Someone hurt my child. Like a mama bear protecting her cub, I want to swing my vicious claws to protect her and keep it from happening again. If they back off and acknowledge they have done her wrong, I might be appeased. If they apologize too, then I can return to my cave with my cub and be at peace. But what if they only back off? What if they never admit it was wrong, let alone apologize? And if they repeatedly attack, am I supposed to keep on forgiving?
Forgiveness is the act of freeing someone from the obligation to pay back for the wrong done to you. Many Christians say that we must forgive for our own sakes in order to free ourselves from resentment and bitterness. Some say to tell the offender they are forgiven, even if they are not sorry. But is it Biblical to extend forgiveness to someone who won’t admit they’ve done wrong?
Being Ready to Forgive Vs. the Act of Forgiveness
In Mark 11:25, Jesus calls us to be forgiving. According to Tyler Kennedy, “Scripture requires us to distinguish between being forgiving, which is the virtue of always being ready and eager to forgive, and the act of forgiveness, which is the actual remission of sin done against us.”
The person who refuses to acknowledge their wrong cannot experience forgiveness in the full sense. We can let go of our resentment, give our anger to God, and we can pray goodness for that person, but forgiveness to its fullness cannot be extended without contrition.
Even when the offender is not sorry, we don’t sit around seething in bitterness, waiting for them to come to their senses. Jesus commands us to love our enemies, to pray for them, and to do good to them. We are to be eager and ready to forgive, to wait patiently to grant it. This means we can’t be harboring resentment or dwelling on the offense. We must release the expectation that they need to pay back what we feel is owed us for their offense.
The Necessity of Sorrow
In Matthew 18:21-22, when Peter asks how many times we should forgive someone, Jesus answers that we should forgive 70 times seven. Nothing about repentance of the offender is mentioned. But look at the context. In the following parable, a servant was forgiven for his large debt that he owed the king when he begged for mercy. Then the servant searched out his fellow servants and demanded payment for what they owed him. When they begged for mercy, he was not willing to forgive. Referring back to how often Jesus said we should forgive, it seems that repentance is assumed. When forgiveness is asked for, we should grant it, just as the Father did for us. But what if they don’t want forgiveness? What if they aren’t sorry?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…absolution without personal confession” (Cost of Discipleship). God is always ready to forgive, but it is not extended until we ask for it. It is not extended until we agree with God that what we did was wrong and we are remorseful. Repentance is necessary.
If we tell people they are forgiven for an offense they refuse to acknowledge is wrong, we rob them of the incentive of the Gospel. We minimize the offensiveness of our own sin against God. We rob Jesus of the glory of His work on the cross, the depth of his sacrificial death. We cheapen the value of God’s grace.
Being ready to forgive enables us to release resentment and bitterness. Being ready to forgive sets us free, even if the apology never comes. The act of forgiveness should follow an expression of sorrow for wrong. But if sorrow never comes and we never get the opportunity to extend forgiveness to its fullest extent, being loving and willing to forgive transforms our character. It will beautifully change us so that we become more like Jesus.