(I know I’m two days late. Shut up.)
On Sunday, the priest (who is from an African country that leaves him with a nearly-incomprehensible accent), started off the homily with some general thoughts about mercy. I think everybody’s attention kinda wandered, since the words were generic and it was hard to understand, anyway.
Then he said, “My father left us when I was ten,” and everyone’s attention SNAPPED back. He told of his father abandoning them, and not seeing him for 20 years — when, as a condition of his ordination, he was required to have both parents present him to the bishop. The priest told of how he had to have mercy towards and forgive his father, and he said, “Jesus forgave without people even asking for forgiveness.”
That’s when I heard the record scratch. Mainly because it was the same thing I’ve heard, over and over, my whole life. And because it was one of the most harmful things that I’ve ever believed. Every time my husband mistreated me, I would automatically put the incident out of my mind, think, “I forgive him,” and move on. The problem is that our relationship was never healed; none of the wounds he caused me were ever dealt with; he never ASKED for forgiveness, intended to change, or even, to the best of my knowledge, thought that there was anything wrong with his behaviour.
And from what I understand, in view of many aspects of Church teaching, forgiveness CANNOT BE HAD without the offender recognizing the need and ASKING FOR IT. Obviously, the Church has a very well-though-out theology of reconciliation and salvation. The whole point of God being nailed to a piece of wood was to reconcile us to Him. But I don’t know of ANYWHERE the Church teaches that forgiveness is given without requesting it.
To wit: One of the seven sacraments is Reconciliation, wherein Catholics go to a minister and ask for God’s forgiveness in order to receive it. And not only do you have to ask, but in order to be forgiven, you must: be contrite (be sorry for your sins, and resolve not to repeat them), ask for forgiveness, and perform penance (doing something to make up for the wrong we did).
Also: The Church teaches that Jesus’s death on the cross was sufficient to attain forgiveness for all of humanity’s sins for all time. However, that doesn’t mean that all of humanity’s sins were instantly forgiven on Good Friday. Everyone wasn’t instantly forgiven, sanctified, and transmuted into heaven that day. They weren’t even made perfect on earth on that day. Not even Jesus’s followers were instantly forgiven at 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon. All forgiveness necessary is available, but it is not automatically applied in each individual case.
Again: When Jesus taught His followers how to pray, He included “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” He taught them 1) that they must ask for forgiveness, and 2) that forgiveness is even conditional upon their actions! Not only do you have to be contrite, confess, and try to fix the problems you caused, you have to offer the same to people who offend you!
CLARIFICATION: At this point, I feel it is incumbent for me to say that when I speak of withholding forgiveness, I do not mean deliberately nurturing bitterness and hatred in your heart toward people who hurt you until they sufficiently debase themselves to earn your forgiveness. You must always love everyone, recognizing their intrinsic value, and desiring their true good.
That DOESN’T mean, however, ignoring offenses against you and allowing people to mistreat you without any consequences or any signs of repentance on their part. Especially in the context of a close relationship, to allow offenses to multiply, and to never address the damage to the relationship and to the people involved, is a recipe for disaster.
In Matthew’s Gospel, immediately before Jesus tells Peter to forgive seventy-seven (or 490) times, He says, “If your brother sins against you, GO AND TELL HIM HIS FAULT.” [emphasis added] When people speak of immediate forgiveness, they usually ignore this part. Jesus, having a pretty decent grasp of human nature, understands that relationships must be healed if they are to survive, whether between God and man (His death, and the sacrament of penance), or between people. And for people’s own sakes, they must be told that they’ve done wrong! Forgiveness doesn’t help if they don’t know that they’ve done anything, so they don’t fix themselves, so they never get better!
As for Jesus forgiving people without them asking, do we really have evidence of that? I propose the following:
1) that since Jesus is God, He knows what is in people’s hearts, so of course He can tell if they are sorry without being verbally told, and
2) although it’s not recorded, I’m sure that people Jesus forgave DID ask His forgiveness, whether the authors of the Gospels recorded it or not. Can you imagine that, after the Resurrection, the disciples picked up with Him as if everything was normal, and just never mentioned how they all abandoned Him? You don’t think that there were tears and apologies and active sorrow for what they had done? I guarantee that there were, because I’ve lived in a relationship where those things never happened, and it was a living hell. You cannot have a healthy relationship with someone who constantly hurts you, yet never takes any responsibility for it or acknowledges that you’ve been hurt.
I’ll leave you with a portion of the Catechism:
There is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive. “There is no one, however wicked and guilty, who may not confidently hope for forgiveness, provided his repentance is honest.” Christ who died for all men desires that in his Church the gates of forgiveness should always be open to anyone who turns away from sin. – CCC 982 [emphasis added]