Forgiving Others (When They Don’t Think They Need Your Forgiveness)
There is a long-standing Christian tradition that teaches we must always forgive others regardless of whether or not they have said they’re sorry, repented or sought our forgiveness. While I understand - and approve of - the motivation behind such teaching, I believe this teaching itself misses the mark on several counts.
On the one hand, the motivation behind such teaching is obvious: holding on to anger, hurt and unforgiveness can cause immense psychological, spiritual and, ultimately, even physical harm to us. On the other hand, the teaching that we must forgive someone who has never acknowledged the harm they have caused us appears to me to be a misinterpretation of biblical teaching and a misunderstanding of the nature of forgiveness.
It’s important to recognize that God Himself does not forgive until there is repentance. A survey of biblical teaching about forgiveness seems to make the principle quite clear. I could list dozens of texts in which repentance is clearly indicated as a necessary precursor to God’s granting of forgiveness. Typical passages include:
2 Chronicles 7:13-14 13 "If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, 14 and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Mark 1:4 4 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Luke 17:3-4 “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
Luke 24:46-47 46 and He said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
Acts 2:38 38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 5:31 31 “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.
Acts 8:22 22 "Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you.
Such texts make explicit the connection between repentance and forgiveness. However, even “forgiveness” passages that do not explicitly mention repentance seem, in nearly every instance, to assume its presence in the equation. Luke 23:34 ("Father forgive them for they know not what they do") might be an exception to this otherwise consistent rule, but it need not be taken this way. Jesus' request is not necessarily that his tormentor's sins would be forgiven apart from their repentance but that God would be willing to forgive them if and when they repented. In other words, Jesus was demonstrating here his willingness to offer forgiveness even to those who had treated him in the worst, most defiling ways. It would have been perfectly understandable for the early Christians to have thought that Jesus' atoning sacrifice would have bought forgiveness for "ordinary" sinners while excluding those who had a direct hand in Jesus' death, but Jesus here expresses the universality of his offer of forgiveness. However, since the larger and clearer teaching on forgiveness in the Old and New Testaments predicates the actual experience of forgiveness on repentance there is no reason to to see this instance as an exception.
The reason that repentance is required for forgiveness is both simple and profound. At the end of the day, the debt of our sin is the only thing that is ours and ours alone, and for this reason it will not – indeed cannot - be removed without our permission. Our lives, our possessions, even our capacity for goodness…these we owe ultimately to God. I am not saying that there is no human cooperation or free will involved, only that anything we may choose to do with borrowed time and talent must ultimately revert back to the originator and owner of the raw materials. But the debt of our sin…now that we own free and clear. God cannot take it from us because it is, by His own choice, beyond His reach. He has given us the right to create a room in our lives that is utterly bereft of His light. That’s what sin is: the not-God, the not-love, the not-light. He could, of course, enter that room whenever He liked – He is sovereign after all - but the moment He did so, the dark would cease to be. And to the extent that the darkness is us, a manifestation of our God-given ability to choose to be independent of Him, He cannot obliterate it without obliterating us…or at least the us as He intended us to be able to be.
So, the debt of our sin is kept on a ledger locked in a dark room to which God has no access unless we grant it. He is ready and willing to cancel out the debt, but we must first grant Him access to the ledger. And this is something we can never do so long as we refuse to acknowledge that the debt is real and that the ledger is unbalanced. Repentance is the key that unlocks the room where we keep a debt wholly our own but utterly beyond our ability to repay.
Now, if repentance is necessary before God Himself can grant forgiveness, then how can we possibly ask fallen human beings to forgive each other before there has been repentance? When someone sins against you – and I am assuming here that they have actually done so; that their supposed sin is not a matter of your own invention – they own that debt. You cannot pay it for them. You have no access to the ledger even if you were so inclined as to cancel the debt. You might be perfectly willing to forgive them, but unless they recognize the debt and turn to you for its cancellation, they will never be able to apply your forgiveness to the debt in question.
