When do we forgive? Is it only after the one who has sinned against us (offended us) has asked for forgiveness? Or should we forgive them whether they ask for forgiveness or not?
This is a discussion I had not long ago with a friend and something I had thought a LOT about when I was in college. (By the way, I just noticed that Eerdmans Bible Dictionary does not have an entry for “forgiveness,” but it does have one for “sin.” Go figure.) Long ago I came to the conclusion that we should forgive those who have sinned against us without our waiting for them to ask us for forgiveness. I understand “sinning against us” to be anything from out right heinous acts against us, to mere offenses, or those instances when we have perceived they sinned against but where they may not have any idea that we have taken offense and, in fact, may not have “technically” sinned against us at all.
Make no mistake, I think Scripture is clear that we must ask God to forgive us for the sins we have committed against him and others. God is gracious and will forgive our sins, but we have the freedom to refuse to recognize our need for forgiveness. So God waits for us to come and confess “I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed.” When we so confess he will forgive and our healing begins. But we must take that initiative. It is part of the freedom that God gives us all and it is a vital part of our growth and healing to recognize our need and that only God can provide it.
But as Christians I believe that God then calls us to forgive others, even if they do not come to us. This may seem like a contradiction, or at least an odd situation where we are asked to behave in a way that seems more gracious than God. The distinction is that we have very different needs than God. For our own health and well-being we need to forgive others whether they ask for it or not. When we hold on to hurt and bitterness caused by another person’s action against us we are simply harming ourselves and we are certainly not loving others as we love ourselves.
The fact that (a fictitious) Bob stole my work, publishing it as his own, is not only plagiarism and a crime, it is a sin against me. Bob refuses to acknowledge that he has done anything wrong and of course never asks me to forgive him for his actions. When I hold on to that hurt, the sin against me, and refuse to forgive him what is happening? It is festering in me. When I think on it I get angry, bitter, and I certainly can no longer have a relationship with this person that is anything resembling healthy. So what began as Bob’s sin against me has now become my own sin. Yet if I forgive Bob, as difficult as that can be, God’s grace can begin to work in me, enabling me to be healthy and perhaps even develop a new and healthier relationship with Bob. Perhaps that might even lead to Bob’s realization of what he has done. (I would note that in some cases you might still need to steer clear of “Bob.” Just because you have forgiven him for that offense doesn’t mean he will no longer be offensive.)
Malcolm Gladwell, the now famous author and popularizer of concepts such as “the tipping point,” “10,000 hour rule,” and really big hair, wrote recently about his own return to faith in Relevant Magazine. It began when he was researching a book about David and Goliath-ish. He was really using that as a jumping off point to consider how small conquers big in various contexts. Then he interviewed Wilma Derksen whose teenage daughter had been kidnapped and killed years before. She was a Mennonite, Gladwell’s own roots. Gladwell wanted to explore how it was she and her husband were able to forgive.
“How do you feel about whoever did this to Candace?” a reporter asked the Derksens.
“We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” Cliff said.
Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She went on: “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but the stress was on the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”
The answer he found to be in their faith, what he called “the weapons of the spirit.”
…the Mennonite response to persecution was to take Jesus’ instructions on forgiveness seriously.
“The whole Mennonite philosophy is that we forgive and we move on,” she said.
Not everyone agrees that Jesus’ teaching is that we are to forgive others, even if they have not asked for forgiveness. My friend with whom I first had this discussion a year ago is convinced that we are not to forgive others until they first come to us. His understanding was based upon a kind of metathesis of Matt. 6:12.
Matt 6:12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
This, he read as “we should forgive others as we have been forgiven by God.” That is, God requires us to come to him and ask for his forgiveness, so too ought others come to us before we offer them forgiveness. But that is the opposite of what it says. Jesus is saying that we should ask God to forgive us in the same way that we have forgiven others. That means that if we are being petty and holding on to the hurts and grievances that others have done against us then God should forgive us in like manner, not fully clearing our slate. Fortunately God is far more gracious than we are and he does indeed forgive us even of those sins that we have forgotten we have committed. But the model is set and clear: we must forgive others whether they ask or want our forgiveness. It is one of the very first steps in our own spiritual health and growth.
Finally, I will leave you with these quick snippets on forgiveness from the Gospels. The final passage Luke 17:3 does seem to suggest that there must be repentance before one offers forgiveness. That could be viewed as a counter argument. On balance with all other Gospel statements, however, I think the message is clear: “If you forgive others…your heavenly father will also forgive you.”
Matt 6:14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Matt 18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Matt 18:35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Mark 11:25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
Luke 17:3 Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4 And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”