All of us who have reached adulthood have surely experienced being sinned against by people in ways that have caused us significant distress. And sometimes those who wrong us never show any sign of repenting of what they have done.
In such cases, what should Christians do? Does God expect us to forgive, or should we withhold forgiveness until there is repentance?
TWO KINDS OF FORGIVENESS
Before answering this question, we need to spend a moment defining exactly what we mean when we say that one person forgives another. I believe that a lot of confusion is caused by failing to recognise that there are two different ways in which we can forgive someone.
First, there is a kind of forgiveness that involves choosing to reject and let go of bitterness towards a person who has sinned.
Second, there is a kind of forgiveness that has to do with how we relate to a person who has sinned. It involves letting the sin go in such a way that we have an obstacle-free relationship with that person.
Usually when someone forgives, they will forgive in both these senses. But the two kinds of forgiveness don’t necessarily always go together, as we will see in what follows. So it is important to distinguish them clearly.
WHEN WE SHOULD FORGIVE IN EACH OF THE TWO SENSES
If someone sins against us and then repents, we should always forgive in both the senses just outlined. Of course, we may find it difficult to get rid of bitterness, depending on what has been done to us, and we may need God’s help. But we know that it is our duty to do this.
But what if the sinner is unrepentant? Should we forgive in both senses? Or should we just forgive in the first sense by giving up bitterness? Or should we forgive in neither sense?
For a start, the last option can immediately be ruled out. To harbour feelings of bitterness towards people is always wrong.
But how about relating freely to those who are unrepentant? Should we forgive them in this sense too?
It seems clear that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. There are times when it is right to forgive in this sense even when there is no sign of repentance. And there are times when it is wrong to forgive in this sense when there is no sign of repentance.
Let’s take each of these points in turn.
Times when we should relate freely to those who are unrepentant
Firstly, then, there are certainly times when we should let go of sins and relate freely to sinners, even when there is no sign that they have repented.
In the course of our lives, the vast majority of sins committed against us will be ones that cause us a small amount of distress but no more than that.
For instance, someone might speak to us a bit sharply when it is not necessary. Or perhaps someone may not get in touch with us about something quite as soon as they should have done. Or maybe a person might neglect to help us with some small job that needs to be done. A multitude of other examples could be added to this list.
In such cases, we will usually not see any sign that the offender is repentant. And most of the time it would be inappropriate, and also very embarrassing, to keep approaching people to ask for an apology for minor things like these.
Obviously, we should make every effort to ensure that our relationships with people are not damaged by grievances, even small ones. Because it isn’t reasonable to constantly approach people about minor sins, we should therefore completely let go of all such sins and relate freely to those who commit them, even if there is no sign that they are repentant.
Times when we should not relate freely to those who are unrepentant
On the other hand, however, there are certainly times when we shouldn’t relate freely to people who are unrepentant of more serious sins.
To begin with, fellow Christians who are unrepentant of serious sins should not be forgiven in this sense until they repent. This is the teaching of Scripture, and it also makes perfect sense:
In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus teaches:
“3 . . . If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times in one day, and seven times turns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you will forgive him.”
The crystal-clear implication of this passage is that a Christian brother who has committed a sin (that is regarded as sufficiently serious) shouldn’t be forgiven before he repents.
Of course, there is no warrant in these verses for harbouring bitterness towards an unrepentant Christian. These verses are surely referring to the second kind of forgiveness that I outlined above. They teach that we should not let the matter go and should not have an obstacle-free relationship with the brother before he has repented.
We also find something very similar in Matthew 18:15-17, where Jesus says:
“15 If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two others with you, so that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word may stand.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him like a Gentile or tax collector.”
It is true that the word “forgive” is not explicitly used in this passage. Nevertheless, Jesus is teaching here that Christians should not forgive in the sense of relating freely to a believer who is unrepentant of committing a relatively serious sin.
