Why does God only forgive when we repent?

Filippino Lippi, The Penitent Mary Magdalena,ca, 1470

From the Catholic Spiritual Direction
Answered by Father McCloskey

Q: Dear Father McCloskey, why does God only forgive after we repent and turn back to Him, while we are asked to forgive regardless of whether or not the “offending” person asks for our forgiveness and repents?

A: Dear Sister in Christ, you are not alone in your perplexity: I have wrestled with this question myself.

The answer simply is that we owe God everything, including our life and redemption and the possibility of eternal life in heaven. On the other hand, we will be given mercy to the extent we extend it to others, even if they do not reciprocate in asking our forgiveness.

Remember, of course, that all of salvation history from the fall of our first parents is the story of God’s mercy. As St. Paul says in one of his epistles, “God is rich in mercy.” Bl. John Paul wrote one of his first encyclicals, Rich in Mercy, on this topic.

In my old office at the Catholic Information Center in downtown Washington, DC, I prominently placed a large framed photo of the pope’s meeting with the man who had attempted to assassinate him. (I checked recently and the photo is still there!) Of course, we do not know whether his attacker asked for pardon when he met the pope, but we are certain that Bl. John Paul forgave him in any case.

We need not go into detail about the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son, but suffice it to say that the pope used this particular piece of Scripture (Lk. 15:11-32) more frequently than any other in his talks and preaching.

Indeed, we can be sure he forgave even the Nazis and then the Communists under whom he suffered from his university years through middle age. Remember that the father in the parable seeks out the son and does not judge him—he even defends him. As the pope puts it, the father “goes beyond the norm of justice. He is faithful to his fatherhood and having compassion on his son, restores their proper relationship.”

Simply stated, justice is not enough. Our standard must be to have a disposition to pardon freely those who offend us and to be a person who tries to reconcile rather than condemn.

Of course, living up to this standard may be complicated if an injury has been done to us; after all, justice is also an important virtue that must be considered, particularly when other people are involved. I should add that we should also exercise prudence. At times we will even need to employ fraternal correction, but generally after having determined with the help of a spiritual adviser that the correction is warranted. Hence the importance of consulting people we trust—a priest, a spiritual director, and when necessary even a trusted lawyer.

Each of us is called to be another Christ in our dealings with others, and we are never so Christlike as when we wholeheartedly forgive those who offend us. Besides, holding in anger and resentment is unhealthy spiritually as well as physically. And if you need further motivation, we will occupy a higher place in heaven as a result of our generosity in forgiving, especially when we forgive those who do not ask for it. Finally, we will bring many people to Christ and His Church by our example of unconditional forgiveness.

Fr. C.J. McCloskey III is a Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, DC. To learn more about Fr. McCloskey click here.

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6 Responses to Why does God only forgive when we repent?

  1. toadspittle says:


    “…And if you need further motivation, we will occupy a higher place in heaven as a result of our generosity…”

    This is startling news to Toad. Grades of preferment, even in Paradise! Do we know how many?
    But won’t those in lower places feel a teeny tinge of envy? …Only human, innit?.

    Still, Toad can accept practically anything from a priest called McClosky.
    When he was a toadpole in London, all priests had names like that.
    Only when he got to the States, did he come across priests with Z’s in their names.


  2. kathleen says:

    Oh Toad, you are a terror, but you do make me laugh! 😆

    No, there will be no envy in Paradise, for there everyone will be filled to capacity with the Love of God. The only difference will be that those souls who have “taken up their cross and followed Christ” more faithfully, i.e., those who have been more Christlike during their earthly lives, will have a greater capacity for happiness than those who have just managed to scrape in through the door!


  3. Rouxfus says:

    Those accorded a lower place in the heavenly hierarchy will ctainly delight in God’s perfect justice, tempered by His infinite, most generous mercy, through which, we can only hope, we will not receive what we deserve.


  4. toadspittle says:


    So, Kathleen – not everyone in Heaven will enjoy the same degree of perfection, and/or happiness. But no one will mind. Sounds emminently as reasonable as most other aspects regarding the afterlife.
    Will those “unfortunates” with a diminished capacity for happiness be aware of this?

    But, more to the point, if Granny is on level 2 and Toad on level 98, (if he’s lucky!) be we two be able to chat about Grandad?

    Which reminds Toad that nobody has yet answered the question of whether or not we will “go to the bathroom,” to put it euphemistically.
    It is a serious question, as we are assured we will get our earthly bodies back.
    If the answer is “No,” then what?
    Or to put it another way, what then?
    Will we, to logically extrapolate, still have our sexual organs?
    If not..why not?
    If we do..well….


  5. kathleen says:

    I’m afraid Toad that I don’t know the answer to your questions. We must trust in Jesus’s words just before His Ascension when He tells us: “I go to prepare a place for you.” Rest assured that He will take care of all our needs.

    Our Blessed Lord’s Glorious Resurrected Body was different in some ways after His Resurrection, so those might be indications that our bodies will be too. We shall be so filled with the love of God that all those banal earthly (but necessary) things you mention will be superfluous in Heaven.


  6. toadspittle says:

    Honest, (naturally!) of you to admit it, Kathleen – but Toad will need a bit more specific information and convincing evidence before committing himself on such a significant issue, involving it would seem, eternity.
    We “Can’t be too careful,” can we – and must “Look before we leap,” mustn’t we – and “Not count our chickens before they are hatched” must we?

    (That’s enough cliches for one Wednesday. Mustn’t gild the pudding.)


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