In a previous post I pointed to a definition of forgiveness (from Bryan Maier’s book Forgiveness and Justice) that brings to the fore responsibility, repentance and safety as prerequisites for forgiveness.
But what about when there is no responsibility taken by the offender? What if there is no repentance? What if there isn’t safety in encountering someone who continues to be hostile? And what if we have no contact with an offender whose actions have changed the course of our lives? What then? What does forgiveness then look like? Can it be achieved?
In my experience, many Christians ask these kinds of questions because life brings up exactly these kinds of situations; they are not uncommon. These Christians are bearing a burden, and some have carried it for many long years. They feel that they are commanded to forgive as an entirely independent act, taken without any reference to the offender, or to the nature of the offence. And that they are commanded to forgive immediately, not only because it is a command of God, but because they will not be forgiven by God if they do not forgive in this way. They also hear many folk saying that not to forgive will be spiritually, emotionally and even physically damaging. I don’t think that Christians are, in fact, commanded in this way. I do think that Christians feel all these things because too much teaching on forgiveness is simplistic, and hasn’t been thought through. And I’d suggest that we often subsume under the title ‘forgiveness’ very different things, which might not be forgiveness at all.
There’s so much that could be written, but I want to offer the following thoughts:
Biblical forgiveness requires repentance. It’s significant that the NT urges us to forgive after the model of God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is not isolated and autonomous, but rather involves the offender – requiring an acknowledgement of the offence, and some kind of commitment not to re-offend. Forgiveness, according to this model, is fundamentally relational. This is how the earliest Gospel opens, with the message of John (Mark 1:4), how Luke’s gospel closes (Luke 24:47), and how Acts opens (Acts 2:38). In fact, it’s the constant pattern (building on the same pattern in the Old Testament). So, it’s important that Paul writes:
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Eph 4:32, see also Col 3:13)
And very important that Luke records Jesus saying when asked about how often his disciples should forgive:
“And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:4)
Luke’s account of this saying is hugely important, certainly instructive, and often overlooked. I think it’s also important that when Jesus is being crucified, he isn’t recorded as saying to his executioners ‘I forgive you’, but rather as praying ‘Father, forgive them’ (Luke 23:34). It may be that here we find a reminder that the repentance required for forgiveness is, from a theological point of view, granted by God.
So, I’m affirming the approach of Maier, and underlining the importance of definitions like his. Biblical forgiveness requires repentance: an acknowledgement of fault, of sin; a taking of responsibility; and, a genuine commitment not to repeat those sins (even if that commitment may be broken). Biblical forgiveness is fundamentally relational. And it needs dialogue, communication. Such forgiveness leads to reconciliation, which sets the relationship on a healthy footing. The process can be long, and difficult, but there is a worthwhile goal. And it is right to pursue it.
Repentance doesn’t always occur. However, many contexts for offences don’t quite fit with this neat picture. What if the offender doesn’t believe they have offended? What if the offender has no intention of repentance, but intends to continue offending? Or, what if the offender is unknown to us? What if we had no previous contact or relationship with the offender, and the offence was committed in a random intersection of lives (one might think of a car accident with a drunk-driver, for example)?
For the first two, within the community of Christians, Jesus gives guidance in Matthew 18. Go to the offender, and initiate that dialogue; if there’s no progress, involve others; and, if necessary bring the judgement of the community (whether in the form of leaders, or a more corporate view – it’s debated) to bear. This guidance suggests general principles for those outside of the community of faith too. The aim is to bring repentance and reconciliation, but a possible outcome is intransigence, and in that case no personal or community forgiveness is realised (see Matt 18:17). This passage is really important – the offended person isn’t told that they must continue to live alongside, and in fellowship with, the unrepentant (and therefore hostile) offender. There is judgement, and the victim is protected from the hostility of the unrepentant offender by the expulsion of the offender.
But that still leaves the other contexts above, and plenty of others within which offenders can be unrepentant.
Forgiveness is not always possible. Jesus’s own accounts of judgement (e.g. Matt 25:31ff.) along with the (much-discussed) ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ (e.g. Matt 12:31-32) make abundantly clear that even God does not always forgive. This isn’t because God is capricious, but rather because offenders do not always repent.
Similarly, in terms of human relationships, Jesus makes clear in his own teaching that there will be people to whom we will not be reconciled. The category of ‘enemy’ (indicating a hostile relationship) is a very real one for Jesus, and in his view (and experience) even those closest to us can become our enemies (Matt 10:36; 26:25).
Maier himself categorises an offender’s refusal to repent as an ongoing act of hostility. Unrepentant offenders can therefore be legitimately thought of under the category of ‘enemy’. Is it significant that Jesus does not urge his disciples to forgive their enemies, but to love them and to pray for them? I think so.
