With this post I am finishing my series: What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: The Teaching of Jesus. You can find this whole series in logical order here, if you wish.
Let me review the basic steps outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-18:
Step 1: Go and privately point out the fault to the wrongdoer.
If Step 1 is successful, you have won back the offender.
If Step 1 is not successful and the offender won’t listen to you, go to Step 2.
Step 2: Go again with one or two witnesses.
If Step 2 is successful, you have won back the offender.
If Step 2 is not successful and the offender won’t listen to you and the witnesses, go to
Step 3: Tell it to the gathered Christian assembly (or, in many churches, to the authorities who handle church discipline).
If Step 3 is successful, you have won back the offender.
If Step 3 is not successful and the offender won’t listen to you and the witnesses, go to
Step 4: Let the unrepentant sinner be to you and your Christian community “as a Gentile and a tax collector,” that is, as an outsider.
But always be read to welcome back this person if he or she repents.
At any stage in this process, if the person being confronted admits his or her fault, then it is essential for the individual who was on the receiving end of the offense to forgive the offender.
But what happens if the offender is unwilling to admit to having done anything wrong? What should you do if you go through the process established by Jesus, but the end result is not an admission of sin? Can we forgive someone who doesn’t repent? Should we?
One way to answer this question would be to point to psychological studies of forgiveness and unforgiveness. They show, basically, that forgiveness is essential for the emotional health of the one who forgives. If you have been deeply hurt by your parents, for example, and you carry this hurt with you throughout your life without ever forgiving, it’s highly likely that you will inhibit your own emotional health, even your physical health. Unforgiveness is like a cancerous tumor within us that needs to be removed.
For those of us who are biblically-oriented, a more compelling case for this kind of forgiveness comes from Scripture itself. There are many passages in the Bible the call us to forgive. None of these adds, “if the one who offended you is sorry.” For example, in Mark 11:25 Jesus says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” This passage says nothing about what the offender thinks or feels. Rather, it connects your own forgiveness by God with the forgiveness you give to someone else.
This can seem very odd to us, partly because we have a hazy or even wrong-headed understanding of forgiveness. What is forgiveness? At the risk of being simplistic, let me say that forgiveness is giving over to God the wrong done to you. It’s saying to God, “Okay, Lord, I’m not going to hold onto this offense any more. I’m surrendering it to you.” Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. Though it usually leads to feeling better, forgiveness generally comes prior to feeling better. When I forgive I say to the Lord, “God, this person really hurt me. But I’m giving it all to you. I do not want this offense to be a breach in relationship any further. I will not harbor it my soul. Here you go, Lord, here’s the hurt.” (Photo: Another moving portrayal of forgiveness in Bartolomé Murillo’s “Return of the Prodigal Son,” 1667-70.)
I want to make sure you understand what Jesus is not asking us to do in forgiving. First, he’s not asking us to say “That’s okay.” Forgiveness isn’t saying that what was done to you is okay. In fact, forgiveness assumes that it was not okay. Only real wrongs need to be forgiven. Second, Jesus is not asking us necessarily to understand why somebody did something wrong. Yes, this can help us let go of our hurt feelings sometimes, but forgiveness is choosing before God to let go of the offense, even if you don’t understand why the offender did it. Forgiveness is deciding that you won’t get even, that you won’t punish the offender either through your actions or inactions. Third, Jesus is not asking us to pretend as if the hurt has completely disappeared. This sort of healing process takes time, and forgiveness contributes to the healing, but it’s not the same as feeling better. Fourth, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation, though it is almost always part of reconciliation. Forgiving someone is giving the offense and hurt to God. You can do this no matter what the offending party does. Reconciliation, on the contrary, requires that the other person own the wrong and repent of it. Reconciliation, therefore, is dependent on the other person. Forgiveness is not.
The command to forgive is a very hard command to obey, isn’t it? If someone has really hurt us, the last thing we want to do is to forgive. We’d much rather hang onto our pain as a means of self-protection. We’d much rather grovel in self-pity than regain relationship with the offender. Yet Jesus couldn’t be much clearer. He says that if you have anything against anyone – and that’s pretty inclusive, don’t you think? Anything against anyone! – you should forgive. Period.
Now I know that many of us have a hard time forgiving. Forgiveness is scary because it means taking down the walls that protect us, and we’re understandably afraid to do this.
So what should you do if forgiveness doesn’t come easily for you? For an answer to this question I turn to Ephesians 4:32-5:2. This passage reads:
[B]e kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Notice the close connection here between your forgiving others and your experience of God’s forgiveness. On the one hand, you are to forgive in the same way that God has forgiven you in Christ. On the other hand, your experience of God’s forgiveness empowers you to forgive others. The more you realize the magnitude of God’s forgiveness for you, the more you will be a forgiving person. Show me an unforgiving person, and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t experienced very much of God’s grace. Conversely, show me someone who forgives readily, and I’ll show you someone who has been baptized in God’s gracious forgiveness.
In conclusion, I would say, “Yes, you can and should forgive one who has sinned against you, even if that person will not admit the offense. This is consistent with biblical teaching and it is essential for your own well being.” Having said this, however, I am not suggesting that such forgiveness is easy. When the offense is great, forgiveness comes slowly, with great difficulty, and always with lots of help from the Holy Spirit. If you find yourself in a position of needing for forgive one who has wronged you but will not admit the offense, I’d encourage you to take this to the Lord and also to at least one other wise, mature Christian who can help you work through your feelings and responses in a healthy, Christ-like way.