We’ve been considering the question of whether forgiveness can or should occur without repentance. Last time around, we looked at family life. Let’s turn from the everyday to the extreme. What do we say to the person who is outrageously sinned against? What do we say to the person who was abused as a child, the person who has been raped, the person who survives a murder attempt from a loved one, the person whose spouse commits adultery (and while we’re at it, given that many people think that adultery is not sufficient grounds for divorce, the view that forgiveness can only occur when there has been repentance means that we’re then left with the position that a spouse must not forgive an unrepentant adulterous spouse, but must not divorce them either—a view that people may want to champion, but they should still recognize it is somewhat weird pastoral advice), and the person who has been betrayed by someone close to them?
Often in such situations (especially with regards to pedophilia, where genuine repentance seems to be as rare as a perfect set of teeth on egg-laying farm fowl), repentance is a long way off, if it ever arrives. Is it really in that person’s best interest to hold onto that debt—that wrong done to them—for the rest of their lives? Is it really better to never release it, but to continue resisting the anger and bitterness that are the natural children of holding onto a wrong over a long period of time?
Here again, we need a robust sense of how different we are from God. As I argued in a previous series, our sins do not affect God; he is not harmed, lessened or injured by our sins against him. Our sins against God harm only ourselves. Nor do we give God anything when we worship him, glorify him, love him and serve him. In our relationship with God, he always gives and we always receive. Glorifying and loving God are for our benefit, not God’s. God commands us to love him and glorify him for our sakes, not his. If the world had never existed, or if the entire human race was left in its rebellion, it would not have diminished God one iota. God creates and saves purely out of love for us, not as a form of self-seeking. He commands us to glorify him for our sakes, not because he’s on a perpetual ego trip. His glory is our greatest good.
This is why God’s forgiveness of us is quite different from ours. His forgiveness is that of a judge, not a private citizen in a purely private squabble. He is passing a verdict of eternal condemnation or eternal vindication against us in his act of forgiveness. It is a personal act of forgiveness, yes, because we sinned against God. But God was not the injured party; he is not standing in the courtroom seeking justice for himself, but is seated on the judgement seat establishing justice for all. Unlike us in our dealings with those who sin against us, God does not have a horse in the race when it comes to our forgiveness or condemnation. It is all about us; God will not be lessened or benefited by the outcome one way or the other. That is why his forgiveness is entirely of grace and love, and his justice has nothing of revenge in it. God stands above and over our sins and our services, the ever gracious, ever-loving, unmoved mover.
But us human beings are nothing like that. If you sin against me, you harm me. You can permanently injure me—physically, emotionally, mentally—such that I carry those wounds throughout my life. You can destroy my reputation, take away my wealth, break my body, kill or drive away everyone who loves me so that I am left completely isolated, take away my freedom and even deprive me of life itself. Our sins against each other cause real harm to one another. We do not stand in the same relationship with one another that God stands in with us. We can be genuinely and substantially harmed by another’s sin.
And so, when we forgive someone, I would suggest that it is to our benefit far more than theirs. When we do not forgive someone, then we continue to carry the weight of their sin against us, we continue to count and mourn what we lost by their actions, and we continue to be defined by the harm we suffered at their hands. Their sin does not remain in the past, but remains our constant companion throughout life, spreading its cold, clammy fingers over every joy and good gift that we receive. Emotionally and mentally, we are better off if we can be liberated from the debt that people incur against us. Furthermore, as Matthew 18:21-35, the parable of the unforgiving servant, indicates, there is an eternal dimension to our releasing others from the debts they owe us. We, not they, are the ones truly liberated from sin in eternity. Like all of godliness, we seek our own best interest by doing what is right, just as God seeks our own best interest in all his actions towards us—both his gifts and his commands. He commands us to forgive for our sake.
The rub is, the worse we are sinned against, the harder it is not to be consumed by bitterness, desire for revenge, and the ongoing sense that the original sin is being added to constantly by the offender’s lack of repentance to us day after day. It is, I would suggest, in a person’s own best interests to work towards forgiveness—especially when they have been seriously sinned against. To tell them that they can’t (or worse yet, to say that they can forgive, but that they are obliged not to) means that they are locked into the sin done to them, dependent on their offender to release them—for until he or she repents, there can be no forgiveness, and thus no freedom from the burden of having been sinned against. They must hold onto the sin done to them, but not nurse it; they must keep a sense of having been wronged fresh in their mind, but not give into anger or bitterness; they must continue to love their offender as they love themselves, but not give the offender the one thing that love desires: full forgiveness. It is an impossibly twisted exercise in Zen godliness that would defeat Yoda himself. It deserves a round of applause given by a single hand.
The final injury of such bad pastoral theology often comes in those situations where the offender does repent. For if a person must not forgive until there is repentance, then once repentance has taken place, they must forgive—quickly and sufficiently perfectly to result in full reconciliation between the two parties. The same people who required them not to forgive because reconciliation wasn’t possible will now require them to forgive straightaway because reconciliation is now possible. And so a person, who may have to work towards such forgiveness over the course of years (remembering that we are dealing with the extreme cases here)—beginning with a simple choice to not seek revenge, moving on to praying for their offender (that God will bless them and do good to them for their own sake) and finally beginning to put the hurt away—is often required to do the whole lot in one once-for-all, act. It is a test of faith and faithfulness that increases in proportion to the harm done to them, and so is hardest on the very ones most injured and sinned against. But surely the call of Jesus is exactly the opposite—to be tender with the least of his people and to carry the burdens of those most weighed down.
Those most sinned against, who have been genuinely and profoundly (not merely) hurt but harmed, surely number among those we are to treat with especial care and gentleness—the least of Christ’s little ones. I suggest that this is only really possible when we see that forgiveness (as opposed to reconciliation) does not depend upon the other party’s repentance, and that forgiveness is a work-in-progress that (especially when the hurt is profound) could take a long time. Those truly harmed by another need to start forgiving and not have to wait until their offender does the right thing. Furthermore, they need the space to work on forgiveness and not be pushed to be reconciled quickly just because the offender has come to their senses. Both of these require our forgiveness to occur without repentance as a condition and without reconciliation as the necessary conclusion.
We’ll continue this issue of the pastoral dimension with our next post, and consider the issue of false repentance by the offending party and the circumstances when the repentance offered is far less than the offense that was committed.
(Read part 5.)