Love for Enemies, and a Forgiveness Offered. Jesus’s teaching on enemies speaks into the kinds of contexts described above. An enemy is someone distant, not close. Someone whose hostility means that they are held at arms length (or beyond). It strikes me that many offences which are not repented of – whether because there’s no opportunity for contact with the offender, or because the offender is unrepentant – might be best understood in this way.
I’m not saying that all unrepentant offenders can be straightforwardly considered to be enemies – some may be. But the category of ‘enemy’, and Jesus teaching about enemies, is fruitful for considering our response to such offenders. Neither am I at all suggesting that adopting this approach somehow allows us to harbour hatred, to refuse to forgive, or to wish ill on offenders – Jesus doesn’t allow for these things. On the contrary, Jesus’s command concerning enemies requires a demanding reconfiguration of the very concept of enemy.
I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:44-45).
What is the biblical answer to unrepentant, even belligerent, offenders, or unknown offenders? It’s not some one-sided, therapeutic, pseudo-forgiveness. It is love for the enemy, and prayer for the enemy. It isn’t pretending the offence hasn’t happened, or hasn’t damaged us, or pretending that the enemy is a friend. It isn’t suppressing anger and pretending there isn’t a burning injustice. It isn’t denying the truth. It is loving the offender, alongside the acknowledgement of all these things. That is demanding. It’s a very difficult tension, but it strikes me that it’s a tension we see in God’s own response to sin.
And Jesus picks out prayer as a concrete expression of this difficult call to love the enemy. Prayer is the way in which we negotiate this tension. And, as we’ve seen, it’s something we see Jesus modelling: “Father, forgive them.”
Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge, wrestles with these issues. He argues for a unilateral and real forgiveness on the part of the victim, with or without the repentance of the offender. This forgiveness can then be realised for the unrepentant offender, or rejected by the unrepentant (p.182ff.). I don’t agree with Volf’s argument at every point, and I disagree that what he describes is really forgiveness – for either party. I think that the picture Volf paints might best be described as a forgiveness offered.
Love and prayer for an unrepentant offender isn’t forgiveness. But it represents a forgiveness offered, an open door for the offender to take responsibility. It must be internalised – it is to adopt the attitude that if the offender came to us in repentance, and with a commitment to abandon hostility for peace and safety, then we would forgive them. I think this forgiveness offered may be what we see in Jesus’s prayer for his executioners, and there are also parallels here to God’s offer of forgiveness in Jesus Christ to repentant sinners.
And it might also be externalised – in the appropriate circumstances, this attitude would open the door to an offender who showed signs of a change of heart. Opening a door for repentance might sometimes be a very difficult and painful path, with the possibility of rejection. But if rejection happens, and there is no repentance, then we can leave it there. There is no responsibility for us to continue to engage in relationship, in pretending. There is no reason to adopt a one-sided pseudo-forgiveness, or to put ourselves in harm’s way through a continued, forced interaction with the offender – it is entirely appropriate to cease contact. If anger, and thoughts of injustice come to us, we can bring alongside that anger prayers for God to forgive, and hope in love that the offender would find a new path. And a prayer for ourselves for healing and freedom from that anger – for peace. We might seek a gradual letting go, a leaving in the past, the healing of time – but there is no reason to call that forgiveness. And we also need to understand that, in these circumstances, our anger and our sense of injustice are not wrong.
What I’m setting out is not a magic bullet solution, an instant resolution, but it is a path to follow, a path that at least allows us to cast off the burden of guilt that comes from feeling we have failed to respond to God’s (misunderstood) command to forgive.
For What It’s Worth. I would be the first to acknowledge that I do not have the formal training in psychological therapy that others have. But I have been trained to read texts, and to try to put together the biblical data into a coherent picture. To my mind, the suggestions here allow us to move towards a biblical realisation of some of the fruits sought by therapeutic forgiveness (e.g. finding peace and well-being through dealing with anger and bitterness) in the face of unrepentant offenders. And to do that without the burden of guilt arising from misunderstandings of what forgiveness is.
It’s a very difficult tension and path, and I think that for difficult cases psychological therapy (best of all within such a Christian framework) would be helpful. But perhaps the most important part of what I offer here – for further reflection – is the idea of the coexistence of love and prayer with a straightforward acknowledgment of injustice and hostility. This approach sees a unilateral pseudo-forgiveness as inappropriate, and separation and safety as entirely appropriate. It is Jesus’s teaching on enemies that opens the way for such an approach, and this teaching places demands on us to love, and let go of hatred, and pray for those who have offended.
Love your enemies. Pray for those who harass you, and pursue you. It is far from easy, but it is the way of Christ.