“Ask a Priest: Is Someone Still Bound If I Don’t Forgive Him?”

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Q: It is my understanding that Scripture states we must forgive in order to be forgiven, and more or less limitlessly. Is that correct? Also, I think that I’ve read something along the lines of, if we do not forgive someone of something, then they are still bound to it (not forgiven by God the Father?). Surely it’s not implying that the fate of another soul could be, in part, determined by me somehow? One thing I am having the most trouble with is knowing for sure if I actually have forgiven someone. If I say that I have forgiven something but am still angered/hurt by it, then have I truly forgiven it? And how can I truly forgive if I know for sure the person isn’t sorry? –D.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Ultimately, sin offends God, and his forgiveness is what counts. So even if you don’t forgive someone, God can still forgive that person.

God wants us to forgive, in part, because he has forgiven us so much. We would be ungrateful not to extend his mercy to others through our own acts of forgiveness. A spirit of forgiveness also liberates us. Otherwise we could spend a lot of time stewing over past wounds and doing even more damage to ourselves.

And yes, ideally there should be no limit to our forgiveness, even when offenders fail to express remorse. Here, forgiveness means that we resolve not to hold a grudge against someone in our heart.

It is worth noting that our forgiveness differs from God’s forgiveness. An unrepentant soul, for instance, might end up lost for eternity. God didn’t forgive that person, but not because God held a grudge. Rather, it was because the sinner simply wasn’t repentant, and God doesn’t force his forgiveness on anyone.

In our case, as mentioned at the start, our forgiveness doesn’t release souls from sin; only God can do that. Our forgiveness, in contrast, is a kind of letting go of hurt, of just wishing the best for a soul, of commending them to God’s mercy. We can show this kind of forgiveness no matter how the person reacts. This means we aren’t leaving our peace of mind in the hands of another person. Rather, we are choosing to make an act of forgiveness, as God asks, and that can bring us peace.

Forgiveness is an act of the will. Don’t worry if you still have hurt feelings toward someone. Hurt feelings take time to heal. But good feelings are not essential for an act of forgiveness – it is the act of the will.

Forgiveness isn’t the same as condoning, by the way. It doesn’t go against justice; rather, it is a participation in the kind of mercy God shows. We who are sinners and who have been forgiven by God so much, need to be similarly merciful to others. This is a kind of justice.

You might find this video helpful.

For more reading, you might consider two of my colleague Father John Bartunek’s articles beginning with this one. For extensive reading see Forgiveness Is a Choice, by Robert Enright.

If ever you find it hard to forgive, just remember that your sins help put Jesus on a cross. And he is the one who asks us to forgive others.

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