How to Forgive the Unforgivable

June 13, 2020

By: Claire Swinarski

Forgiveness is one of those “Christian” things that sounds easy to do. Seventy times seven, right? Isn’t that what Jesus said? If your neighbor slaps you, offer him the other cheek! We’ve all been taught that since preschool religion class—that “I’m sorry” should always be met with “I forgive you.”

But what about things that feel—well, unforgivable? 

The big things. The violence, the racism, the missed diagnosis. The lie that ruined a relationship. The sin that broke a marriage.

These are the painful places where the idea of forgiveness can seem trite. But I think it’s essential to look at what forgiveness is—and what it isn’t. 

When I interviewed Rosario Rodriguez on the Catholic Feminist Podcast, she told a story about talking to a priest about the sexual violence perpetrated against her. When he encouraged forgiveness, she thought, But what he did is not okay, and I will never forget it. But what the priest told her is that forgiveness doesn’t mean saying something is okay, and it certainly doesn’t mean forgetting. 

Forgiveness means seeing that person as an image bearer of God, impossible as that seems. 

Jesus says in 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.” 

Jesus is abundantly clear: we cannot withhold forgiveness, no matter the crime or person or situation. Rebuke them? Yes! Bring them to justice? Absolutely! Actions have worldly consequences. But forgiveness is a matter of the heart—it’s the practice of seeing the other person as what they are, a broken being made by God. 

When I’m in a season where forgiveness seems particularly difficult, I do the hardest thing we’re called to do—try and emulate Jesus.

I think of how many times I have sinned, and how horrible some of those sins have been. I think of Him on the cross, saying to God, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

I think of Him forgiving His persecutors, even though they didn’t apologize and even though they didn’t deserve it. I think of Him forgiving His persecutors, even though He surely felt human, justifiable, righteous anger. If Jesus can die for our sins and invite us to join in on the beauty of salvation, what can’t be forgiven? 

In today’s cancel culture, it can seem like the popular thing to do in a situation where someone has done wrong is to make a witty meme about it or retweet endless words of anger. But Jesus has called us to something radically unpopular: forgiveness.

Forgiveness isn’t just for the other person. It’s for us. It gives us the peace of a calm heart and the knowledge that nobody can steal our deepest joy. 

Jesus flipped tables and called for justice. But He also forgave the unforgivable. We can, and must, do both. 

Claire Swinarski is the author of multiple books, including What Happens Next (coming 2020 from HarperCollins) and Girl, Arise: A Catholic Feminist’s Invitation to Live Boldly, Love Your Faith, and Change the World. She’s also the founder of the Catholic Feminist Podcast. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Seventeen, Milwaukee Magazine, and many other publications. She lives just outside of Milwaukee, WI with her husband and two kids.

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