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One of the most frequent and hardest things I heard people say after I’d blown up my life was, “He doesn’t seem very sorry for what he did.” On the other hand one of the most difficult things my wife wrestled with during the same time was, “Why does it take so long for people to forgive? If you can’t forgive now, why can you in 6 months? What difference does time make?” Now I wasn’t really thinking about any of this. The tragic choices that broke my career flowed out of an emotionally-obsessive relationship and a near-suicidal clinical depression. A depression which was somehow shattered by the implosion, like the breaking of a fever. My dominant emotions were relief at having my mind and family back, and…well, anger that my “partner in crime” seemed to be walking away scot free while I bore all the consequences. Of course I didn’t “look” penitent, and you can’t expect people to extend forgiveness to the impenitent, can you?
Remembering all this now makes me think the Saintly Mule should reflect a bit on the nature of repentance and forgiveness.
Welcome to Jilted by St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
I could point you to a dozen books on the nature of forgiveness, fewer on the nature of repentance. Yet the two are supposed to work together. Let’s imagine what might be considered an ideal situation. Some evil has been done—something small like a white lie—or something worse like a betrayal of friendship or marriage. Whatever happened and however it came about, there has been a breach of peace between you and someone else. What is supposed to happen is that the offender will own the wrong they’ve done and repent of it, and the offended party will receive that confession and forgive. From here, the relationship will be restored, now stronger for having endured a hard journey.
Our experience, however, is that the ideal seldom happens. It can break down at any step. The offender may never know they’ve done harm, or never intended it, or may truly be unrepentant of it. On the other hand, the offended party may refuse to forgive or nurse an ongoing desire for vengeance. And of course, even this assumes nice clean lines between offender and offended. More often, while one party may commit the initial and obvious offense, before all the recriminations are over and the full history known, both parties often need to extend and receive forgiveness. And then the troubling question: Are some things unforgivable, harms so great that, even when these steps are taken, reconciliation never really happens?
This is a huge issue, and the Holy Ass is under no illusion that he can sort it all out in a short little homily. But I’d like to offer some thoughts from my own experience with both.
To start, let’s define our terms. While there are lots of profitable ways to define these terms, I take the center of “repentance” to be the recognition of the harm my actions have caused you and the taking responsibility for it. That is, owning what I did and knowing it to have been an evil. And the center of “forgiveness” I take to be your releasing me from further debt and recriminations. And the word “further” here is important, because repentance and forgiveness do not mitigate just consequences. I may repent, and you may forgive, and yet I may still have to endure the legal and natural consequences of my actions. Forgiveness means the releasing of your desire to hold the act against me indefinitely. It allows the offender to “do their time,” “repay their societal debt,” or however you wish to say it, and then experience restoration. And finally the “reconciliation,” which hopefully flows out of all this justice, consists of the restoring of normalized relations between the two of us. And while repentance and forgiveness do not always produce reconciliation, real reconciliation cannot happen without them.
Now the one big thing I’ve learned is just how much alike repentance and forgiveness are, even though they are usually considered opposites.
First, both repentance and forgiveness require a choice. Neither happen accidently or against your will. You cannot simply wait long enough and have them appear. My wife was right, no amount of mere time will make us either remorseful or magnanimous. Either party can be stubborn indefinitely. And neither is an easy choice. Both parties must release something in the bargain. To admit you were wrong will cost you your pride, and to release another, you must lay aside all desire for recrimination.
Well then, second, who then should go first? Repentance certainly has a logically prior place. Owning my offense can certainly grease the wheels of forgiveness in you, but it does not always do so. People can and often do refuse to forgive. That does not absolve me of the obligation to repent. But the truth is, neither need wait for the other.
Yes, I am suggesting that forgiveness can be given even before repentance has occurred. I believe so because it is the model of our Lord. St. Paul says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In this, forgiveness shows off its “eternal” quality, for God has in some real sense forgiven us in eternity, then also forgiven us temporally in the death and resurrection of Christ. Further we experience this forgiveness in the moment of our conversion, and it is fully enacted in us only in our final redemption one day.
Forgiveness is not held hostage to repentance, nor repentance to forgiveness.
So I do not believe forgiveness is held hostage to repentance, nor repentance to forgiveness. They belong together, but where the other party refuses to play their role, we must yet faithfully play our own.
