Recently a friend, whom I will call Samuel, asked me to address a dilemma he faces. He is now a Christian, but formerly he lived a life in which he offended and hurt many people. In relating to those whom he hurt in the past, he finds that they want him to express remorse, but when he does, they don’t trust him to be sincere and want him to demonstrate remorse in unspecified ways. Samuel finds this situation very painful and is tempted to withdraw and keep silent. I think Samuel’s dilemma may not be unique, so I wanted to share the gist of what I said to him:
“Sadly, this is a common human response, Sam, and from a Christian viewpoint, its mere humanity is what is wrong with it. When people are wronged they naturally want revenge, and when they ask you to prove your remorse, they are saying that their desire for revenge has not been satisfied. They want to see you suffer. Desire for revenge is the root of bitterness from which springs all sorts of violence. Jesus tells us that we are obligated to forgive whoever asks us for forgiveness even if they sin and come back 70 times 7 times (Matthew 18:21-22)! He did not add a qualification that allows us to ask them to “prove” they are sorry. Nor did Jesus allow us to say “No” for any reason. In forgiving, we are not so much trusting the petitioner’s sincerity as we are trusting Jesus. We cannot know the hearts of other people—nor our own!—but we know the heart of Jesus! Petitioners can never do enough to prove that they are sorry to people who do not understand that they need forgiveness as much as the petitioners do. If we know that we have been forgiven a great debt, we will not hesitate to forgive others. Your point from Romans 5:8—that Christ died for us while we were sinners and enemies—was spot on target! God said “Yes” to us before we had even asked!!! I am amazed and completely humbled by his grace. All this reminds me of Jesus’ story of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). We all ought to pray, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” and have nothing to say to God or others about our goodness.
“But you asked about your dilemma and not the offended party’s dilemma. I simply thought considering the obligation we have to forgive others when they ask for mercy would help us think clearer about the petitioner’s dilemma. If we are required to forgive those who ask us without knowing for sure that they are sincere, aren’t we—the offending party—also required to ask for forgiveness even when we cannot know that someone will extend it? Even if we are sure that they will not forgive? After we’ve faced our sin in God’s presence and have accepted his forgiveness, if possible, we should express remorse and ask forgiveness from those we’ve hurt. If someone doesn’t trust our remorse or grant our request for forgiveness, even though it is hurtful to us, in the spirit of Jesus we should in our hearts forgive them for not forgiving us. For they are in the wrong and need God’s grace and help. We should pray for them to come to know their forgiveness in Christ! And as we pray for our self-made enemy, God may grant us healing from the hurt of rejection. Indeed, I believe he will. It may be your remorse and requested forgiveness that finally confronts them—the supposedly innocent party—with their sin of not believing in the forgiveness of sins. Your costly remorse and their reaction could be means of their awakening and redemption.”
This is the paradox of justice playing out without forgiveness. As in C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce,” these accusers don’t *want* the petitioner to be forgiven—they want the petitioner to be punished, and punished eternally (by society, not necessarily by God). Thus, after a number of Amish families publicly forgave the shooter who killed their loved ones, some commentators and activists took to media to say “how dare they forgive that man! He brought about a tragedy—he must be punished and cast out. You can’t just sweep it under the rug like that!”
I am curious for your thoughts on when a Christian is not willing to forgive (immediately) when you ask. Some painful situations I have been in are friendships with other Christians in which, when I ask for forgiveness to seek to make the relationship right again, the other person has been wounded deeply and feels unable to forgive immediately as you describe. Perhaps the person will days or weeks down the road, but at the time they will say they can’t/aren’t ready yet. This ends up feeling to me like holding our friendship ransom pending further remorse and apologies on my part until the person is satisfied.
But I hold dear Jesus’ command and understand it as a moral obligation to all Christian believers to be a people of forgiveness, forgiving immediately and without condition when wrongs are confessed and forgiveness asked—perhaps even before it is asked. That may be true on the ideal moral sphere, but often we find that people are not that way—even our own Christian brothers and sisters. How do we proceed practically when we believe the other person *ought* to forgive us (vis-à-vis being a practicing Christian) while also giving them the time and space they may need to heal from the wound?
I know that real people and real psychology have a hard time with this. And some wounds are deep. As to your question, yes we ought to be patient with others, as God is with us. And there may be a difference between forgiving and trusting. Forgiving may be simply the first expression of willingness to travel the road to full reconciliation and trust. It’s this first step we are commanded to take. And we can take it! It’s a matter of obedience. Psychological healing is not as much under our control. Thanks for these good thoughts.
My daughter refuses to forgive me for something to the degree of not inviting me to her wedding. She claims she ‘cannot forgive’. I believe this is a fallacy, in that there is no force compelling to not forgive except her own will. I have written to her numerous times deeply apologizing, agreeing with her justifiable anger and asking for her forgiveness. I have also offered to discuss any and all matters with her fully, but she is quite stubborn. On top of that, I believe she harbors resentment and wants to see me suffer. Ian suffering, but I would be hurting far worse if not for the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit helping me. Mostly, I am concerned for her eternal soul.
I am so sorry to hear this. I pray that she will give the past into God’s hands and remember how much she has been forgiven and how much she will yet need forgiveness. May you find peace and be relieved of your suffering.
God doesn’t call us only to apologize and expect our victims to just be “oh well that’s okay”; cause it’s not okay. You do have to change. You do need to show them. And that’s the most important part of your repentance—actionable change.
Sure, pray for them. But don’t be so narcissistic to think you are owed their presence in your life. If you’ve hurt someone enough maybe have mercy and realize you’ve hurt them enough. Have some humility and sacrifice your comfort for theirs. Thinking someone you may have abused or deeply hurt has to stay with you and interact with you seems pretty selfish and self- centered.
Thanks for taking the time to comment on this essay. As you point in your comment, relationships cannot be easily repaired once broken and betrayed. And perhaps never in this life.
The church needs to be careful in the mindset of forgiveness. It often leaves victims in the lurch and thinking that they have to stay in abusive relationships, including marriage, and parent and child relationships… It ruins whole lives and sometimes that hurt and abuse continues on down the line (whether the children become abusers themselves or end up choosing abusive partners) because a priest told a lady to forgive even if he’s gonna do it again. Because he has done it again. For years. No amount of sorry seemed to ever change that.
Your caution is well-grounded and should be taken to heart. Thanks.
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