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Why does God only forgive when we repent?

September 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Forgiveness, Fr. McCloskey

Dear Father McCloskey, why does God only forgive after we repent and turn back to Him, while we are asked to forgive regardless of whether or not the “offending” person asks for our forgiveness and repents?

Dear Sister in Christ, you are not alone in your perplexity: I have wrestled with this question myself.

The answer simply is that we owe God everything, including our life and redemption and the possibility of eternal life in heaven. On the other hand, we will be given mercy to the extent we extend it to others, even if they do not reciprocate in asking our forgiveness.

Remember, of course, that all of salvation history from the fall of our first parents is the story of God’s mercy. As St. Paul says in one of his epistles, “God is rich in mercy.” St. John Paul II wrote one of his first encyclicals, Rich in Mercy (Dives in Misericordia), on this topic.

In my old office at the Catholic Information Center in downtown Washington, DC, I prominently placed a large framed photo of the pope’s meeting with the man who had attempted to assassinate him.  (I checked recently and the photo is still there!) Of course, we do not know whether his attacker asked for pardon when he met the pope, but we are certain that St. John Paul forgave him in any case.

We need not go into detail about the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son, but suffice it to say that the pope used this particular piece of Scripture (Lk. 15:11-32) more frequently than any other in his talks and preaching.

Indeed, we can be sure he forgave even the Nazis and then the Communists under whom he suffered from his university years through middle age. Remember that the father in the parable seeks out the son and does not judge him–he even defends him. As the pope puts it, the father “goes beyond the norm of justice. He is faithful to his fatherhood and having compassion on his son, restores their proper relationship.”

Simply stated, justice is not enough. Our standard must be to have a disposition to pardon freely those who offend us and to be a person who tries to reconcile rather than condemn.

Of course, living up to this standard may be complicated if an injury has been done to us; after all, justice is also an important virtue that must be considered, particularly when other people are involved. I should add that we should also exercise prudence. At times we will even need to employ fraternal correction, but generally after having determined with the help of a spiritual adviser that the correction is warranted. Hence the importance of consulting people we trust–a priest, a spiritual director, and when necessary even a trusted lawyer.

Each of us is called to be another Christ in our dealings with others, and we are never so Christlike as when we wholeheartedly forgive those who offend us. Besides, holding in anger and resentment is unhealthy spiritually as well as physically. And if you need further motivation, we will occupy a higher place in heaven as a result of our generosity in forgiving, especially when we forgive those who do not ask for it. Finally, we will bring many people to Christ and His Church by our example of unconditional forgiveness.

Fr. C.J. McCloskey III is a Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, DC. To learn more about Fr. McCloskey click here

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About Fr. C.J. McCloskey

Father C. John McCloskey, III, STD is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei and Research Fellow, Faith and Reason Institute, Washington DC. From 1985-1990, he served as a Princeton University chaplain; 1998-2002, Director, Catholic Information Center, Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. and is known for guiding Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Lawrence Kudlow, Robert Novak, Judge Robert Bork, Senator Sam Brownback, Alfred Regnery and General Josiah Bunting into the Church. His articles, reviews, and doctoral thesis, have been published in major Catholic and secular periodicals, including Catholic World Report, First Things, L'Osservatore Romano, the Sacred Architecture Journal, Wall Street Journal, National Catholic Register, Washington Times, Washington Post, New York Times, Chronicles, and ACIPRENSA. Fr. John has worked in radio and television including EWTN (hosting various series on Cardinal Newman, Thomas More, Catholic authors, Ecclesial Movements, the role of the laity in the Church, and Church history), has been a Papal trip commentator and commentator on network television, satellite and cable channels, including CNN, CNBC and Fox News. He is co-author (with Russell Shaw) of Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith, co-editor of "The Essential Belloc" and is a principal essay contributor to Cardinal Newman Society's "How to Choose a Catholic College". A native of Washington, D.C., he has a degree in Economics from Columbia University (1975). After working professionally on Wall Street, he studied in Rome and Spain, where he received a doctorate in Theology with a specialty in Church History. Ordained in Spain in 1981, he has spent much pastoral work counseling university students, fellow priests, offering spiritual direction and preaching retreats. He serves as an advisor to Christendom College, the Mary Foundation, Cardinal Newman Society, and Ave Maria Single Catholics Online, and was U.S. representative for the ecclesiastical faculties of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain from 1984-2003. An avid squash player, he's a member of the U.S. Squash Racquets Association.

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  • Becky Ward

    Great advice! Thanks Fr. McCloskey….and Welcome to the RCSD family! 🙂

  • Brandy Miller

    I believe that God does forgive us, even when we do not ask for it. However, the only way for us to be reconciled with him is to come and ask for that pardon and so restore the relationship. I have a friend, for example, who has hurt me very deeply. I have forgiven him long ago, but our relationship remains broken because he does not know this and will no longer speak to me. It is not I who have sinned against him, and I have forgiven him, but he has refused my forgiveness by refusing to seek it out and refusing to restore the relationship. So it is with you and I and God.

