I’ll Forgive You If…

"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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About the Author

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He conducts parish missions, retreats and speaks at conferences across the USA.

His latest book is The Romance of Religion - Fighting for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Visit his blog, listen to his radio show, and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.

Catechesis teaches us what to believe and how to behave, but Catholics also need down to earth advice for putting their faith into action. For help in your practice of the Catholic faith sign up for FaithWorks! -- Fr Longenecker's free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith.

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Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. Fr Dwight was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson.

Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. He spent the next ten years working as a freelance Catholic writer, contributing to over twenty-five magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA.

Fr. Dwight is the editor of a best-selling book of English conversion stories called The Path to Rome - Modern Journeys to the Catholic Faith. He has written Listen My Son - a daily Benedictine devotional book which applies the Rule of St Benedict to the task of modern parenting. St Benedict and St Thérèse is a study of the lives and thought of two of the most popular saints.

In the field of Catholic apologetics, Fr. Dwight wrote Challenging Catholics with John Martin, the former editor of the Church of England Newspaper. More Christianity is a straightforward and popular explanation of the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians. Friendly and non-confrontational, it invites the reader to move from 'Mere Christianity' to 'More Christianity'. Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate is a debate with an old Bob Jones friend David Gustafson who is now an Evangelical Episcopalian.

Fr. Dwight’s Adventures in Orthodoxy is described as ‘a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles’ Creed.’ He wrote Christianity Pure&Simple which was published by the Catholic Truth Society in England and Sophia Institute Press in the USA. He has also published How to Be an Ordinary Hero and his book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing was published by Our Sunday Visitor in May 2008. His latest books are The Gargoyle Code - a book in the tradition of Screwtape Letters and a book of poems called A Sudden Certainty, Adventures in Orthodoxy and The Romance of Religion.

Fr. Dwight has contributed a chapter to the third volume of the best selling Surprised by Truth series and is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine, St Austin Review, This Rock, Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register. Fr. Dwight has also written a couple of children’s books, had three of his screenplays produced, and is finishing his first novel. He’s working on a book on angels and his autobiography: There and Back Again.

In 2006 Fr. Dwight accepted a post as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. This brought him and his family back, not only to his hometown, but also to the American Bible belt, and hometown of Bob Jones University. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He is the Administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and an oblate of Belmont Abbey.

Fr. Dwight enjoys movies, blogging, books, and visiting Benedictine monasteries. He’s married to Alison. They have four children, named Benedict, Madeleine, Theodore and Elias. They live in Greenville, South Carolina with a black Labrador named Anna, a chocolate lab called Felicity, cat named James and various other pets.

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