Forgiveness is absolutely central to our faith.  Most of us know this and simply take it as a given.  But we must remember that forgiveness is not commonplace.  Many who have been wronged bear a heavy burden of bitterness, and those who have wronged them bear a crippling sense of shame.  At root, this is a spiritual problem, and it’s a problem of understanding.  What exactly is forgiveness?  We could do a lot to correct this problem if we knew how to articulate what forgiveness actually is. Below are four truths about forgiveness that will help us to do just that.

Forgiveness is an exercise in accountability. 

Some people think that forgiveness is simply letting someone off the hook.  They think it means saying “it’s OK” when someone apologizes.  This is not forgiveness, but excusal.  When one forgives, he still acknowledges the wrong done to him, and the subsequent reality of injustice.  He knows that respect for the other’s dignity requires forgiving him and acknowledging his wrongdoing.  Forgiveness, in other words, always includes mercy and justice.

Forgiveness is distinct from reconciliation. 

Forgiveness is often accompanied by reconciliation, but is distinct from it.  I first learned this from Father Jason Brooks, LC, who pointed it out in a talk given on Divine Mercy Sunday.  This is a very important distinction.  Some think that forgiveness always requires restoring a warm and cordial relationship with the one who wronged them, but this is not the case.  In some cases, that type of relationship was not even present in the first place, and so there is certainly no need of trying to create it.  More importantly, trying to restore a relationship to its former, happy state is often too emotionally and psychologically difficult for both parties, and new bitterness can arise from it.

Forgiveness is an act of mercy, done with the Grace of God.

Some Christians become plagued by great feelings of guilt when they find themselves having difficulty forgiving a serious offence.  These Christians rightly see forgiveness as their duty, and therefore as something they are morally obliged to do.  However, they fail to see that forgiveness in such cases is not just a simple duty of justice—like paying one’s taxes or serving on a jury—but rather an act of mercy done always with the grace of God.  Seeing forgiveness in this light would help them to recognize God’s patience in dealing with them, and to healthily acknowledge the magnitude of the injustice done to them

Forgiveness is the antidote to the cycle of sin. 

There are some people (I used to be one of them) who think that forgiveness only perpetuates wrongdoing.  These folks fail to see the truth that is at the very heart of forgiveness.  Being both merciful and just, forgiveness reflects the Cross of Jesus Christ, upon which He mercifully took upon Himself the just and necessary punishment we deserved, that we might be saved from eternal damnation.  Forgiveness, then, by remaining true to the supreme act of love—Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross—is itself a profound act of love. This is why forgiveness is the antidote to the cycle of sin.  By extending love to those who do wrong, forgiveness gives them what they needed in the first place to refrain from wrongdoing.

For, love begets love. Scripture tells us this clearly: “We love because he first loved us.” (1 Jn 4:19).  How did he first love us?  By forgiving us.  Therefore, we must forgive others.  It’s that simple, but it’s not easy.  Neither was the Cross.