The Bible clearly teaches that repentance is necessary before humans forgive one another:
Luke 17:3-4 3 "Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 "And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him."
It is sometimes noted that not every text of this sort specifies the necessity of repentance. For instance:
Matthew 18:21-22 21 Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
However, the immediate context of this verse clearly implies the importance of repentance in this transaction:
Matthew 18:23-27 23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 "When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 "But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 "So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.' 27 "And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.
Here, the slave’s request for patience necessarily requires the recognition that the debt was valid. There is no denial that he had accrued the debt nor a claim that it was unjust to expect repayment. While the word “repentance” is not explicit in the text, the concept is unmistakable and this must inform our understanding of Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question in vv. 21-22. Though Jesus did not explicitly say “you must forgive him if he repents”, repentance is an implied condition in both Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer.
Some might argue that Jesus was often willing to forgive people who came to him even though there is no mention that such individuals were “repenting”:
Luke 7:37-38 37 And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, 38 and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume […]48 Then He said to her, "Your sins have been forgiven."
While it is true that there is no explicit statement of repentance here, the woman’s entire orientation to Jesus implies it: she came to him instead of running from him. She presented herself vulnerable before him in a place where she had every reason to expect condemnation. She shed tears that were almost certainly of remorse. She may not have said “I repent” but she could not have actually repented any more clearly.
What I am saying is simply that repentance is a necessary prerequisite for forgiveness, whether it is coming from God or from one another. And for this reason I say that we do not have to – indeed cannot – forgive someone who has wronged us until they ask for our forgiveness.
But…this does not mean that we who have been wronged are free to wallow in anger, bitterness and resentment, constantly holding our unforgiveness over the heads of those who have wronged us. In this respect I must agree with the traditional teaching about forgiveness, which says that holding on to our hurt will only amplify it and lead us into sin. I could not agree more. What I disagree with is the notion that the opposite of holding on to our hurt is granting forgiveness even when it isn’t desired.
The problem with such teaching is two-fold. First, it asks human beings to do something that even God does not do. Second, it mistakenly equates forgiveness with grace. They are not the same thing.
Let me say this as bluntly as possible: we do not have to forgive those who do not ask for it, but we are required as Christians to extend grace to those who do not ask for it. Forgiveness is always conditional (upon repentance), but grace is never conditional. The very nature of grace precludes such an absurdity. The moment that grace is withheld until some condition is met, it ceases to be grace entirely. Grace is, by its very definition, undeserved. The idea of a conditional grace is every bit as meaningless as the idea of a square circle.
Forgiveness is the cancelling out of a debt of sin. Grace is the willingness to move towards someone in spite of that debt. Forgiveness actually cancels a debt, grace demonstrates the willingness to cancel that debt.
As you might imagine, grace is quite often the very thing that breaks down the obstacles to repentance, and repentance, once present, allows forgiveness to enter in. Certainly it was that way with us and God. His grace, His undeserved kindness towards us, shattered our resistance and gave us the confidence to open the door with our repentance and give Him access to the ledger holding the debt we no longer tried to deny. And it often works that way in our relationships with each other as well. It is very often the case that the willingness to continue moving towards someone who has wronged us is the very thing that leads to the genuine request for forgiveness.
We cannot forgive someone who refuses to admit that they have done us wrong. God does not do this for us and He does not require this of us. But, He does require His people to follow His lead and that means that He requires us to be willing to move towards someone who has wronged us even if they are not yet willing to admit that this is what they have done.
Please understand that I am not saying that those who have been deeply wronged should foolishly put themselves back into harm’s way. Grace can give way to foolishness in a way that would fail to honor your worth as God’s Image and I would never want to push anyone into that. I am simply saying that God expects us to be willing to extend forgiveness when repentance comes and that this willingness necessarily requires enough of a movement – cautious and careful though it may need to be – towards those who have wronged us that they know that forgiveness is a possibility should they come to see their need of it.
