The problem I notice is that many times Christians have ongoing difficulty in forgiving those who have wronged them. The strain may go on for many years even as they keep trying to forgive. They frequently assume that there is something wrong with them as being hardhearted and otherwise unloving. They fault themselves for not being able to forgive others. Perhaps these unforgiving Christians are trying to do something that God has not called them to do. Perhaps one-sided forgiveness is actually impossible in the absence of a necessary condition for forgiveness.
“I keep trying to forgive her, but I just can’t seem to be able to let it go.”
“I have forgiven him, but I'm still angry about what he did.”
“I have been praying for six months to forgive them.”
These statements are examples of what I have heard from Christians many times about someone who has wronged them, and the difficulty they have forgiving that person.
Forgiveness seems to be commonly talked about as basic to Christian faith and practice. In contrast to non-Christians, a distinctly gospel-fueled ability in personal relationships is the Christian idea of forgiveness, as in this definition:
“Forgiveness is the wiping out of an offense from memory; it can be effected only by the one affronted. Once eradicated, the offense no longer conditions the relationship between the offender and the one affronted, and harmony is restored between the two.”
Every Christian knows that we ought to forgive when others wrong us. The biblical teaching is clear in passages such as Colossians 3:13 and Ephesians 4:32 that since we have been forgiven by God, then we must forgive others who sin against us. Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:23-35 marks the correspondence between God’s abundant forgiveness of us with the relatively minimal forgiveness we are obligated to offer to those who sin against us.
The definition above is right to specify that “the offense no longer conditions the relationship” and the result of forgiveness is that “harmony is restored.” I think that this is the important thing about forgiveness to accomplish reconciliation. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:15-20 aims at this goal with the phrase, “you have won your brother;” that is, you have reached reconciliation of the relationship.
Forgiveness Requires Repentance
Overlooked in common Christian understanding of forgiveness is the necessary part of repentance by the wrongdoer. This part is implied in Jesus’ command: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault” (Matt 18:15, NASB). The result of telling the other person what was done to us is that the brother, who may or may not have known he had done wrong, once being made aware of the fault, takes responsibility in repentance. In other words, when that person repents, forgiveness is the next step and free response of removing another’s guilt.
Jesus is clearer about repentance as the necessary condition of forgiveness in Luke 17:3-4,
“If 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, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (NASB).
The condition of “if he repents” follows from the imperative to “rebuke him” that is equivalent to the statement in Matthew of “show him his fault.” Have we done this in the situation where another person has wronged us and we are having difficulty letting it go in forgiveness? Do we prefer to withdraw from them and avoid the matter entirely, pretending that everything is okay? That is not forgiveness or reconciliation.
Forgiveness That is Not Forgiveness
Some signs that we have not forgiven others are common experience. One sign is that we have distanced ourselves from them, instead of living in harmony and collaboration. This is reasonable to protect ourselves from further damage, but the silent treatment is far short of reconciliation. Despite what we may tell ourselves that we have forgiven them and it is all okay now, the ongoing fracture and coldness in the relationship indicates that we have not forgiven the other person.
Another sign that we have not reached forgiveness is that we continue to feel bitterness or frustration about the situation. Whenever the other person comes to mind, we are irritated. The offense of their wrong against us remains unresolved, so we carry this burden. Unfortunately, we get so familiar with carrying these burdens of our bitterness against others that we do not even realize we are doing it, like carrying rocks in our backpack that just seem our normal load in life.
Why do we not “rebuke him” or “show him his fault”? Maybe we want to remain bitter, or maybe we want to retaliate by cutting the other off from relationship with us. In some cases of severe abuse, confronting the wrongdoer will subject us to further mistreatment, so we just run for our safety. Whatever we might label our attempt to forgive without the other’s repentance, this is not forgiveness, and we will pay the price in bitterness and loss of harmony with others. Moreover, the wounds we sustained from that person will continue to condition future relationships so that we will interact with others according to those damages. Wounds untreated get only worse like a festering infection without the needed treatment.
God’s Forgiveness Requires Repentance
I stated earlier that forgiving another person who has not repented may be something that God has not called us to do, and may actually be impossible. Does God forgive people who have not repented? The biblical pattern is first repentance, and then forgiveness. Consider a two examples:
2 Chronicles 7:14
…[when my people] turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and heal their land.
1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive us our sins… (NASB)
Broadly, the claim that forgiveness requires repentance fits with the biblical idea of salvation that requires personal faith, the voluntary embrace of God’s gift. God’s forgiveness is available to anyone who would appeal to his mercy, and the appeal includes an acknowledgement of one’s crimes. Forgiveness must be desired and accepted if the sinner is to be forgiven by God. Not all people are included in salvation, since not all people are willing to repent of their sins. Since not even God forgives people apart from their repentance, then why should we expect that we could do so?
It follows, then, that if we would respond to God by readiness to forgive others “as we have been forgiven by God,” we must look for repentance from those who have done wrong to us. Many people are oblivious to the ways they violate others, so the imperative that we “rebuke him” or “show him his fault” makes good sense of helping them to see the problem that they have a part in fixing.
If we are realistic, then the wisdom of repentance as a pre-condition to forgiveness shows when we consider trusting someone who has wronged us. Unless the person who sinned against me acknowledges what he did, how am I to know he will not do so again? I would be foolish to continue subjecting myself to abuse, and I would have difficulty “living in harmony” of a reconciled relationship of trusting someone who had wronged me in the past. With repentance, I have some assurance that he is on notice not to repeat the offense, or at least that he knows I am not willing to simply be his doormat with respect to that mistreatment. To move forward in close relationship of trust, repentance with forgiveness is the shared work for moving beyond the damage with full willingness to live in a clear relationship of harmony.
I am aware of the need for a few caveats that I will explain in Part 2.