There has been a debate raging on Mark Shea’s blog, as well as on Disputations(more posts than this one on the topic — look around), regarding the topic of forgiveness. The issue of debate seems to be the question, “What conditions can we place on the forgiveness we offer to another?”
When I was a young boy I once told my father that I had this whole forgivness thing in the gospel figured out — yes, I needed to forgive, but obviously only if the other person was sorry. My father asked me about the people that put Jesus on the cross — were they sorry? “Nope,” I replied. “So, were they forgiven?” “I guess not,” I answered. “But Jesus prayed to his Father to forgive them….do you mean that Jesus prayer wasn’t answered?” “Ummmm…..”
Well, that certainly got me thinking. I came to realise that my original theory wasn’t really the gospel at all, it was an attempt to “harmonize” the gospel with what you might call “my little kid sense of natural justice”. I grew up a little more that day, knowing that I needed to let go of hurts even if the other person wasn’t sorry at all. And as I tentatively put this into practice on the school playground, I found freedom in my heart.
This being said, there is still a theological problem of the relationship between contrition and forgiveness. Jesus, after all, prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Perhaps this is a declaration of fact, that their sin is in fact venial — and it is part of Catholic doctrine that venial sin does not keep you out of heaven. The debate then shifts to the nature of sin itself, and the difference between mortal and venial sin — and it sets the bar high for a sin to become mortal, because if the premeditated torture and killing of an innocent man can still be venial, then mortal sin must truly be of some other order.
At any rate, the example Jesus gives us from the cross is certainly challenging in itself. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian gospel, and the degree of its importance is unique to Christianity. No other religion gives forgiveness such an important role in the life of the believer — and so it seems to me that our duty is to forgive and forgive again, rather than apply our mental energy to find ways to justify the debts we feel others “owe” us.