Now, I’ve had many conversations over the years with people who have been hurt very badly and who struggle greatly with the teaching that they must forgive those who have hurt them even though those people think they have done nothing wrong. Though I’m saying that forgiveness is not required or even possible in such circumstances, I’m fully aware that the call to extend grace is not all that much easier a road.
Extending grace rather than forgiveness to those who have wronged us yet refuse to acknowledge it is not an easier road to walk, but it is a different road and I think that matters. I think that the distinction between forgiveness and grace has at least two advantages.
First, it allows us to stop wearing ourselves out trying to maintain the fiction that we’ve really forgiven someone who doesn’t think they need our forgiveness. When we say “I forgive you” to someone who doesn’t think they need it and hasn’t asked for it, it’s like we’re trying to apply jelly to Scotch-guarded toast…it just keeps sliding off, forcing us to gather it up again and try over and over to apply it. Forgiveness is, in some sense, a transaction and until the transaction is complete, we’re forced to constantly keep dealing with the funds bouncing back and forth between our accounts. That is exhausting, but what a relief it is to be able to say “I have the funds available to cancel your debt. They’re right here whenever you’re ready to make use of them.” The teaching that says we have to forgive even when they don’t want our forgiveness is crippling. We struggle to do it because we have been told that it’s what God expects of us, but we know that we have not succeeded, forcing us to pretend, to put up a false face whose maintenance will weary our very souls. But the practice of grace, which says “I cannot forgive you until you ask for it, but I can still approach you and let you know how much I long for us to be reconciled in truth rather than in fiction”…that is a relief that cannot be expressed in words.
Second, the practice of grace rather than false forgiveness – and remember that forgiveness is transactional and until it is requested, extended and accepted it is never true forgiveness - provides a context for real transformation. There is little hope for real transformation and healing when we say that we are forgiving those who don’t think they need it. All we have done at that point is agree to stop calling attention to their wrong. Darkness does not become light by being hidden further away; darkness can only be eradicated by bringing it out into the light. I don’t mean to say that we must constantly remind those who have wronged us that they have done so, but only that buried wrong never turns right.
The kind of grace I am talking about here is a balancing act between extremes. On the one side of the thin line we have a cheap imitation of grace that pretends it has done the impossible, forgive those who don’t want, and won’t accept, our forgiveness. On the other side of the thin line we have a cheap imitation of justice, one that beats sinners about their head with constant reminders of their sin. The grace that is willing to move towards someone in spite of their refusal to acknowledge that they have wronged us, the grace that is willing to offer genuine forgiveness the moment such repentance blossoms…that is a tricky thing, but it is the godly thing, the biblical thing and it is a balancing act that we can only hope to achieve in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Now, and this may be the hardest part: if we are doing what God does, moving towards those who have hurt us with a willingness to forgive should they truly repent, then we cannot refuse such forgiveness when it is finally requested. While forgiveness cannot be granted without repentance, forgiveness cannot be withheld when repentance is present. God does not withhold it from us and we cannot withhold it from others if we are going to claim to be His people.
However, this does not necessarily mean that we forget entirely about powerful wrongs just because someone has said they’re sorry and asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness is partly transactional as we have seen, but it is also relational and it is very nearly impossible for us to re-enter a relationship with someone who has harmed us deeply without reservation or caution. I think that this is the reality of living as finite creatures. God knows the repentant’s heart in a way that we cannot. He knows if the repentance is genuine and not feigned, but we cannot see so clearly. We will almost always have to re-enter that relationship with caution and it is right that we do so. But, grace compels us to re-enter that relationship in the genuine hope that the repentance was real and that transformation is now possible. We cannot proceed with our arms folded and a scowl on our faces, just waiting for the other person to make the same mistakes again, thereby proving our deepest suspicion that they were faking repentance all along. Where would we be if God’s grace and forgiveness were so grudgingly rationed out?
 It would make little sense to see these as tears of gratitude or joy…she had not yet received forgiveness or anything else to cause her to feel such emotions.