Unforgiveness Is The Cause...

"Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you." —Colossians 3:13

When I was first ordained a priest, I believed that over 50 percent of all problems were at least in part due to unforgiveness. After ten years in ministry, I revised my estimate and maintained 75 to 80 percent of all health, marital, family, and financial problems came from unforgiveness. Now, after more than twenty years in ministry, I have concluded that over 90 percent of all problems are rooted in unforgiveness.


If most problems come from unforgiveness, we can understand why Jesus emphasizes forgiveness to an extreme degree. When Peter suggested to Jesus that we should forgive seven times, he was correct (Mt 18:21). "Seven" in the Bible stands for an indefinite number of times; so Peter was saying we should forgive indefinitely. This is the correct answer, but not the correct emphasis. Jesus proclaims we should forgive "seventy times seven," indefinitely times indefinitely (Mt 18:22). Jesus further emphasizes forgiveness by saying God's kingdom is a matter of forgiveness and those who do not forgive are handed over to torturers (Mt 18:23-34). And when the disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray, Jesus told them to pray that they be forgiven as they forgive (Mt 6:12). This means prayer will hurt rather than help us if we do not forgive. This is the only point in the Lord's prayer on which Jesus commented. He reiterated: "If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you" (Mt 6:14-15). Jesus insists on forgiveness. We must pass on the forgiveness He has given us by the shedding of His blood on Calvary.


Why do we refuse to forgive? Are we controlling those who have hurt us by punishing them and thereby protecting ourselves from further harm? Not really. When we try to manipulate others through unforgiveness, they rebel. Our enemies suffer minimally from our unforgiveness compared with the damage we do to ourselves. The verdict we pass on others is passed on us (Mt 7:2). Unforgiveness is a fatal poison which cuts us off from forgiveness (Mt 6:12,15), healing (Sir 28:3), prayer (Mk 11:24-25), and worship (Mt 5:23-24).

Then, when we are separated from these graces, we are handed over to torturers (Mt 18:34). These torturers are not people, but worse. They are such experiences as fear, depression, frustration, anxiety, self-hatred, and loneliness. As these and other torturers work us over, we deteriorate to a level of existence which is characterized by fruitless, compulsive, escapist activities.


We must forgive others and ourselves or destroy ourselves. Yet it is humanly impossible to forgive. "To err is human, to forgive is divine." Only God can forgive. To forgive another is more miraculous than healing someone in the most advanced stages of cancer. But God will do this miracle for us.

However, many times we do not ask for the miracle of forgiveness because we are deceived by the devil into thinking we have already forgiven another. Many people help deceive themselves by re-defining forgiveness to be the control of hostile feelings instead of a merciful expression of love. Forgiveness is not a feeling but a decision to accept God's grace to let go of holding others sins against them. Forgiveness is to extend loving mercy to those who have offended us. The Lord calls us to forgive affectionately, generously and mercifully, as the father of the prodigal son did (Lk 15:20ff). The following diagnostic questions can help us know if we've deceived ourselves about forgiving others.

  1. Am I conscious that God gave me the grace to forgive and that I did not do it myself? If you are not aware that God did it, He may not have.
  2. Can I picture myself embracing the other person? (see Lk 15:20)
  3. Do I appreciate Confession (the Sacrament of Reconciliation) and celebrate it frequently? If we are forgiving graciously and lovingly, we are being forgiven in this way. This would attract us to Confession.

While a "no" answer to one of these questions doesn't mean we've not forgiven, it's a bad sign.


The essence of forgiveness by God's standards is the giving of mercy. Mercy means to treat others better than they deserve. When we extend mercy to those who have offended us, we kiss prodigal sons, give presents to offenders, and have special celebrations in honor of our enemies. These people don't deserve this, and that is what mercy is all about. We don't deserve the redemptive death of God's Son, the shedding of His blood, and eternal happiness. However, He has given them to us because of His mercy.

The Lord expects us to pass on to others the merciful forgiveness we have received from Him. We are reluctant to do this because of the high cost of extending mercy. Although Jesus has paid the price for mercy by His death on Calvary, He lets us share in His sufferings (see Col 1:24). For example, if someone hits your car, you can have mercy on them and pay for it yourself. That mercy may cost you $800.00. That is some of the cheapest mercy you'll ever give. What if your husband told you that he had committed adultery but that he would never do it again? He wanted you to take him back and help put your marriage back together. If you have mercy on him, you will take a tremendous emotional, psychological, and spiritual loss. You will feel like making your husband pay for his adultery as much as possible because at first you don't have to pay for it as much if you take it out on him.

Mercy is so expensive that we don't want to think of it. Pope John Paul II taught: "The present day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and the concept of 'mercy' seems to cause uneasiness in man" (Rich In Mercy, 2). In a world of gross injustices, we feel embarrassed to talk of mercy to victims of such gross injustices as violence, rape, abuse, and racism. However, when we have mercy, we are not condoning sin but loving sinners. In fact, the more we love sinners, the more we hate the sin that degrades them. We must follow the example of Jesus, the most victimized Person Who has ever lived. He said: "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34). Then He extended His mercy by promising the good thief that he would be in paradise that very day (Lk 23:43). Even as Jesus died, He poured forth the abundant stream of mercy.

In the Old Testament, the gold plate over the ark of the covenant was called the "propitiatory," or "mercy-seat." Here Yahweh sat in all His mercy. The New Testament fulfillment of the mercy-seat is the tabernacle. Come before the tabernacle, into the presence of the eucharistic Jesus. Ask for mercy to come to you and through you. You may even put out your hand and touch the tabernacle, the new mercy-seat. With that touch, you can receive what the hemorrhaging woman experienced when she touched the hem of Jesus' robe (see Lk 8:46). You will experience God's power and the miracle of mercy.

Sometimes, we are like the unforgiving brother of the prodigal son (Lk 15:28) or like Jonah in his hatred of the cruel, murderous Ninevites (Jon 3:10-4:1). If we see that we have not forgiven by extending God's mercy, we should repent and simply pray to be willing to forgive. God will give us the willingness. We should then celebrate this forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.


The sign of forgiveness is outstretched arms. The forgiving father threw his arms around the neck of the prodigal son and kissed him (Lk 15:20). Jesus received the embrace and kiss of Judas, and forgave him (Mk 14:45). Finally, Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross and would have embraced us all if we had not nailed His arms to the cross. Right now, imagine yourself embracing each one you need to forgive. By God's grace and in His mercy make the decision to forgive each person for each offense against you. Say audibly: "By God's grace, I decide to forgive (name of person) for (name of sin). Now go and embrace these people. If this is impossible, call or write them without delay. If they are aware of problems in their relationship with you, apologize to them and ask them to forgive you for not forgiving them. Then give them a gift (see Lk 15:22ff). Show the mercy of our forgiving Father. If those you need to forgive have died or are not able to be contacted, ask Jesus to contact them and pass on your forgiveness. Don't lose any time (Mt 5:25). Receive the miracle of forgiveness now!


Nihil obstat: Reverend Robert L. Hagedorn, May 25, 1996.
Imprimatur: † Most Reverend Carl K. Moeddel, Vicar General and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, May 29, 1996.