    • LizEst

      What a great example you have shared with us, Brandy. God bless you.

      And, welcome Father McCloskey. You write wonderfully!

    • JRKH

      Brandy,
      You beat me to it. Forgiveness is one thing, reconciliation is something else. The simplest example I can think of is this…If I extend my hand in forgiveness and desire to reconcile, but my brother refuses to accept my hand in like manner – – Well I’ve done all I can.
      Our Loving God acts in the same way. He stands there with open arms…Will we run to them?

      Peace
      James

      • Peg

        I agree with you James. When we forgive someone that refuses or is unable to see the hurt they’ve caused us it opens our hearts to continue loving. Yet, we’re often left to cope with the sadness caused by lack of reconciliation. Still, I’ve found that Jesus is always willing to hold us close and comfort us as long as we need him to so that we can move passed the hurts that won’t be resolved in this life. Forgiving frees our hearts, reconciliation clears our minds. When we sincerely forgive, I believe God provides the reconciliation for our minds when we are unable to get it from those involved. Maybe this is one way God shows us how he heals when we are powerless to change a given circumstance. I’ve found great peace in knowing that God truly sees me and knows my heart to its deepest depths. If only I could figure out when He wants me to kick the dust from my sandals, versus shine a light … This is not always self-evident and choosing the wrong action can be excrutiatingly painful.

    • MMJ

      “he has refused my forgiveness by refusing to seek it out”. As a man, I know why he has not done this…plain and simple fear…first fear to admit he wronged you and he knows he hurt you and he is convinced that he is not that type of man…second fear because he will have to see the Truth in himself…not his created character image but a glimpse of his true character…who he really is…and men don’t go for self discovery of those character faults in a natural instinctive way as most women do…even men who try very hard to live a vibrant Christian discipleship…it is really hard. But know that your suffering and forgiveness of him has put grace in the spiritual “bank” for him to withdraw some day when he is ready in God’s timing…and that he will withdraw it…God will not permit your suffering to go unrewarded…and whether he then recognizes you in it or not…you will clearly and decisively be his hero…in time and in eternity. Pax Christi

    • KWRegan

      I have a similar situation (to Brandy’s)—noting MMJ’s comment it’s with genders reversed. The element I wish to add to Fr. McCloskey’s eloquent piece is /understanding/ besides forgiveness. With her and her husband both, there are several three-degrees-of-separation situations that could well blip down to two, since we re-contacted 18 months ago. This has me wondering whether we need to move beyond forgiveness-in-the-heart to a common understanding of what for me were two psychologically scary situations. I was silent on them—to spare her, unless/until she came forward specifically about them—for many years until clear evidences now of things (still) being broken from their side led me to broach this.

      For the same element, my church split over the resignation of an embattled pastor, and I was on the healing-process board. Our interim leader talked about forgiveness, but I pointed out that toward the goal of recovering some lost members, we needed more: to give information (about what happened and why) and reach understanding. They could well forgive us but not wish to associate with us. To return to Fr. McCloskey’s subject, it is for association that reconciliation and understanding seem needed. That association is what we necessarily have with God—and not necessarily with all those we are instructed by Jesus to forgive.

  • Victoria Campbell

    This is so powerful and something I have struggled with for as long as I can remember letting go and forgiving especially when the other is not sorry. Have bookmarked this and will read this frequently until it is indelibly printed on my soul!

  • In Our Lord’s Prayer, He makes it clear that we are forgiven in the same manner we forgive those who have hurt us. And He states so elsewhere. However, when you have genuinely forgiven someone, and they act is if they do not even admit the wronged you, and instead try to blame you and continue to strive to make you feel guilty, it becomes difficult to strive for reconciliation. I would like to hear Fr. McCloskey’s advice in such a situation.

    • rasuq

      Mary
      I think forgiveness is distinct from reconciliation; the former doesn’t require the second party while the later does. Forgiveness, like love, can and should be offered even if the other party doesn’t accept (think of Christ on the cross). It is a disposition of the heart. Reconciliation follows the offer and acceptance of forgiveness. I believe God’s forgiveness is always available to us, even when we’re not aware of it or don’t accept it. It is only after we accept his forgiveness that we’re reconciled to him.

      • Thank you, rasuq, for clearing my mind on this one. It is regrettable that one who has greatly hurt you behaves as if they did not hurt you and, instead, continue to try to make you feel guilty. Not only have I forgiven this person unconditionally, but accepting that I could very well have contributed to the situation which made the person hurt me, I not once, but severally, apologized and asked for forgiveness.

        I guess men find it very difficult to admit their wrong doing especially to a woman. But for a time I was baffled because my beloved husband was always ready to apologize and ask me to forgive him even when most of the times, I was the one who had started the flare ups. But then our relationship was unique and he was truly an Angel of a husband, father and friend.

        By the Grace of God, rasuq, age truly mellows one and my forgiveness is total; I no longer feel the pain and I pray for this person daily.

  • Msgr Pope

    My own take on this is a little different.

    I am not sure where the questioner learned that the Lord Jesus only forgives if we are repentant. This is quite contrary to what he did at the Cross. With the exception of John, Mother Mary and several other women, we collectively mocked him, scorned him and thought nothing of his sufferings. Yet, in our most unrepentant moment he said, “Father forgive them.”

    Scripture also says, But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us….when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son…. (Rom 5:7,9-10).

    Perhaps the questioner havs in mind the judgment we will face. And many do think of our Last Judgment as God withholding forgiveness. However, the Lord makes it clear As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. (Ez 33:11). It also says God wants all to be saved… (1 Tim 2:4).
    Thus our Last Judgment, is not about God’s desire to condemn, or his refusal to forgive. Rather, the judgment in question is more about our final answer to the invitation of God to receive his offered mercy and accept the values of his
    kingdom. There are some who mysteriously reject the Kingdom and its values, who refuse the offered mercy of God or their need for it. Without pleasure, God accepts the final and lasting choice of some to dwell apart from him.

    For us, forgiveness should not be seen so much as an imposed obligation, but as a gift to seek and receive from God. Forgiveness does not always mean we can go on in close relationships with people who may cause us great harm. It does not
    always mean that there should be no consequences for sin. Rather, forgiveness is letting go of the need to change the past. It is a gift from God that helps us to put down the weight
    of anger, resentment and the desire for revenge that can consume and destroy us. Forgiveness is for us, not against us.

    • LizEst

      You are right that God forgives us even while we are still sinners…otherwise why would he have died for us (while forgiving us “in our most unrepentant moment”) and opened to us the gates of eternal life? This kind of supernatural forgiveness is indeed a gift from God.

      I love your phrase, “forgiveness is letting go of the need to change the past.” So very, very true! How many times is our inability to forgive tied to what came before–I should have, could have, would have, you should have, could have, why didn’t you, you’ll never change, etc? We absolutely must not brush aside injustice, but must deal with it forthrightly and do all we can to overturn it. We must confront the consequences of sin, ours and those of others, just as Christ has already done for us.

      But, Christ did not come to mire us in the past. Rather, He is the Truth that came to set us free, utterly free, and “make all things new” (cf Rev 21:5). To have complete joy, to have life to the full, we must pick up our cross and follow Him with total faith, trusting that, when the Lord tells us to forgive, it is because He knows a thing or two about that…and because it is the best thing for us, for those who have hurt us and for the world. After all, He would hardly hand us a snake or a scorpion (cf Luke 11:11, 12) when what we ask for is the gift of His Life and Love and forgiveness.

      Thank you so much, Monsignor Pope. (Btw – are you the same Monsignor Charles Pope who has a great blog at the Archdiocese of Washington site? Good stuff!)

  • Sanctus 3

    Thank you, Father, for an inspiring post–one to meditate on. In fact, it was fortuitous, because just today (Thurs. of 23rd Ordinary), there was a passage in DIVINE INTIMACY that stated: “The way of Christian justice [forgiveness] is that charity which ‘does not insist on its own way’ (I Cor. 13:5).”

    Would it be too bold to say that we can–and must!–do something that even God can’t do? That is, forgive someone who has not at all repented?

    • LizEst

      Because you posted this, I looked up “Divine Intimacy” (“Meditations On The Interior Life For Every Day Of The Liturgical Year”) and learned it is a Carmelite spiritual classic by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene, O.C.D. (1893-1953). Since we are now reading Pope John XXIII’s “Journal of a Soul” for our book club, his endorsement of it is interesting, “This book of meditations is meant for all priests, seminarians, religious, the devout laity, all who aspire to greater union with God: that is, to divine intimacy.” (quote found at http://www.aquinasandmore.com/catholic-books/divine-intimacy/sku/1442/s/97). Thanks for introducing me to another highly recommended devotional. God bless you, Isaiah OCDS!

      • Sanctus 3

        Liz, there are two versions of DIVINE INTIMACY. The original is from TAN and was published in 1964. Then there is a revised edition in a 4-vols. set published by Ignatius in 1987. This newer edition has references to Vatican II docs and more Scriptural quotations, but, it seems to me, to have fewer quotations from Carmelite saints. I use the versions interchangeably. The last time I looked, they were each listed on Amazon.com.

