“Ask a Priest: How Can I Explain God’s Forgiveness of Terrible Sins?”

Q: I have an agnostic co-worker who questioned my faith and said, “It’s beautiful that your God loves and forgives everyone, but I don’t understand how you can believe in a God that forgives people who kill or rape or commit other cruel things.” How can I go about this? I remember learning about mortal sins and venial sins, but this has made me doubt what I know. – A.P.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: One of the marvels of God’s mercy is precisely that it’s open to everyone who is repentant.

It is good to remember that sin is ultimately an offense against God. So it is certainly within his power to forgive the offenses committed against him. He doesn’t force his mercy on anyone, however; an offender needs to show some kind of sorrow and repentance.

Perhaps your co-worker has a hard time imagining this kind of mercy because he is basically projecting his ideas onto God. He might be thinking, “I wouldn’t forgive a rapist, therefore God shouldn’t either.”

This idea might spring from a suspicion that justice isn’t being served. The world tends to think that justice is served only when punishment is dished out, when “someone gets what’s coming to him.”

Fortunately for us, God’s sense of justice is deeper and wider than that. Anyone who sins is sinning against an infinitely good God, and thus the offense has an infinite dimension to it. We as finite creatures couldn’t make up for our sins. It is the blood of Christ that paid the price of our redemption.

Put another way, none of us can demand God’s mercy. None of us has a right to it. It is all his gift to us.

Jesus tells us to show a comparable form of mercy to others. “Then Peter approaching asked him, ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times'” (Matthew 18:21-22).

And when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, he gives the Our Father, whose petitions include “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:11).

Forgiveness and mercy aren’t signs of weakness, and they certainly aren’t offenses against justice. Rather, they reflect the fullness of justice.

The alternative isn’t pretty. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia, “A world from which forgiveness was eliminated would be nothing but a world of cold and unfeeling justice, in the name of which each person would claim his or her own rights vis-à-vis others; the various kinds of selfishness latent in man would transform life and human society into a system of oppression of the weak by the strong, or into an arena of permanent strife between one group and another” (No. 14).

A common error made over the centuries is that we try to fit God inside our little mental box. We expect him to do things the way we would do them. But he’s much, much greater than we can imagine. His mercy and justice go together.

It might be helpful to simply tell your friend, “Yes, God in his mercy can forgive a lot of bad things. That is why I have hope for my own salvation — he is willing to forgive me, too.”

An analogy might help: Imagine a family with a problem child. The parents go the extra distance in patience and mercy for “Joey.” The other siblings might feel a bit resentful that Joey seems to get off the hook. But deep down the concern of Mom and Dad for Joey assures the other kids that their parents’ love for all of them is unconditional.

It’s sort of the same with God. His willingness to forgive others their terrible sins assures us that we too can hope in his mercy.

Helpful for you might be our Retreat Guide, “Fire of Mercy.”

For more reading see the posting at https://www.thedivinemercy.org/news/What-Does-Divine-Mercy-Actually-Mean-2985. And give thanks for such a merciful God.

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