by Albert Garong, SSP
Last November, a certain national issue caused quite the ruckus, sparking nationwide protests and, as per norm nowadays, utter mayhem on social media.
Interestingly, one theme it touched on is forgiveness. If anything, it helped surface an alarming misconception about what forgiveness means for a Christian. And with Lent nearing, perhaps now is a good time to shed some light on the matter.
To Forgive is Christian
The forgiveness we preach and practice is that of Jesus Christ. So we ask: how did Jesus deal with those who wronged him?
Oh, he showed his anger, all right. His tongue lashed at the Pharisees, and he whipped the merchants away from the temple. Yet in his final seconds, Jesus made sure to say: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).
Jesus forgave. He did not wait to be asked. He did not set conditions. He did not demand punishment or seek revenge. He forgave—freely and absolutely. With that act alone, we meet the face of an all-merciful God, and the example we must follow.
As Christians we are called to forgive as soon as we genuinely can. And as Jesus shows, forgiveness is a choice, an act of will and of love. We don’t wait for it to happen to us. We choose to forgive.
“But that moron doesn’t deserve it!” you protest. But here’s the thing: it’s not about what that person deserves. It’s what you deserve. And you deserve peace, healing, and moving on. You’re the one who feels the difference when you let go of the hate and bitterness that makes life toxic. You forgive so you can be free.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Forgiveness is a gift, and there is only one way to receive it: with a repentant heart.
Let’s go back to Christ’s passion. Of the hundreds who were there, who jeered and spat or simply stood by when God’s Son was being murdered, only one person actually received Christ’s forgiveness: the repentant thief. At that moment, he alone was healed by God’s mercy and gained paradise.
Christ forgave all. But only one received his gift. The same is true today: God readily pardons our sins, but only those who genuinely feel sorry can truly and fully receive it. That’s because forgiveness is just one part of a larger story: reconciliation.
Reconciliation is the healing of the relationships broken by sin, and it requires contrition. Even if a victim forgives, it makes no difference to the offender who shows no remorse, or even admission. The offender remains lost in sin. There is no mutual healing, no reconciliation.
But how do we tell if a person is truly sorry? Here’s a trick: whenever repentance is real, it is the offender that demands justice, not the offended!
If you’ve ever truly felt sorry for a wrong you’ve done, you know what this means. You do everything you can to correct the mistake. You can’t live with yourself until you have somehow made up for what you’ve done.
People who say sorry but don’t own up to what they’ve done aren’t sorry at all. (Indeed, they’re only sorry about one thing: that they were caught.) But people with genuine contrition? They embrace the consequences! They see it as a necessary step for reconciliation.
See, there must be justice for there to be reconciliation. And justice isn’t found in denial, or in just “forgetting everything to move on.” When Christ forgives, he doesn’t erase your past. He makes you a new person from what you were before. He uses your old self, no matter how horrible it was, to mold a better person out of you. And an important step in that is for a person to face the consequences of his actions.
The Forgiver and the Unrepentant
Sometimes, however, people are just blind (or numb) to their own sins. So how do we deal with the unrepentant?
We forgive—because that is the example Christ left us. We forgive and let ourselves heal.
But we also stand watch. We make sure that no further harm is done, be it to us or to others who may fall prey to a blinded sinner.
Because to believe that we can just forget everything that happened, that forgiveness alone makes everything okay, that it is merciful to just pardon everything when a sinner shows not a shred of remorse, that is dangerous. In fact, that is unchristian.
When God forgives, he forgives absolutely and without condition. And we are called to do the same. But to be reconciled with God, with others, even with ourselves—it requires contrition and justice.
That is the forgiveness we Christians believe.