Getting ready to forgive

  • David Mears
  • 26 June 2015

Image by lupinoduck

Does my backside look big in this?”

Everyone with half a brain has enough sense to tread very carefully when answering this question. True, you could stop, examine, assess the said backside and then answer with analytical precision… but history has shown that such a response normally doesn’t end well for you or them. You’re better off with “Maybe try the black skirt, it looks excellent on you!” Wisdom teaches us not to answer the original question.

One question that can lead to the same kind of mistake is “Do we have to forgive people who aren’t sorry?” Our instinct can be to rush in with some kind of ‘yes/no’ answer. What we may fail to do is consider whether or not answering the question as asked is the most helpful response.

If the question comes from a desire to grow in understanding about the nature of forgiveness, then answering the question at face value is fine. But what if the person asking the question is dealing with deep emotional trauma? What if someone is feeling betrayed and abandoned by a cheating spouse? What if they have a growing sense of injustice and panic because their ex-husband is slandering them in order to get custody of the children? What if they are burdened by ongoing shame and self-loathing because they were violated as a child by a trusted relative who is still denying it all to the world? In such cases “Do I have to forgive the unrepentant?” has much more behind it.

When such a person asks that question, there is every chance it is because they doubt they could ever come to forgive the one who has hurt them so badly. They feel burdened because of what has happened to them; they have the ongoing provocation of the offender’s lack of repentance or continued offending; they are most likely afraid of having any further contact with the offender. On top of this, they now have additional spiritual anxiety: Is God angry with me too? Am I a hypocrite because I am struggling to forgive? Is my salvation at stake?

Such a person needs to be pastored with gentleness, lest we snap the bruised reed. Regardless of which answer you believe is the theologically correct one, directness is problematic. “Yes, you do have to forgive the unrepentant” places another emotional burden on their shoulders when they are least likely to be able to deal with it. “No, you don’t have to forgive them unless they repent” may encourage them to hold on to their bitterness, anger and hatred, and feel justified in doing so. So which will it be? Burden or stumbling block: take your pick!

I wonder if a more helpful answer to the question lies not so much in a forensic yes/no verdict with supporting texts, but in encouraging the person to observe and reflect upon the process by which God approaches the unrepentant.

It is certainly true that God will not forgive the unrepentant… but we know that he stands ready to do so (Exod 34:6-7; Ps 86:5; Rom 2:5; cf. 1 Kgs 8:27-53). God is genuinely angry at sin, promises judgement, and will vindicate the righteous in this life or the next (Ps 135:14; Isa 11:4), but when a sinner repents and asks God for mercy and forgiveness, the answer is not ‘maybe’ but ‘I forgive you’. God is ready. This forgiveness comes from the heart, and is followed by a relationship that is truly at peace through the atoning work of Christ (Ps 103:12; Rom 5:1; Eph 2:17; Col 1:19-22).

Like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, God is looking at the road, waiting for the sinner’s return. Rather than presenting forgiveness as a law, what we need to do is to shepherd the wounded Christian to the point where they could say truthfully that their hearts are watching the road.

So how should we answer the question? First, I suggest we remind the person that they have the right to be angry and hurt. Encourage them to take comfort in knowing that God knows precisely what happened to them and will work his justice. But then encourage them to work towards readiness to forgive, that they might be free from bitterness and a hard heart, and able to respond with mercy should the God whose graciousness they have experienced show that same grace to the ones who have wounded them.

Photo credit: lupinoduck