This question is a perennial problem. Everyone has been hurt by someone who has failed to ask for forgiveness. When friends or loved ones—those closest to us—do something to betray our trust or confidence, our hearts can feel like breaking. When they fail to repent of their offense, insult is added to the injury. Christians don’t always follow the path Christ demands of them. We are sinful and often act selfishly, seeking our own success in life.
We often think to ourselves, “I can’t forgive someone who won’t apologize.” “Forgive? Don’t you know what they did to me?” Or “How can I forget what they did?” These are legitimate questions that we all struggle with. What should we do in these situations? Do we have to forgive the other person even if they fail to repent?
Yes. Forgiveness is not reconciliation or reuniting with that person. Reconciliation takes two parties to agree and come together. Forgiveness is an act of faith which is not necessarily forgetting. Here are three things to remember about forgiveness and why it is always necessary.
1. Forgiveness is necessary because we are sinners in need of grace.
Many places in Scripture point out that we are called to forgive as God has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32, Col. 3:13). We are to forgive a brother’s offense seventy times seven (Matt. 18:21-22). We are often called to speak to our Christian brothers and sisters to reconcile offenses, even taking it to the church when they don’t (Matt. 18:15). When a Christian fails to repent, the authenticity of their faith is put into question. This is how serious forgiveness and reconciliation are to God, but why is it necessary to forgive when they fail to repent?
First, recognizing our own sinfulness and pride is key. We are called to look at the plank of sin in our own eyes before we call out the speck that exists in the person who offends us (Matt. 7:3-5) We all have fallen short of God’s standard and need mercy just like everyone else (Rom. 3:23).
Second, we cannot demand that God forgive us and fail to forgive others. When dealing with this very issue, Jesus recounted a parable of the wicked servant describing how he was forgiven a great debt by his master. When it came to forgiving a fellow servant, he was impatient and severely judged him. Upon hearing what happened, the master threw this servant into a far more severe punishment because the servant had been unmerciful (Matt. 18:23-35). Likewise, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us that if we are forgiven, forgiveness will be a byproduct of our faith (Matt. 6:12).
Third, forgiveness must be freely offered because we have been freely forgiven by God (Eph. 4:32; Matt. 6:12, 14-15). The grace and mercy we have received should cause us to have mercy on those around us. When we learn to meditate on the gospel regularly, we see how much God forgives us before we even ask. Our very repentance needs repenting of. Our tears and acts of repentance are contaminated by false motivations and pride.
God forgives us for things we fail even to recognize as faults. The Psalmist himself cried out “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3; cf. Ps. 76:7). The answer is “no one.” If God were to hold us to the standard of complete repentance for our inborn and actual sins, we would never come to God. And yet as we see, the Lord is overflowing with forgiveness and compassion for us. The Lord sent his Son to die for us while we were enemies and while we could not offer repentance (Rom. 5:6-ff). His goodness overcame our evil, unmerciful hearts.
2. Forgiveness is remembering the offense differently, not forgetting.
Sin always leaves its mark. We even may be physically maimed by a sin committed against us. How can we forgive in such cases? Well, forgiveness is often confused with forgetting the offense. Forgetting a sin committed against us is not always possible; however, resentment, bitterness, or holding a grudge is never okay. It destroys and imprisons us to our pride, which seeks to exact vengeance on that person like the unmerciful servant did.
Holding bitterness in our hearts imprisons us by trying to control that life situation. We cannot move on when we hold a grudge. We often see ourselves as an omnipotent judge who needs to exact a blood sacrifice, again and again, to be appeased. We need to make sure, after all, that they know how much they hurt us. Holding onto strife, though, leads us into a self-destructive lifestyle. Forgiveness, on the other hand, sets us free. Forgiveness is an on-going act of love that requires a lot of work. It is a daily battle. It may take years to finally put down the offense.
To be like Christ we are to forgive, and that is because forgiveness means remembering the offense differently. This forgiveness does not mean we are condoning the action, nor does not mean we must forget what happened. “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future” (Lewis Smedes, Forgive and Forget, 171).
Forgiveness means no longer counting yourself higher than others. It means seeing your self-worth, respect, and identity as belonging to Christ. His glory and grace are now yours. His identity allows us to set aside our own rights and our pride for his name’s sake. Because of the surpassing worth of Christ, we can count everything as loss (Phil. 3:7-ff). Our driving passion is Christ’s success and glory instead of the desire to exact vengeance.
When we know how sinful we are and how much we need compassion, everyone around us begins to look different. We don’t consider the success of others as competition for us. We don’t think of them with bitterness. Rather, compassion begins to color our memory of the offender as well as the offense. We begin to feel sorrow for the pain that caused the person to act in that manner, and we can begin to empathize with their weakness. Love begins to hope for reconciliation and renewed friendship, even if it isn’t returned (1 Cor. 13). Their success in life becomes our success.
Only when we begin to see the other person with compassion can we decide to move on and no longer be trapped by our own pride and desires for vengeance or the fear of what others might think. Vanity and pride can be set aside. Forgiveness no longer identifies us with the wrongs that have happened. We can let go of the resentment that those actions bring. We can forgive the parent who wasn’t there. We can forgive the abusive spouse or rebellious teenage son. We are freed from the fear that blinds us and binds us in the prison-house of resentment. The good life we hope for, the life every sin seems to deny us, has been given freely by Christ. God has unconditionally loved us and set us aside for himself.
3. Forgiveness is an act of faith, allowing God to have the last word.
Forgiveness is an act of on-going faith. It means becoming peacemakers because we know God has the last word. We must live peaceably with all men as we are able to, sowing the seeds of peace with the wisdom from God (Rom. 12:18, Ja. 3:13-18). We are called to be living sacrifices of praise, whose pride and sin are put aside for the good of others. Our very bodies are to be laid down for others, even for those who offend us.
We must constantly learn the hard lesson of letting God be God. We must set vengeance at his feet, knowing that he alone is holy enough to exact judgment. Part of this includes never remaining in an abusive situation. God has created civil authorities for this very reason, for you and I to trust in God’s provision and bring some justice to our lives today. God has established them for our protection. So, if you are in any kind of situation right now that is abusive, you are fully trusting in God by going to the local authorities and reporting those incidents and getting out of that context as soon as you can. Reach out for help to those you can trust. That is trusting in God. Forgiveness does not mean living in a state of abuse, ever.
God will bring judgment to those who do not repent. We no longer need to worry about it. God will repay in his time and in his way. He is working all things for our good (Rom. 8:28-29). We can have faith and leave it in his hands, knowing that his mercy and grace were given to us when we never deserved it. And who knows? Maybe God will use our compassion to bring others to faith or repentance.
We must be willing, ready, and eager to forgive everyone. We must repay their evil with compassion. As Paul reminds us,
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:14-21)
We must offer forgiveness to everyone. It shouldn’t be confused with reconciliation, forgetting the offense, or even condoning the action. Rather, forgiveness is remembering the offender with compassion and repaying evil with good because of the gospel. Forgiveness is letting God be God, placing vengeance in his hands. God alone has the last word, and we can know that he will be both just and merciful. Everything will work out better than we could ever plan.