constantly offerring his forgiveness to us, but by being unforgiving to others, we block ourselves from receiving this gift. Mr. Staples, with his advice, is actually placing Robert in a spiritually dangerous position, and setting him up for continuing emotional pain. I would refer anyone who is interested in learning more to my book, "Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach," published by Pauline Books and Media.

August 27, 2013 at 6:34 am PST
#2  Chris Patterson - Platte City, Missouri

I haven't read Father Hurd's book, but I'm with him on this one, based upon his short comment. (Sounds like a good one!)

It seems to me that we offer forgiveness and allow others to step into it. It keeps us free, and helps others become free as well.

A great example of this unconditional forgiveness is St. Stephen interceding for those who were stoning him to death. Although he did not say the words, "I forgive you," his prayer "Lord, do not hold this sin against them," certainly conveyed his heart's intent: forgiveness! His Acts 7:60 petition tracked Jesus' petition from the cross in Luke 23:34. At the time they prayed, I believe both Jesus and St. Stephen FORGAVE, which gave the wrongdoers an opportunity to take advantage of that forgiveness. (I'm sure St. Paul appreciated St. Stephen's forgivenss as well as his intercession! The last intercession of this first great martyr might very well have saved Paul, and, consequently countless others!)

If we must wait to be asked before we forgive, we are robbed of the release we receive from placing judgment in God's hands. I am a sinner, just as you are. As such, I must release your judgment to God. I choose to forgive and love you, and leave what you choose to do with God's loving forgiveness.

One last thought. In God's realm, lines between past, present and future blur. My forgiveness today can be received by you tomorrow.

I guess we can quibble on whether or not I am confusing love with forgiveness or you are confusing forgiveness with reconciliation. But, considering Mt 6:13-15, I would rather err on the side of forgiveness. I surely have experienced much freedom by following this rule.

August 27, 2013 at 1:30 pm PST
#3  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

I argue that Jesus doesn't make the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation that is commonly made in popular Christian culture. Jesus teaches God either forgives us or he doesn't, depending upon our response to his invitation (see I John 1:9; Matt. 6:14). I would agree with Father that God extends forgiveness to everyone, including his enemies. But the forgiveness does not take place until there is sorrow from the wrong-doer.

Also, both St. Stephen in Acts and Jesus on the cross petition the Father to forgive. This is in concert with God's will that all be forgiven and saved from damnation. But this does not mean they all were forgiven until they expressed sorrow for their sins.

And finally, not forgiving someone who is not sorry does not mean we hold "unforgiveness" for them in our hearts. We extend forgiveness to everyone as God does. And I might add that if we refuse forgiveness, we sin. My point is that we cannot actually forgive because forgiveness is a two-way street. I think people who "forgive" people who are not sorry are really extending forgiveness to them as God does, but there is no real forgiveness until there is movement on the part of both parties.

I am not dogmatic on this point. If people are helped by "forgiving" people who have wronged them and are not sorry, I say have at it. I believe they are actually loving them as Jesus commanded us to and that they are extending forgiveness to them, but good Catholics can disagree on this point.

August 28, 2013 at 5:29 pm PST
#4  William Carr - Greenville, Pennsylvania

I agree with Tim. The question is, what does the Catholic church teach, not what do I think. Read the Catechism. It says that God will forgive us if we confess our sins. God does not forgive us until we confess. We are to love our enemies, but until both parties reconcile the relationship is broken.

May 16, 2014 at 8:39 am PST
#5  Rene Peterson - North Bend, Washington

I believe Fr. Hurd is absolutely correct. There isn't a straight answer to this unless one combines some teachings of the Catechism. Here is my best understanding which I pray for the grace to obtain. We must ask God's forgiveness because He will not impose His Grace against our free will. The request and contrition is our assent to receiving His Grace. But we are not God. We have no grace of our own to impose on others. Jesus, in the Lord's Prayer, instructs us to ask God to "forgive us our sins as we forgive others." I am very imperfect and the possibility that I may be so blinded by my own particular situation that I don't ask God's forgiveness is very possible. I don't mean a willful non-disclosure, but an unawareness. That comes out of pride - it blinds me. Some of them could even be mortal sins! If I wish God to forgive the sins of which I am unaware that I need to have forgiven, then I must extend this to others and not wait for them to ask me. The forgiveness we extend to others is a consent of my will to allow Jesus to heal my soul of the hurt another caused. When I don't forgive someone else, then I am saying "no" to His healing grace. On the Cross, Jesus did not wait to forgive, He begged forgiveness for His enemies before He died and as they watched and taunted Him: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." That is the height and summit of humility. May God give me the grace to follow Our Blessed Lord's example.

God bless you all.

August 14, 2014 at 7:54 am PST
#6  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger


I agree that we should extend forgiveness to others as God does, but to say we must do more than God does when Scripture and the Catechism explicitly say we must "forgive as Christ forgave us" is a place I cannot go. As I said above, Jesus petitioned the Father to "forgive them..." He did not forgive those who are not sorry. Nor does God. I agree, May God give us all the grace to follow our Blessed Lord's example.

August 15, 2014 at 7:14 pm PST
#7  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger


I agree that we should extend forgiveness to others as God does, but to say we must do more than God does when Scripture and the Catechism explicitly say we must "forgive as Christ forgave us" is a place I cannot go. As I said above, Jesus petitioned the Father to "forgive them..." He did not forgive those who are not sorry. Nor does God. I agree, May God give us all the grace to follow our Blessed Lord's example.

August 15, 2014 at 7:26 pm PST
#8  Melissa Pereira - Park Ridge, Illinois

This excellent and all of you who disagree lack understanding of what the author is saying. There are two types of forgiveness: Heavenly and worldly. In Heavenly forgiveness we are regarded to forgive everyone. That does not mean we can have that person in or life or be reconciled with that person. Sometimes it means all we can do is pray for that person which we are supposed to do, the author does not neglect that concept here. Think of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or slander and how often the person wasn't sorry or quickly issued an apology only for the behavior to be repeated in short shrift? We are not created to be abused. To do so would be an accessory to the sin, which the Church most definitely teaches against. God gave us an intellect and we are required to use it. If these things become a pattern of behavior we would need some sort of reparation indicating a commitment to change and true contrition. Sometimes trust is so destroyed it is beyond repair and imprudent to have these people in our lives.

September 28, 2014 at 1:48 pm PST

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