In this meta-series, we have been exploring the question of whether we (and God) can or should forgive someone when they have not repented. This time around, we are going to turn our attention to some difficult pastoral situations and ask how they work when we hold that forgiveness can only take place when there has been repentance.
Let’s begin with families. Consider marriage: if forgiveness can only exist where there has been repentance, then a partner should not forgive their spouse for any sin of omission or commission, no matter how small, until that spouse has repented of it. Every sin needs to be confronted, talked over, repented of and then forgiven. The Man in Black may well have been right when he stated, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” But there’s pain, and then there’s Ultimate Suffering (cue The Princess Bride references), and such a view of forgiveness within marriage elevates pain right into Ultimate Suffering territory. Does anyone seriously imagine that their spouse does not have an almost unlimited ground for complaint for all the inadequacies of one’s love, let alone one’s manifold inconsiderations? Build a dog house and move in because you’re never getting out of it! You can’t possibly repent enough to address every sin you commit in the course of living in a marriage relationship with someone. Your love is so very short of perfection.
Or consider raising children. Children sin against parents regularly, frequently and enthusiastically. Good luck on getting repentance out of them for 90+ per cent of those sins! Part of the parent’s job is to teach the child to repent when they sin against someone—and that’s a long, long-term project. So there will be many years’ worth of sins before the child really begins to even ‘get’ the idea of repenting, let alone grasp that ‘saying sorry’ is is anything more than an externally imposed discipline. Is the parent really supposed to not forgive their children for the multitude of rebellions, carelessnesses and misdemeanours until there has been genuine, heartfelt repentance for each and every one? How can even a parent’s love be expected to stand up under the load of carrying such a rapidly multiplying debt? But if the child’s repentance is the only way whereby forgiveness can be offered, then there is no choice but to store up more and more debt against one’s own children.
To this, someone will likely suggest 1 Peter 4:8b: “love covers a multitude of sins”. They may also suggest that it is the solution to my reductio ad absurdum argument. Because love covers a multitude of sins, they will argue, and marriages and families are (hopefully) full of love, then all those little sins are covered, and we only have to deal with the significant actions that disrupt the relationship—through confrontation, repentance and forgiveness.
I wholeheartedly give an “Amen” to such a response. But I would gently suggest that this can only be true if we don’t have to wait for repentance before we can cancel someone’s debt. If forgiveness is dependent on repentance, then love can only cover a multitude of sins in the context of the offender’s repentance, and so offers no assistance to spouses or parents dealing with the multitude of ways in which they are pettily sinned against.
In fact, I would suggest, passages like 1 Peter 4:8 act like signposts, pointing to the existence of another way to deal with sin committed against us than having to wait for repentance. Love covers a multitude of sins; marriage and family life wouldn’t be possible otherwise. It is something so basic to daily life that we often pass over it. Close, long-term relationships can only continue if we offer forgiveness far in excess of the repentance offered us by our perpetually offending loved ones. And it is only possible if they do the same for us in return. So don’t hold onto those hurts as though you are entitled to some recompense; seek to outdo those around you in the competition to extend the most forgiveness. The grace of God in Christ opens up the way for us to escape the zero-sum universe of trying to match our forgiveness to someone’s repentance, and encourages a generosity that goes beyond what we get back.
This is one of many areas in which it is truly more blessed to give than receive.
(Read part 4.)