Forgiveness

1. Is forgiveness essentially mandated?

2. Do people have a choice in accepting God's forgiveness?

3. Why do we ask God's mercy if we know we already have it, and isn't that an arrogant assumption?

4. Regarding Universal Salvation, you are the first person I have known that feels this way. Personally, I don't know what I think. I read your Q&A regarding this subject, and I must admit that your explanations are quite moving. The only problem I have is: How could a person convicted of a murder, and a morally sound person both end up in heaven as equals?

5. I seem to recall a priest saying that when you if you go to confession and communion while on retreat or attending a mission, you will get complete absolution for all sin committed in your life time. Is this correct?

6. I have a girlfriend whom I love beyond my ability to describe, but I told her that if ever she cheated on me, I would leave her without question. Well, two nights ago she told me she cheated on me twice in a week. She begged forgiveness for her actions and told me that she's been trying to push me away emotionally ever since we started going out, because from the time she was a child, her mother told her that all men were evil, and interested only in using her. She also said that she pushed me away because someone sexually assaulted her a long time ago. These experiences influenced her, and she thought that I was the same as all men. She was afraid that if she let me get emotionally close, I would use her, then leave her (despite all my reassurances that I love her and would not leave her unless she cheated).

She says that she loves me, but she cheated on me because she wanted to make me leave her on her terms, before I left on my own (which would hurt her). It was a preemptive action on her part. Now she says that she didn’t know what she had before she lost me, and she asked for forgiveness and a second chance. Her uncle is a priest, and she quoted a homily of his in which he said, "The point of getting into heaven is not to save yourself, but to also bring someone in with you, through love and forgiveness."

Father Bill, I want to forgive her, but Im afraid that she will continue to cheat on me. When she told me she cheated on me, it felt as if a spear pierced my heart and knives sliced throughout my body. The pain was so horrific I almost buckled over. I don’t think I can stand that pain again. Our relationship is a long distance one, which worsens the situation. I don’t know what to do. I’m so confused and in so much pain. I want to forgive her, but fear and of being hurt by infidelity for a second time is keeping me from taking her back. Do you have any insight as to what I should do?

Q 1: Is forgiveness essentially mandated?

A 1: I'm not sure what you mean. If you are asking does God forgive no matter what, then, yes, forgiveness is mandated. God cannot not forgive. As soon as he does, he ceases to be God. This certainly lies at the heart of Jesus' "Parable of the Prodigal Son." More properly it should be called the "Parable of the Forgiving Father", for the father is the main character in the story. But note in the parable that the son never asks forgiveness. The self-centeredness that dominated his life continues even as he returns to his father because he is hungry and wants to satisfy his need/desire for food.

If you asking whether or not God mandates that we forgive, then that same parable once again addresses the point. When the older son refused to go into the celebration, it was out of anger and jealousy. He refused to forgive. But the father tells him that forgiveness and the celebration that comes from it is necessary. Jesus ends the parable short of telling us if the older son ever responded to the father’s call to forgive. Could that be because we live out that parable in every generation? Perhaps only we can write the conclusion. But it does seem that God mandates that each of us forgive.

Q 2: Do people have a choice in accepting God's forgiveness?

A 2: This question has a two-part answer. In this life, yes, people have a choice. That choice is part of what either advances or impedes the growth of the kingdom--at least in the heart of those who accept or reject God's forgiveness. From a Christian perspective, those who do not accept God's forgiveness distance themselves from the presence and the activity of God in their lives now, on earth.

However, in terms of eternal salvation, all people are forgiven whether they choose it or not. This part of the answer is problematic for many people-- partly because some have a mistaken idea about "earning" salvation, partly because most of us tend to create God in our image rather than letting ourselves be created in his. Besides, from a philosophical point of view, accepting or rejecting God is something one can only do in this world--a world characterized by change. It is certainly conceivable that once confronted with the existence of God at the time of death, all people choose God and hence, accept his forgiveness.

Q 3: Why do we ask God's mercy if we know we already have it, and isn't that an arrogant assumption?

A 3: I want to answer your question in two parts, beginning with the comment about arrogance. Firstly, I believe in universal salvation, i.e. that everyone goes to heaven without exception or prejudice. Far from being an arrogant position, it is really a position of humility before the eternal mercy of God. Secondly, asking God's mercy is a way of subjecting ourselves to the power of God in our lives. Asking mercy is also a step on the road to healing a broken, or at least damaged, relationship. Not unlike when we seek pardon from a loved one or friend, the very act of asking mercy is a sign and demonstration of our love. The act acknowledges that we are not superior or omnipotent, rather that we need others. There is a vulnerability expressed in asking for mercy that facilitates healing.

Q 4: Regarding Universal Salvation, you are the first person I have known that feels this way. Personally, I don't know what I think. I read your Q&A regarding this subject, and I must admit that your explanations are quite moving. The only problem I have is: How could a person convicted of a murder, and a morally sound person both end up in heaven as equals?