An example of choosing not to forgive a Christian brother
Let me give an example of how this might work in practice. Imagine the following scenario:
I am performing a task with a Christian brother, and we disagree over a course of action. Instead of trying to reach an agreement, the brother swears at me and storms off. Later I go to him to try to sort things out, and I point out that what he did was unacceptable. Instead of apologising, however, his response is, “Get over it!”
Although it is my duty to give up all feelings of bitterness, I have a choice as to what else I do. I can either forgive this brother in the sense of letting the matter go completely and relating to him freely, or I can refuse to forgive him in this sense.
There is no question that refusing to forgive in this sense is the right thing to do. If I were to let the matter go as things stand, I am doing no one any favours at all:
First, this brother is unrepentant of his sin, and as long as he remains in this condition, his relationship with God will necessarily be hindered. It is therefore in this sinner’s interest for me not to let the matter drop and for me to refuse to relate freely to him.
Second, it is not in the interest of the church that this brother is part of for me to forgive him. If a church has an unrepentant sinner among its number, that church will surely be weakened to an extent in the work it is involved in.
Third and most importantly, it is not in God’s interest for me to forgive this brother, since God wants the brother and the church he is in to be following Him as closely as possible.
I should therefore not forgive this brother in the sense of letting the sin go and relating freely to him. Instead, I, and others, should keep insisting on repentance until the brother either repents or is expelled from the church, as Matthew 18:15-17 instructs us.
In the case of Christians who are unrepentant of sins that are more than minor, then, although it is right for us to give up bitterness, it is wrong to let the sin go and relate freely to the sinner.
An example of choosing not to forgive a non-Christian
There are also surely times when we should withhold this kind of forgiveness from non-Christians who are unrepentant.
When I was reading up on this issue on the internet, I found an article by a Christian woman that is relevant here. She had suffered serious sexual abuse from a family member, and she approached him to try to begin repairing the damage that he had done. She was hoping for an apology, but instead his response was, “You’re a Christian! You’re supposed to forgive me!”
She decided that it would be better not to forgive this man in the sense of letting the matter go and relating to him freely. She reckoned that if she did, he would be less likely to accept the gravity of what he had done. She thought too that if she forgave him, he would be more likely to abuse other people.
I think what she said makes perfect sense. And I am also sure that many similar situations arise when, if someone relates in an obstacle-free manner to an unrepentant non-Christian, it will actually do more harm than good.
When we are not sure what to do
We have seen, then, that there are times when it is right to forgive someone who is unrepentant, in the sense of relating freely to that person. And we have also seen that there are times when it is wrong to do this.
But how about those times when it is not so clear? Should we forgive in this sense unless there is a good reason for not doing so? Or should we not forgive unless there is a good reason for doing so?
This is an area in which it will be necessary to seek God’s guidance for each specific situation. However, my own inclination is to take the former course of action where possible. I think we should let sins go and relate freely to the sinner unless there seems to be a good reason for not doing so.
I am certain, however, that quite often situations will arise when it is best not to forgive in this sense. And we should be unafraid not to let matters drop when we think that is the right thing to do.
FORGIVENESS AND HEALING
At the present time, gifts of healing are being increasingly used in the church, and this is a cause for real rejoicing.
Something that healers are becoming increasingly aware of is that failure to forgive can prevent healing. I have testimony of this myself, which I would like to share here.
I remember a time many years ago when I was being counselled by an older Christian friend. Sitting there in the room I was suffering from strong demonic oppression, with the demon pressing on my mind with confusing thoughts.
My friend then received a word of wisdom in the Holy Spirit about my situation and said to me, “You need to forgive someone.”
I immediately knew who it was, although previously I hadn’t been properly aware that God was particularly concerned about the low-level feelings of bitterness I held towards this person.
Anyway, then and there I chose to forgive the person, and I believe I could sense God helping me to do this. The feelings of bitterness left and have never returned. Importantly too, as soon as I forgave, the demonic oppression lifted as well and I had peace of mind.
I learned an important lesson that day. If God wants us to forgive someone and we fail to do so, that can cause us real problems and can prevent Him helping us.
For our own sake, then, as well as for God’s sake, it is important that we all take the issue of forgiving others very seriously.