In Part 1, I observed that Christian forgiveness includes several conditions leading to reconciliation of a relationship that was violated by one person sinning against another. Jesus’ commands that the person wronged must “show him his fault” (Matt. 18:15) as the first condition, to be followed by his repentance, and then we may respond by forgiving him. Common Christian talk about forgiveness tends not to include the necessity of repentance; consequently, many Christians attempt forgiveness and yet fail to live in it. Along with this claim that repentance is necessary to forgiveness, I am aware of the need for at least four caveats.
How Not to Do It
First, there is a wrong way to do the pre-condition of “rebuke him” by attacking someone and demanding their repentance. Our goal is to “win your brother” in reconciliation, not to prosecute him. In Christian relationships, we are collaborating with God, so we should expect the Holy Spirit to motivate repentance even as we need his power to motivate our real forgiveness in response. As the one wronged, our responsibility is to be authentic and vulnerable to tell what we have endured from the other. This confrontation likely requires much prayer as a pre-condition.
Sometimes, Others Do Not Apologize
Second, what if the offender does not repent? For example, the other person refuses to acknowledge that she has wronged us, and she goes further to blame us for what she did—as if we should be apologizing to her instead of the other way around! As noted above, we cannot pursue a vulnerable, trusting relationship with someone who hardens against us in this way. If they have so little concern for how they have damaged us, then the idea of relationship with them will likely be just a pretense. The offender who is unconcerned for her violation against us does not want to really love us. We cannot continue to entrust ourselves to her unless she repents.
Without the other person’s repentance, our problem remains of not being able to forgive them. We continue to bear the injury when they will not take responsibility, and so we will suffer additionally the bitterness of having been wronged. This is the bitterness of injustice. Instead of pretending to forgive them at a distance and without their repentance, I suggest that we recourse to the idea of pardoning them. The pardon allows us to set aside the injury and our bitterness into God’s hands. The pardon does not advance relationship with them, since reconciliation cannot occur without forgiveness, which depends on repentance (which sometimes depends on our part to “show him his fault”). Romans 12:14-21 urges Christians, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (NASB). We cannot make others to be at peace with us, but we can work for their repentance and refrain from taking revenge.
Against the reflex of taking revenge, Paul warns us not to, and then follows this with the assurance that God “will repay” the wrongs done to us (Rom. 12:19). As a matter of justice, we sometimes hold on to bitterness subconsciously as a desire to maintain justice, but this only hurts us. Instead of revenge and bitterness, and when the possibility of forgiveness is out of our hands because of the offender’s refusal to repent, we have the option of pardoning the wrong done through handing it off to God’s justice for him to deal with as he thinks best. Practically, I have found this to work by unburdening myself to God. “I don't want to carry this anymore, God. I give it into Your hands.” Pardon is the less desirable option than forgiveness (leading to reconciliation), but it is the better option than bitterness or revenge.
When There is Too Much Disconnect for Reconciliation
The third caveat concerns a person with whom we cannot be reconciled because they have died, or they are so far removed from us that relationship is not possible. For this situation, the idea of a pardon also works as a way to engage with God in the injury and wound we suffer. We have the opportunity to unburden ourselves to God, to hand the person over to God’s justice, while remaining ready to forgive should the opportunity come later if other person repents. (Perhaps after death we will have many such meetings to reconcile broken relationships.)
Fourth, these principles apply to lesser injuries that we might not consider actual sins, or with people we are not engaging with closely (strangers). For example, a reckless driver of another car might provoke anger in us that can foul our mood and build up our anger and bitterness. People say and do things that offend us. We are tempted to dislike them and withdraw. The offending act may be too small to talk about. Without pretending that everything is okay as we try to overlook another’s offensive or inconsiderate actions and words, we can engage with God in the moment so we do not boil over in anger that affects people in our lives in ways they do not deserve. Unfortunately, our anger, our having been shamed or blamed, and other wrongs that occur daily can be transferable: a boss chews out Jane, so Jane goes home and gripes at her daughter and husband, so they each crab at others at home, until finally the five-year-old kicks the dog. Handing things over to God in the idea of a pardon is a way of getting clear of them.
In conclusion, we have many choices to live out in daily life as members of Jesus.
- When we do wrong to others, we must repent by apologizing to them. This is how we take responsibility for our sins and stick together with others in relationship. We must desire their forgiveness, but we pay a price for it by repentance—not to deserve forgiveness, but to be in the right posture to receive it and engage with them with a resolve to regain their trust. We have to work for reconciliation.
- When others do wrong to us, we must do what depends on us to be reconciled with them. If they do not come to us with repentance, then we must come to them to “show him his fault.” They should repent; if so, we must forgive them “seventy times seven.” We pay this price of reconciliation with them and cautiously remain available for continued relationship. In this, we get to be like God, forgiving others who have wronged us and do not deserve our forgiveness. We get to draw on the love that God has exerted to us by forgiving all our crimes, and do likewise to others. In some cases, we will not see repentance unless we “show him his fault.” The wrongdoer’s liberty from the burden of guilt with us depends on our initiative through our desire to be reconciled—we must “rebuke him” because we love him and want to continue loving him.
- When we fail to work for two-part reconciliation, our illusions of blithely overlooking the wrongs done to us by others, will only increase the pretense and distance of our relationships with others. The so-called "Christian nice" has a cost of being fake. Our bitterness will become unbearable; our wounds will drive many of our relational dynamics. We will see no reconciliation with others and we will fail to experience the power of the gospel in our daily relationships. Time will not heal in the sense of “harmony is restored.” While we might think “God gives me the ability to forgive him” when there has been no repentance, our thinking this way is foolish fantasy to do what not even God does.