A 4: Good question. My first response is to say again that mercy or forgiveness lies with the God, not the sinner. From our own experience we know that is relatively easy to forgive people we love. Often enough we are not at all moved to forgive our enemies. Jesus calls us to change that. And his model is God. We continue to struggle with the idea that God's love or mercy must be earned. However, that is simply not true. What is at once most compelling about God and challenging for us, is that God loves and forgives unconditionally. There are numerous passages in the Gospels, including some of the parables of Jesus that deal with this phenomenon. For us, Jesus calls us to a new concept of love and forgiveness. Recall that he tells us to love our enemies, not just our friends. He even calls us to pray for those who do us harm. Nowhere do I suggest that this call is easy. But I do suggest that it is the only way, because it is the way of Jesus. Ask yourself this question: What would be the effect if I forgave and even loved a convicted murderer?

Then ask the question why does God love us? Is it because we do good things or is it because we are created in God’s image and our very existence is an act of love. Although there are fundamentalist Christians who preach a divine hate, the deeper truth is that god cannot hate for any reason. The greatest statement about God is also the one that defines God. “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 John 4:16).

Q 5: I seem to recall a priest saying that when you if you go to confession and communion while on retreat or attending a mission, you will get complete absolution for all sin committed in your life time. Is this correct?

A 5: If I understand what you heard on retreat, you are referring to what is called general absolution. Traditionally, this has been used for people who have been away from the Church for a long period of time, or at least from the sacrament of Reconciliation. Obviously, we cannot remember everything we have done. So while confessing the sins we can call to mind, we express contrition for all the sins of our past life and the priest extends a general absolution of all those sins. It is possible that on some retreats the priest may offer that absolution, possibly considering that some people may not have been to confession is a very long time.

Q 6: I have a girlfriend whom I love beyond my ability to describe, but I told her that if ever she cheated on me, I would leave her without question. Well, two nights ago she told me she cheated on me twice in a week. She begged forgiveness for her actions and told me that she's been trying to push me away emotionally ever since we started going out, because from the time she was a child, her mother told her that all men were evil, and interested only in using her. She also said that she pushed me away because someone sexually assaulted her a long time ago. These experiences influenced her, and she thought that I was the same as all men. She was afraid that if she let me get emotionally close, I would use her, then leave her (despite all my reassurances that I love her and would not leave her unless she cheated).

She says that she loves me, but she cheated on me because she wanted to make me leave her on her terms, before I left on my own (which would hurt her). It was a preemptive action on her part. Now she says that she didn’t know what she had before she lost me, and she asked for forgiveness and a second chance. Her uncle is a priest, and she quoted a homily of his in which he said, "The point of getting into heaven is not to save yourself, but to also bring someone in with you, through love and forgiveness."

Father Bill, I want to forgive her, but Im afraid that she will continue to cheat on me. When she told me she cheated on me, it felt as if a spear pierced my heart and knives sliced throughout my body. The pain was so horrific I almost buckled over. I don’t think I can stand that pain again. Our relationship is a long distance one, which worsens the situation. I don’t know what to do. I’m so confused and in so much pain. I want to forgive her, but fear and of being hurt by infidelity for a second time is keeping me from taking her back. Do you have any insight as to what I should do?

A 6: I don’t think anyone can tell you what to do. Forgiveness is never easy, specially when the hurt is so deep and personal. At the same time, I believe forgiveness is always possible. It may even be more profound in your situation.

I suppose the first place to begin is with love. Your words convey a deep care and concern for your girlfriend. It is what makes her betrayal so painful. If you did not love her, it would not much matter if she cheated on you. However, it is also the depth of that love that makes forgiveness so difficult. You may recall the famous line in the movie Love Story--“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” That’s really rather silly. It is exactly the opposite. When we truly love others, we need to express sorrow and contrition for offending them. It is a part of our personal growth. And it is necessary for the relationship. I think the same holds true for forgiveness. We need to forgive, both for ourselves and for the relationship.

The more deeply we love someone, the more painful their betrayal. But forgiveness will never be possible if all of our attention is focused on our own hurt. As real as it is, we can only move to forgiveness when we focus on the other person. Of course, even forgiveness will not save every relationship. Some individuals are incapable of making the kind of commitment required for a successful relationship, and some people are just not right for each other. Still, that cannot be determined because of a mistake. The very fact that she told you what happened in spite of knowing your thoughts on forgiveness, may suggest that she is truly sorry and wants to heal the relationship.

The Bible is filled with examples of God forgiving his people, of Jesus calling us to forgive one another. But it only becomes personal and real when we have to put it into practice. I cannot tell you what to do, but if you love her as deeply as you say, then the relationship is working on, and forgiveness may be your most powerful tool.