Evangelicals like to simplify the whole “forgiveness” equation. “Just believe in Jesus and all of your sins will be forgiven” they say. Whereas for Catholics it’s a bit of a tangled mess, involving penance, absolution, reconciliation, contrition and so on. So how does forgiveness actually work? There are a couple of key terms to consider:
Generally speaking, forgiveness follows that sequence. Lets see if we can shed some light on the “forgiveness equation” simply by clearly defining the terms involved.
An Interpersonal Ordo Salutis
Firstly, with regards to God’s attitude to us, forgiveness is unconditional and always and everywhere given. We should also strive to adopt such an attitude of being always and everywhere forgiving towards those who hurt us.
But what exactly is forgiveness? A good working definition would be “adopting an attitude of willingness to reconcile towards someone who has wronged you”. Now, it’s possible to adopt such an attitude towards someone without that someone even realising that they’ve wronged you, and without that person apologising or asking for forgiveness. According to this definition, forgiveness is compatible with anger. You can forgive someone and still be angry at them. This is how God feels towards us: he is constantly forgiving us and he never withdraws his forgiveness, even if we don’t seek it or express contrition. However he also feels angry that we do not come to him in sorrow and repentance.
So forgiveness is what you have to do as the person who has been wronged, but in order for the situation between two people to be fully repaired, the person who wronged you has responsibilities to attend to as well. Namely, they must experience and express contrition.
Confession goes hand in hand with contrition. You have to actually know what it is that you’ve done wrong, and then verbalise this to your victim. This way everyone is on the same page; everyone acknowledges that what happened was a problem.
Once you’ve named what you’ve done wrong, felt and expressed contrition, and received absolution of your guilt, you can get on with trying to actually fix the situation and return the relationship to a better state.
If forgiveness is when the person who has been wronged seeks reconciliation and begs for their oppressor to be contrite, then Contrition is when the person who commit the crime seeks reconciliation and begs for their victim to be forgiving.
Contrition is where someone fully understands the wrong that they have done and feels the pain of sorrow and regret as they consider the sinful/harmful action. Such contrition needs to be felt, but also verbalised. This is why during the sacrament of confession, prior to the formula of absolution the penitent is required to say some prayer of contrition.
When someone has wronged you, the shortest act of contrition they could deliver would simply be the word “Sorry”. Other variations are possible too, such as “I apologise”, or “Please forgive me”. When someone comes up to you and says these words, they are expressing contrition, seeking your forgiveness.
Absolution pertains to the sensation of guilt. Absolution is a promise. When God says (through the priest), “I absolve you of your sins”, this is a sacramental promise which is a shorthand way of saying something like “Don’t worry, remember that I forgive you, remember that I always forgive you. You don’t need to feel guilty about anything, so stop feeling guilty!” It’s not so much the sins that are absolved, it’s the guilt that is associated with those sins in our mind. Absolution washes away whatever guilt we might be feeling.
We can absolve each other of sin. Whenever someone feels guilty, a supreme act of mercy on the part of the victim is to say “I absolve you of your guilt, go and sin no more” to their oppressor. God delights in saying this to us, and we should delight in saying the same to each other.
Absolution rides on the back of forgiveness. It is a manifestation of forgiveness. As mentioned, it’s possible to have an attitude of forgiveness towards someone without ever telling them about it. However absolution is when you express your attitude of forgiveness to the person in question. It is only appropriate to do this after they have expressed contrition however. Forgiveness and contrition may go unexpressed, but it is only once these attitudes are verbalised and communicated that reconciliation can occur.
Penance is the third element of Reconciliation. After both contrition and forgiveness have been expressed by the criminal and the victim, there remains the fact that the actual situation has not yet been rectified. For example if the criminal stole a large sum of money from a victim, then it would make sense for the criminal to give that money back to the victim.
However discernment is necessary. Perhaps the criminal is not able to repay the debt to his victim. For example if the criminal is stealing bread to feed their children from some massive faceless corporation. In this case, it depends entirely on the mercy of the victim. If the victim is charitable enough, they might completely waive the requirement of penance, or reduce it to some token action. This often happens in Catholic penances, where a couple of prayers are proscribed, rather than some massive action.
So penance is essentially optional and depends on the mood of the victim. The victim may have already forgiven the criminal, but may still demand some sort of show of penance in order to rectify the situation as best as is possible. Then again, they may just let it go; forgive and forget.
Also known as “A firm purpose of amendment”. This is where you sincerely adopt the attitude and disposition that you will do your best not to repeat whatever fault it was that you had commit. It’s where you “turn away” and “renounce” your crimes, whatever they may be, and vow never to do them again.
This is crucial in the whole forgiveness equation, because it would be somewhat silly if you went to all the trouble of expressing contrition, seeking forgiveness, doing penance, and then immediately repeating the crime with no qualms.
The final step. The return to the original blissful state of relationship that existed prior to the fault. Once the victim and penitent have both gone through the previous 6 steps successfully, reconciliation has been achieved and all is well again. The friendship is restored.
This “sequence of forgiveness” applies both with regards to our relationship with God and our relationships with each other.
Basically, in order for reconciliation to occur,
- The victim has to adopt an attitude of forgiveness while the criminal has to simultaneously adopt an attitude of contrition.
- The criminal has to verbally confess what they’ve done and the contrition they feel.
- The victim has to verbally express their attitude of forgiveness, and thus absolve the criminal of their guilt.
- Depending on the situation, some sort of penance may be expected of the criminal by the victim. For example returning stolen goods. This may not always be possible however and therefore the victim should adopt a stance of mercy and waive this requirement as appropriate.
- The criminal makes a solemn vow of repentance, sincerely promising not to repeat the crime.
- Viola! Reconciliation has been achieved. The relationship has been restored.
Interestingly, God is never really a “victim” in the sense that he is invincible and nothing we do can really harm or offend him. For this reason, sacramental penances are more for our benefit than for his benefit, because our sins primarily harm our own souls: we are simultaneously the criminal and the victim; the one harming and the one being harmed. As such we need to be able to reconcile with our selves, we need to express contrition to our selves, and we need to forgive ourselves.
Applying this, perhaps you have commit the sin of gluttony and found yourself drastically overweight. In this case you are both the victim and the criminal. What you need to do is forgive yourself, express contrition and confess all the bad choices that led you to your obesity, and then give yourself the penance of hard exercise, to be continued until you are back in shape. Then vow never to repeat these bad decisions, and there you go: you have reconciled with yourself and restored yourself to the more perfect state from which you fell.
Here’s a summary matrix of reconciliation: