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Jan 26, 2019

Forgive That You Might Be Forgiven: Practical Tips for Letting Go

Sarah Christmyer

“Forgiveness is a beautiful idea—until you have something to forgive.” (C.S. Lewis)

Maybe you’ve heard of Corrie Ten Boom, who grew up in Holland before World War II. Her family had a hiding place for Jews in their home, and one day they were discovered and taken to Ravensbruck. Her sister and her father died there—but due to a “clerical error,” Corrie herself was released.

Rather than nursing a grudge, she spent the rest of her life preaching about God’s mercy and the importance of forgiveness. She liked to say that when we confess our sins, it’s like God throws them out into the deepest ocean—and then he posts a sign: “No fishing allowed.”

In 1947, Corrie was in Germany, talking about that very thing. She looked up and saw a man coming forward: one of the guards, a particularly cruel man from Ravensbruck. Everything flooded back and she was filled with hatred. But he came up to her, smiling, saying that he had found Jesus and was a changed man. “Isn’t it wonderful! You are so right – he casts our sins to the bottom of the sea. But I have wanted to be forgiven by someone who was there.” He put out his hand: “Will you forgive me, Fraulein?”

Forgiveness Is Only Fair

Corrie stood there, frozen. She could not forgive him. How could she? Her sister had died in that place! So many had died. But she had to forgive. She remembered Jesus saying, “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will I forgive you.” Then she thought about Jesus dying on the cross, asking the Father to forgive those who condemned him. “Jesus, help me!” She summoned up all her willpower and extended her hand, asking God to supply what she could not find within herself. As she describes it, a wave of warmth rushed down her arm and she was able to say, with what she knew was God’s love, “I forgive you!”

We all have received the mercy of God. He has forgiven our sins, washed them away—even though we don’t deserve it. This is why St. Paul can say in Ephesians 4:31-32:

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander
be put away from you, with all malice,
and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,
as God in Christ forgave you.”

We can forgive others because God forgave us, and for the same reason it is our duty to forgive others. We must do so, in fact, or God will not forgive us (Matthew 6:15). Does this sound harsh? The Catechism explains that God’s “outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love … is indivisible; we cannot love the God we can’t see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see.” (CCC 2840)

What Forgiveness Is and What It Is Not

If you’re like me, it’s hard to forgive even knowing this is true. It helps to keep a few things in mind:

  • Forgiveness is not an emotion, it’s an act of the will; an act of love. You don’t have to feel forgiving to forgive.
  • Forgiving does not mean forgetting. That’s denial.
  • Forgiving doesn’t mean excusing the wrong or saying it doesn’t matter. Things that don’t matter don’t need to be forgiven. Forgiveness says, “I know what you did. It hurt. But I won’t hold it against you.”
  • Forgiveness is letting go of your “right” to be right. It means offering up your anger, letting go of your desire for revenge—and leaving justice to God.
  • Finally, don’t confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. Reconciliation requires repentance—but forgiveness does not. From the cross, Jesus forgave people who had not repented and maybe never would. We must do the same.

If you think forgiveness is hard, you’re not alone. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

“Forgiveness is the Christ-like suffering which is the Christian’s duty to share.”

Corrie Ten Boom used to ask people who came to her with their own stories of hurt and bitterness, “Can you forgive [this person]?”

“No? I can’t either. But God can.”

The Practicality of Letting Go

From my experience, I offer three practical steps to help you forgive:

  1. Take your mind off of the person you can’t forgive. Do not allow yourself to grumble, or justify your situation, or feel sorry for yourself, or dream about ways to get even. Kill those thoughts as soon as you see them coming.
  2. Remember that you are a sinner too. Recall specific ways you’ve needed forgiveness. Ask God to help you, if you can’t. Go to confession if you need to. Meditate on the Psalms. Practice being grateful for the mercy God has shown you.

Every time that person comes to mind, say the words “I forgive you” whether you feel it or not. Make it an act of the will and ask the Holy Spirit to pour God’s love into your heart. Over time, start asking God to bless the person. Romans 12:14 says:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Force yourself to do it. Make it a habit. And watch how that sets your heart free.

This article was first published on The Great Adventure Blog on January 23, 2014. 

Photo of Berlin Holocaust Memorial by Giulia Gasperini on Unsplash

You May Also Like:

Forgiveness (Ascension Presents video with Fr. Mike Schmitz)

The Despair of Judas versus the Sorrow of Peter: A Lifesaving Difference

Forgiveness in Belfast Northern Ireland (Jeff Cavins podcast)

Sarah Christmyer

About Sarah Christmyer

Sarah Christmyer is co-developer with Jeff Cavins of The Great Adventure Catholic Bible study program. She is author or co-author of a number of the studies. Sarah has thirty years of experience leading and teaching Bible studies. She helped launch Catholic Scripture Study and is co-author of “Genesis Part I: God and His Creation” and “Genesis Part II: God and His Family,” published by Emmaus Road. Raised in a strong evangelical family, she was received into the Catholic Church in 1992. Sarah also writes at

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  • I love it, Sarah! Using the barbed wire to illustrate at the very beginning is more
    than a graphic symbol of Corrie ten Boom’s imprisonment. It describes the
    act of forgiveness, the reaching out of the hand thinking the barb will
    puncture the soft palm of the hand and further disfigure and hurt.
    Instead, it is the palm of Christ which has already been nailed to the cross
    and instead of blood flowing, it is the love of Christ.

  • Thanks Madam Sarah for your teaching to enlighten us on nature of forgiveness of sins with your five reminders that also includes how we differentiate forgiveness and reconciliation, where reconciliation requires repentance, while forgiveness does not. A perfect example as you cited when Jesus on the cross, uttered, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Your recommended three practical steps to forgive others is viewed as kind of self-discipline. However, we have not yet satisfied God whom we ultimately offended and the lose of grace and promised eternal life, we have not appease God of His wrath. In other word, how does forgiveness done according to the Bible?

    The Bible teaches that all pardon for sins ultimately comes from Christ’s finished work on Calvary. But how is this pardon received by individuals? Did Christ leave us any means within the Church to take away sin? The Bible says he gave us two means; Baptism and the Penance. Bu let us not forget at Mass we are also asking for forgiveness and the Eucharist united us to Christ as we receive the whole of Christ, soul and divinity.

    Baptism was given to take away the sin inherited from Adam (original
    sin) and any sins we personally committed before baptism—sins we
    personally commit are called actual sins, because they come from our own acts. Thus on the day of Pentecost, Peter told the crowds, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the
    forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy
    Spirit” (Acts 2:38), and when Paul was baptized he was told, “And now
    why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). And so Peter later wrote, “Baptism . . . now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21). For sins committed after baptism, a different sacrament is needed. It
    has been called penance, confession, and reconciliation, each word
    emphasizing one of its.aspects. During his life, Christ forgave sins, as
    in the case of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11) and the woman
    who anointed his feet (Luke 7:48). He exercised this power in his human
    capacity as the Messiah or Son of man, telling us, “the Son of man has
    authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9:6), which is why the Gospel
    writer himself explains that God “had given such authority to men”
    (Matt. 9:8).

    God had sent Jesus to forgive sins, but after his resurrection Jesus
    told the apostles, “‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And
    when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive
    the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if
    you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:21–23). (This
    is one of only two times we are told that God breathed on man, the other
    being in Genesis 2:7, when he made man a living soul. It emphasizes how important the establishment of the sacrament of penance was.)

    The power Christ gave the apostles was twofold: to forgive sins or to
    hold them bound, which means to retain them unforgiven. Several things
    follow from this. First, the apostles could not know what sins to
    forgive and what not to forgive unless they were first told the sins by
    the sinner. This implies confession. Second, their authority was not
    merely to proclaim that God had already forgiven sins or that he would
    forgive sins if there were proper repentance. Such interpretations don’t account for the distinction between forgiving and retaining—nor do they account for the importance given to the utterance in John 20:21–23. If God has already forgiven all of a man’s sins, or will forgive them all (past and future) upon a single act of repentance, then it makes little sense to tell the apostles they have been given the power to “retain” sins, since forgiveness would be all-or-nothing and nothing could be “retained.”

    Is the Catholic who confesses his sins to a priest any better off than
    the non-Catholic who confesses directly to God? Yes. First, he seeks
    forgiveness the way Christ intended. Second, by confessing to a priest,
    the Catholic learns a lesson in humility, which is avoided when one
    confesses only through private prayer. Third, the Catholic receives
    sacramental graces the non-Catholic doesn’t get; through the sacrament
    of penance sins are forgiven and graces are obtained. Fourth, the
    Catholic is assured that his sins are forgiven; he does not have to rely
    on a subjective “feeling.” Lastly, the Catholic can also obtain sound
    advice on avoiding sin in the future.

  • In addition, we receive grace, and what is grace?
    If you took your parish’s catechism classes when you were growing up,
    you at least remember that there are two kinds of grace, sanctifying
    and actual. That may be all you recall. The names being so similar, you
    might have the impression sanctifying grace is nearly identical to
    actual grace. Not so.

    Sanctifying grace stays in the soul. It’s what makes the soul holy;
    it gives the soul supernatural life. More properly, it is supernatural
    life. While, Actual grace, by contrast, is a supernatural push or encouragement. It’s
    transient. It doesn’t live in the soul, but acts on the soul from the
    outside, so to speak. It’s a supernatural kick in the pants. It gets the
    will and intellect moving so we can seek out and keep sanctifying

    Imagine yourself transported instantaneously to the bottom of the
    ocean. What’s the very first thing you’ll do? That’s right: die. You’d
    die because you aren’t equipped to live underwater. You don’t have the
    right breathing apparatus. If you want to live in the deep blue sea, you need equipment you aren’t provided with naturally; you need something that will elevate you
    above your nature, something super- (that is, “above”) natural, such as
    oxygen tanks. It’s much the same with your soul. In its natural state, it isn’t fit
    for heaven. It doesn’t have the right equipment, and if you die with
    your soul in its natural state, heaven won’t be for you. What you need
    to live there is supernatural life, not just natural life. That supernatural life is called sanctifying grace. The reason you need sanctifying grace to be able to live in heaven is because you will be in perfect and absolute union with God, the source of all life (cf. Gal.
    2:19, 1 Pet. 3:18).

    If sanctifying grace dwells in your soul when you die, then you have
    the equipment you need, and you can live in heaven (though you may need
    to be purified first in purgatory; cf. 1 Cor. 3:12–16). If it doesn’t
    dwell in your soul when you die—in other words, if your soul is
    spiritually dead by being in the state of mortal sin (Gal. 5:19-21)— you
    cannot live in heaven. You then have to face an eternity of spiritual
    death: the utter separation of your spirit from God (Eph. 2:1, 2:5,
    4:18). The worst part of this eternal separation will be that you
    yourself would have caused it to be that way.

  • When we receive forgiveness of our sins, we become born again and when we sin again, we become born against!! Really?? But, are Catholics born again?

    Catholics and Protestants agree that to be saved, you have to be born
    again. Jesus said so: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born
    again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). When a Catholic says that he has been “born again,” he refers to the transformation that God’s grace accomplished in him during baptism. Evangelical Protestants typically mean something quite different when
    they talk about being “born again.”

    For an Evangelical, becoming “born again” often happens like this: He goes
    to a crusade or a revival where a minister delivers a sermon telling him
    of his need to be “born again.” “If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and believe he died for your sins, you’ll be born again!” says the preacher. So the gentleman makes
    “a decision for Christ” and at the altar call goes forward to be led in
    “the sinner’s prayer” by the minister. Then the minister tells all who
    prayed the sinner’s prayer that they have been saved—”born again.” But
    is the minister right? Not according to the Bible.

    So the answer to the question, “Are Catholics born again?” is yes! Since all Catholics have been baptized, all Catholics have been born again. Catholics should ask Protestants, “Are you born again—the way the Bible understands that concept?” If the Evangelical has not been properly water baptized, he has not been born again “the Bible way,” regardless of what he may think.

  • Hello Ms. Christmyer, thank you for the article, but I perhaps should comment on the statement about forgiving without repentance. I recommend reading this article by the faithful lay apostolate Catholic Answers –
    We learn from it that we have no obligation to forgive those who are not sorry, who don’t repent.
    The article quotes Luke 17:3-4, which is applicable here: “[I]f your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
    We also read in the article, “Some will say at this point, “Didn’t Jesus forgive everyone from the cross when he said, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’ in Luke 23:34?” Actually, he didn’t. He petitioned the Father for those who had beaten and crucified him to be forgiven, revealing his will that “all men . . . be saved” (I Tim. 2:4). But this was not a declaration that even these men were actually forgiven, much less a declaration that he was forgiving everyone for all time.”
    Jeff Cavins’ association with Catholic Answers may be an indicator that you are familiar with this excellent, faithful-to-the-Truth apostolate also.
    Hopefully my comment will be helpful, thank you. 🙂

    • Thank you, Kyle. Yes, I’m very familiar with Catholic Answers and often point people in their direction. And that’s a very nice discussion by Tim Staples. I really like his distinction between being required to forgive and being required to love.

      • Of course! Thank you for responding, thank you very much :). Yes, Catholic Answers is a wonderful apostolate, I’m a frequenter of their site, and have purchased some of the materials from their shop. It’s great to have an online source that is faithful to the Magisterium and has so much info, continuously updated with new articles. And yes, it is a good distinction to make – before I read that article, I was misinformed! I may have believed that we must forgive regardless of contrition. I was mistaken :). Thank you for responding, and may God bless you and your good work! Thank you for what you do.

        • And don’t let my comment reduce forgiveness – certainly, of course, we can forgive even when not obliged, such as in the case of Saint John Paul the Great as you mentioned in another comment. Forgiveness is truly important :).

        • Note that Mr. Staples says we must offer forgiveness, as God does; for that forgiveness to actually come full circle and take place, it must be properly received. The problem in our hearts comes when we refuse to offer forgiveness until it is asked of us. If we carry the attitude that we will only forgive when obliged, our hearts close in. It is a very hard thing to forgive someone who is not sorry. In fact, it can be impossible. But what is impossible for people IS possible for God. He gives more grace! (Jas 4:6). Thanks be to God.

          • Yes, thanks be to God for His grace, for we are weak, but He is strong! And thank you, yes, that is important, regarding the offering of forgiveness. I was pleased reading what you wrote about Saint John Paul the Great below – he is perhaps a great example of forgiving one without having contrition evident on their part. I wasn’t aware of those goings-on with our Holy Father’s forgiveness and the later reconciliation before I read your comment. What an example :).

          • “Hardness of heart” is an emotion; true forgiveness is an act of the will and intellect. It may “feel good”, but that is secondary. I can release my anger towards the person so as to not harden my heart, a very worthwhile and beneficial action for me and those around me. Retention of anger leads to “Hardness of heart”, NOT unforgiveness.

  • Actually, Jose Samilin’s comment about grace seems to include quotes material from a Catholic Answers article.

  • Thank you for this article Sarah! I have found it very interesting. I just have one question that has come up in my own Bible reading. How can we follow the verses that you have given and also follow Christ’s words at Luke 17:3,4:

    ““If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.””

    In this passage, Christ seems to be telling me that repentance IS a prerequisite for forgiveness if the sin is committed by a “brother or sister”. Maybe forgiveness without repentance is possible if the sinner is not a “brother or a sister”, perhaps an unbeliever, a “Gentile” as Jesus often called them, but that a “brother or sister” must repent to receive forgiveness.

    It is a conundrum that I have asked in my own church tradition and no one has yet found an answer to it. What do you think, Sarah? Do you see how to harmonize this passage with the others? I can’t, but I would like to find a satisfying answer.

    • Good question!

      As you noted, this passage from Luke 17 is dealing with the issue of how individuals within the Christian community are to handle sin. Presumably there were societal norms for how to treat someone who harms you; Jesus is teaching them to live as his disciples and not according to the world.

      Jesus’s answer is to first rebuke the person (so far, probably the same step as if you were going by society’s rules). The astonishing, very different thing that Jesus then proposes is that if you do that and the person says they’re sorry, you forgive them! Even if they do it again and again and again that very day, which might call into question the sincerity of their apology: you forgive them. It’s God’s job, not ours, to judge another’s heart. In this passage, the Lord is not making the point that repentance is a prerequisite for forgiveness, but that forgiveness is the absolutely necessary response to repentance. “Lord, increase our faith!” the disciples answer. They can’t believe they’re being called to forgive to this extent.

      One thing to keep clear is that there’s a difference between being offered forgiveness and being finally forgiven, and this sometimes clouds the discussion.
      Forgiveness is like electricity in that a complete circuit is needed for it to take effect. It must be (1) offered by the offended party and (2) received properly by the guilty if the person is to be forgiven. That is true of the forgiveness the Lord offers to us. It is always on offer; but to receive it, we must repent, reject sin, turn around, etc. That is true for the believer or unbeliever alike. I don’t believe it’s any different for the forgiveness we offer. It must be received through repentance. But if someone won’t repent, that doesn’t mean we don’t stand ready to forgive if they do.

      As Christians, we are required to forgive those who ask us for forgiveness, whoever they are (Christian or not). But we can also do more! Jesus holds out to us the grand opportunity and the possibility, by his grace, of breaking the chain of retribution that characterizes the world that doesn’t know him. We can become like him by forgiving even our enemies—who presumably are not apologizing for their actions. Jesus tells us to go the second mile, to turn the other cheek (actions born of a forgiving heart) – and not just if they repent. Those enemies might never repent and therefore never “be forgiven” but that does not mean that they should not be offered forgiveness. Surely in our hearts, we should aim for mercy. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the older brother clung to his right not to forgive – and was asked to show mercy like the father. Jesus asked the Father, from the Cross, to forgive those who crucified him. Will they in the end be forgiven that crime? That must depend on whether they turn to God and repent and receive his forgiveness. He doesn’t force his love on anyone.

      I love the example of St. John Paul II. He forgave the man who tried to kill him, before learning whether he was sorry, and asked all Catholics to pray for him. Two(?) years later, the Pope visited him in prison and they were reconciled. 30 years later, Agca placed flowers on JPII’s grave. Perhaps that man will be in heaven one day, because the one he wronged was willing to extend the undeserved gift of forgiveness.

      Does this help with your question?

      • Dear Sarah,

        Thank you for your answer. It is helpful but not complete satisfying. I think that some of your statements are confusing several situations involving Jesus with statements he made and applying the label “forgiveness” to all of them.

        Let me formulate my conundrum another way. As you quoted in the article, Ephesians 4:31-32 says,

        “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ Forgave you.”

        And Jesus said in Matthew 6:13-15: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

        On another occasion, Jesus was even stronger, in Mark 11:25: “And when you stand praying, forgive whatever you have against anyone, so that your Father who is in the heavens may also forgive you your trespasses”

        These three passages seem to imply that Christians are required to forgive others, even invading soldiers who threaten our lives and our family’s lives, men who violently continue to abuse their wives despite their pleading, children abused by their parents, Christians who are victims of slanderous gossip (as sometimes happens in my church) and for which no repentance is ever shown, even after the elders have handled the matter (as happened to me), all without repentance.

        Yet God does not forgive all sins. He requires the sinner to ask for forgiveness in prayer, as the Lord showed in the Our Father prayer. Why ask the Father: “Forgive us our sins”, if in fact, God forgave us our since without repentance?

        In fact, Jesus explained to us that “speaking against the holy spirit” will never be forgiven, neither in this world, nor the world to come, presumably, even if there were repentance, while “speaking against the Son of man” could be forgiven.

        Is God asking us to forgive more generously than He does? He tells us to ask Him for forgiveness, but does he want us to forgive others without their asking us for forgiveness?

        Yet Luke 17:3 seems to show, as Kyle Taggart also showed, that the person must repent of his sin and “IF” he repents, forgive him. It seems to me that the words of the Lord imply that “IF” he doesn’t repent, after a “rebuke”, then you are not obligated to forgive the “brother”.

        That is my conundrum expressed more clearly. How can I harmonize these passages? I wrote to the US Branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, but they were not able to answer my query. In fact, they answered other queries I had included in the same letter, but did not give an answer about this one.

        Yet I still want to live by Christ’s commands, as I see everyone on this page does, showing that you are sincere, believing Roman Catholics, just as I am a sincere, believing Witness of Jehovah. Maybe Catholic scholars have found a way to harmonize these passages. That is why I came here, because our scholars seem to have two opinions on this matter in different articles published in our magazines. In fact, that contradiction was the exact query in my letter.

        I think I have found a solution on my own, but would like to see if anyone here has another one. Who knows? You may come up with the same one I have!

        Thanks in advance for your help, Sarah and perhaps Kyle too.

        • I am responsible for me and my attitude, not for judging whether another person deserves to be forgiven. That’s God’s job. It is also not in my power to pronounce someone finally forgiven. Only God who knows the person’s heart can do that. So the dilemma over words is a distraction. What IS in my power is to extend my forgiveness; to determine in my heart not to hold a sin against the other. [By this I do not mean the axe murderer should not be punished. Neither consequences nor the need for penance are lifted by absolution.]

          When I say I forgive someone, I’m not pronouncing a sentence that the person is finally absolved of sin. That’s impossible. Even if he asks for forgiveness – he might not mean it. I have no way of knowing. By extending my forgiveness first, I throw the one who hurt me a lifeline: an invitation to turn toward God, to confess and be freed from the burden of his sin. Alas, he does not have to take it. But if he does, and repents . . . what a great thing has been accomplished!

          The alternative—that I withhold my forgiveness—hardens my heart in resentment and desire for judgment. It is the kind of attitude that leads to murder in the heart.

          Which disposition does Jesus desire to see in my heart? Not judgment, but mercy. It isn’t easy. But thank God for his grace.

    • Does God forgive us if we do not ask for it? No. If he did, then we would all be guaranteed salvation! We’re not. We are not required to do more than God. Repentance does make forgiveness mandatory. Forgiveness without repentance is spiritually beneficial, but it is not required by God.

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