It can, however, be difficult to tell when the other party really has done their part. This is so, because, third, neither repentance nor forgiveness have a single mode of expression.
You cannot measure the depth or sincerity of either by any metric of the moment. Every immediate indicator—tears, emotional fervor, use of specific words—can be fabricated intentionally or accidently, as when children figure out that they can say both “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” when they really aren’t and don’t. Adults are equally adept at this game.
Further, real repentance or forgiveness may have truly happened where none of signs are visible. I love the line in the fourth Harry Potter book, where after a long feud between Harry and his best friend Ron, it says, “Harry knew that Ron was about to apologize and suddenly he found he didn’t need to hear it.” It is a trope found often in literature that men can be reconciled without words, where women cannot be reconciled without tears. This is perhaps unfair to both sexes (I am weepier than my wife by far), but it does illustrate the point. We must not put preconditions on how repentance or forgiveness are externally clothed. True repentance may or may not be accompanied by tears and groanings. And real forgiveness may be granted where no words are even exchanged. How then are we to know whether someone had really repented or truly forgiven?
Well, fourth, we must realize that both are a journey not an event. We seldom enact them perfectly the first time we try. I mentioned my own situation, where early on I was dominated by anger and fear. I was afraid and angry and sorry. But the visible signs of repentance could not find expression until the fear and anger began to abate, and there are still days that I feel as though I have hardly begun to repent and that the heaviest travel is still ahead of me. My experience of forgiving is similar. It can be given, but then may have to be given again tomorrow, and again next month.
I know of only one way to know if either are real: wait and see. The fruit of genuine repentance and real forgiveness will out themselves on the journey. The true condition of the heart does not always or automatically translate into predictable bodily attributes. This isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s just what it means to be a body-soul organism—whatever these two parts of us really are, they don’t always talk well to each other.
The point is, however dissatisfying the clothing in which repentance or forgiveness are dressed, do not dismiss them. Simply watch. What sort of life is the person living now? What choices have they made since? If these are in harmony with real forgiveness or repentance, then you have good warrant for believing that it was real. Now you have to make a choice—continue to await a more dramatic or acceptable expression of it that will probably never come, or realize that a changed life is the truest mark, and therein discover peace.
You have to make a choice — continue to await a more dramatic or acceptable expression of it that will probably never come, or realize that a changed life is the truest mark, and therein discover peace.
Finally, as a bit of warning, realize that full reconciliation is not always possible. I do not mean because repentance may be wanting or forgiveness withheld—that certainly happens. But even where both are genuinely present, there are limits to what can happen this side of Kingdom-come. An alcoholic can certainly experience freedom from the debilitating effects of drink, but, as any member of a 12-step program will tell you, you are never fully reconciled to alcohol. You will never again in this life be able to safely “drink in moderation.”
Similarly in the case of, say, an extreme act of violence. The perpetrator may truly repent of the evil, the victims may truly forgive. And yet, it may still be best for them to go on with separate lives. To force them back into a common community may only result in the victim enduring perpetual fear and the perpetrator desolating shame. This is why the gospel of Christ always presses us to long for a fuller redemption one day—a coming time when the limitations imposed by the ongoing brokenness of the world will be overcome. We may not experience full reconciliation with our victims or perpetrators here and now, but we live in hope that God will one day overcome it with a glory that neither of us can now imagine.
That said, let us never underestimate the power of the gospel to reconcile even the worst evils here and now. Do not forget that God the Father for one has made sons and daughters out of the very people who murdered his Son. That is ultimately the bar against which our efforts are judged, but we are frail, so let us be gentle and generous with one another.
Don’t let fear, shame, or anger stop you from taking the first step on the journey. I understand that it will be an imperfect step. You may need to take it again tomorrow and the day after. That is what makes it a journey.
I ask you now to consider the people you’ve hurt as well as those who’ve hurt you. If you call yourself a follower of Christ, you have the power and the duty to enact your half of the equation now. Do not wait for the other person. Don’t let fear, shame, or anger stop you from taking the first step on the journey. I understand that it will be an imperfect step. You may need to take it again tomorrow and the day after. That is what makes it a journey. This road may even lead you to you a cross as painful as the one your Lord endured, but remember what follows death on a cross? Do not be afraid to let fear, shame, and anger die, for dying is the only path to resurrection.
This has been Jilted by St. Asinus.
 Romans 5:6-8. cf. Ephesians 2:5.
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