        • The older version is much better.

        • LizEst

          Thank you Isaiah and Dan for your input.

  • For a nation in which so many fo us identify ourselves as Christian, seems if we lived out this forgiving aspect of our faith, our society would not be so litigious. God help us all.

  • Sr. Judy Nielsen, OSF

    Thanks to MMJ we have an honest & practical application of forgiveness. He has provided that “makes sense -everyday action” approach that many seek. Forgiveness is only a good discussion if we remain above the process & avoid confronting our fears that forgiveness may set in motion yet something else we have to forgive or require that we too must change.

  • woodyjones

    Great to see Fr. McCloskey contributing here; he is a great addition to the contributors. Just a clarifying note here from Archbishop Marchetto a few years ago, the addition to these discussions being the point that forgiveness does not mean abandoning the duty (note: duty) of self-defense:

    Prelate Calls Forgiveness a Duty
    Couples It With Self-Defense as Response to Terrorism VATICAN CITY, APRIL 24, 2007 (www.Zenit.org)
    – Forgiveness and self-defense are the two elements that make up the
    response to terrorism, says the secretary of the Pontifical Council for
    Migrants and Travelers. Archbishop Agostino Marchetto said that
    on Monday during the introduction of the International Seminar for
    Catholic Civil Aviation Chaplains and Chaplaincy Members, being
    sponsored by his dicastery this week. “We hold that it is our
    duty as the faithful to respond to terrorism with forgiveness,
    permitting justice to follow its course,” the archbishop said. “At
    the same time,” he added, “we are aware of the duty to defend ourselves
    and all innocent people around us, especially in airports where we
    carry out our mission, without forgetting that human rights must be
    rigorously respected.” According to Archbishop Marchetto, the
    “measures taken that are repressive or punitive are not sufficient in
    themselves to stop terrorism. It is necessary to work together to be
    effective.” The prelate concluded by saying the world’s great
    religions should “work together to respond to terrorism, in particular
    by emphasizing the dignity of the human person and by working toward a
    clearer understanding of the uniqueness of the family of peoples.”

  • woodyjones

    Indeed, our Papal Delegate, Cardinal DePaolis, made the same point in fewer words a few years ago, saying, in response to the assassination of two priests “Enough now of this turning the other cheek, we have a duty to defend ourselves.”

  • MaryofSharon

    Wonderful to see Fr. McCloskey here! (Gotta fix the spelling next to his photo.) Along with Fr. Bartunak, we here at RC Spiritual Direction, are doubly blessed with the best of priests!

  • Peregrinus Felix

    The first part of the question, “why does God only forgive when we repent and turn back to him…” presupposes that indeed God forgives only when we repent and turn back to him. But does He, indeed? Perhaps it would be clearer and more easily understood if we say that God’s forgiveness becomes operative or effective only when we repent, because repentance is nothing else but the sinner’s acceptance of that forgiveness that God extended once and for all, and for all the sins of the world in and through His Son’s death on Calvary. Clearly our Lord died so that all our sins would be forgiven but He knew that not everyone would accept that forgiveness. This is made clear in the new English translation of the words of consecration of the wine at Mass which says that His blood would be shed for many (pro multis) instead of “for all” in the old translation.
    Now, forgiveness can also be understood as the sinner’s acceptance of God’s love for him, made actual or real by his repentance. It is in this sense that God’s love becomes Divine Mercy. On the other hand, when a sinner rejects God’s love for him by his refusal to repent, then Divine Love becomes Divine Justice. Thus we say that we are saved and go to heaven by Divine Mercy, and we are condemned and go to Hell by Divine Justice. For Hell is simply the total rejection of God who is love. Or as Bernanos says, Hell is not to love anymore.

  • rasuq

    I think forgiveness is distinct from reconciliation; the former doesn’t require the second party while the later does. Forgiveness, like love, can and should be offered even if the other party doesn’t accept (think of Christ on the cross). It is a disposition of the heart. Reconciliation follows the offer and acceptance of forgiveness. I believe God’s forgiveness is always available to us, even when we’re not aware of it or don’t accept it. It is only after we accept his forgiveness that we’re reconciled to him.

  • woodyjones

    For those who can read Spanish (with, like me, or without, Google’s help), there is a very good course on this topic on the Spanish language section of Catholic.net:
    http://www.es.catholic.net/educadorescatolicos/753/3095/
    The course is based on a book that is available in English from Scepter called “From Resentment to Forgiveness”.

    • LizEst

      Thank you for posting this, Sherwood. I checked it out and may very well take the course. It’s run out of Mexico and also offers a certificate for completing it for a modest sum of $15 (they accept PayPal). On the other hand, the book is widely available in English for less than the price of the certificate! Muchas gracias!

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