Do we have to forgive someone who is not repentant?
(First, two quick definitions:
Forgive: To give up resentment against or stop wanting to punish someone for a perceived or real offense.
Repent: To feel remorse for wrongdoing, and to change one’s mind and behavior regarding it.)
This is a question that is heavily weighing on me these days…and I have researched and read…book upon book, blog post upon blog post.
I’ve heard good arguments in the “yes” category, and equally good arguments in the “no” category.
So…which answer do I embrace as my own? Let me give a brief overview of some of the Biblical evidence put forth before the jury:
NO, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO FORGIVE THOSE WHO ARE UNREPENTANT:
- God didn’t forgive people in the bible who didn’t repent of their sins
- Only people who have repented of their sins will be saved
- We are to forgive as Christ forgave; so if he didn’t forgive the unrepentant, we don’t have to either
- We still have to treat our trespassers with kindness and love, but we don’t actually have to forgive them. Instead, we hand them over to the wrath of God to have Him deal with them.
YES, YOU DO HAVE TO FORGIVE PEOPLE WHETHER THEY REPENT OR NOT:
- Christ actually DID forgive people who didn’t repent (for example, the people who were crucifying him. This is rebutted by camp “NO” by saying that Jesus actually hands them over to God the Father to deal with them.)
- We are told to forgive many times in the bible without the added qualifier of “those who repent.”
- We can forgive people but still have healthy boundaries in place especially if the person isn’t willing to change their behavior (separating the concept of “forgiveness” and “reconciliation”)
There are countless Bible verses to support BOTH CAMPS. So…here’s the conclusion I have come to (ready….drum roll…)
WE ARE ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION.
Instead of asking “do we have to” (ie. What is required of me?), how about we ask, “Is it BEST to forgive, or is it BEST not to?”
WHAT IS THE BEST CHOICE? To forgive anyone and everyone whether they repent or not? Or, to keep a score card of those who actually repent and those who allegedly do not and then try to play judge under these arguments?
My (wise beyond her years) little sister once said, “I think that personal growth is all about doing whichever thing placed before us is the most difficult.” She’s right! The hardest thing is to choose to forgive someone no matter what – to forgive the person who has no intention of changing their ways, to forgive the person who continues to do wrong, to forgive the person who is dead and unable to make amends, to forgive myself and pull up my bootstraps and try to do better next time even though I will probably fail.
Because, in my humble opinion, I cannot even possibly repent for all of my wrongdoings! I don’t even know all of them! I rest believing that Christ’s blood covers all of my sins – even the ones I am not aware of and therefore cannot repent of yet. Yes, I have a stance of willingness toward His Spirit to change me and mold me – and therefore, people would argue I am repentant – but I still am not completely self-aware.
As we are not aware of our wrongs toward other people at all times, so they also are not aware of their wrongs toward us at all times. And, even if we bring a wrong to their attention, THEY MAY SIMPLY BE INCAPABLE of changing their behavior. Yes, the drunken abusive man may not actually be able to get sober today; the gossiping “friend” may not be able to stop her habit today; the snippy coworker may not be able to improve her manners today; and on and on the list goes.
But, it is still the BEST choice to forgive!
Why? Why is it best? Because, what other choice do we have? To sit and be angry? To allow the wrong doings of another person to fill us with hatred? To become darkened as they are? To begin the vicious and fruitless cycle of seeking revenge? No thanks.
Yes, it is BEST to choose to be free from the weight and the burden of keeping score, of holding the wrongs that someone has committed against them. I would rather experience lightness of heart, freedom to love, generosity of spirit, then to carry judgment as a shackle. I would also prefer to be in charge of this state of myself, instead of having to be prisoner to another person's repentance of their behavior. Healing is in my own hands this way, and not dependent on anyone else.
I would like to clarify also that I do not think that forgiveness is the same as continuing to put oneself in an unnecessary position of experiencing wrongs. You don’t have to stay in an abusive home. You don’t have to continue to tell the gossiping friend about your life (or even be her friend). You don’t have to listen to the snippy coworker – or you could even get another job. You might be truly “stuck,” or you might just think you are.
You also do not always have to give someone the power to hurt you! You can make the deliberate choice to say that a person no longer has such permission to control how you feel. They can behave as they wish, they can say what they will, and you can simply recognize that their behavior and words are a reflection of THEM, not YOU.
Last point against the "NO" camp: if we are to "hand our trespassers over to God" and let them deal with His wrath, aren't we just eagerly awaiting revenge? I mean, maybe I am more sinful then the next person, but when I think about that concept it makes me feel super self-justified and excited that the people who have hurt and wronged me will get their due! Yes, we need to recognize that perfect justice will not happen on this earth; so why not choose forgiveness since it's not going to be "all fair" now anyway?
I have much more to say about this, but I’ll address more topics on this later. For now, I think I have answered this one question well enough so that I can go to sleep now ;)
- Forgiveness and Reconciliation (in relationships with others and also in our relationship with God) are not the same things
- Boundaries: can they coexist with forgiveness?
- The process of forgiveness: how do we do it?