“Ask a Priest: Should I Forgive When Someone Isn’t Repentant?”

Q: Jesus commands us to love our enemies and to pray for them. My understanding is that the kind of love he is talking about is “willing the good of the other as other.” Love isn’t necessarily an emotion. Obviously, when we pray for our enemies, we should pray that they come to know the Truth who is Christ and his Church. But are we called to forgive them if they don’t ask for forgiveness? I’m talking about someone who has wronged you and is not sorry and has not asked for forgiveness. Is it just to forgive the unrepentant? It seems to me that it is not. God does not forgive the unrepentant (hence the existence of hell). Yet, I am troubled by one of the sayings from the cross: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Does God forgive the unrepentant? Does he ask us to forgive the unrepentant? – J.H.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The short answer is yes, we should forgive even those who don’t ask forgiveness. Jesus on the cross didn’t wait for his persecutors to ask forgiveness; he went ahead and prayed for them. He left us a great model to follow.

In fact, when we angrily refuse to forgive others in our hearts, we allow their flaws and offenses to control us to an extent; resentment stews within us and impedes our spiritual freedom. But Jesus wants us to live freely, in the peace and the joy that comes from the Holy Spirit. Learning to forgive others, regardless of their own limitations, releases their control on our hearts.

It’s good to remember that our “forgiveness” is not the same as God’s forgiveness. We aren’t absolving someone of sin when we “forgive” them. We are simply letting go of any ill will we might have toward them, and in effect we are hoping that they reconcile with God.

God’s forgiveness does involve absolution, since sin is ultimately an offense against him. When someone offends us, it is really God who is being offended.

It is also good to remember that people act for all kinds of motives, sometimes out of ignorance. Ideally we should look on them with eyes of mercy, as Jesus did.

Real mercy doesn’t undercut justice. Rather, it perfects justice. And it can lead those of us who do forgive a little closer to Our Lord.

God, by the way, doesn’t force his mercy on anyone. If someone dies unrepentant of serious sin, God respects that decision. He is always ready to welcome a repentant sinner (his forgiveness is always being offered), but it is up to the sinner to be humble enough to receive the forgiveness. The soul gets for eternity what it chooses.

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