My previous posts have dealt with the issue of forgiveness. I had planned to move on to another topic, however, a letter from an interested reader raised a common question worthy of a response. The writer wanted to know my thoughts on how “repentance” figured into the process of forgiveness.
The actual questions concerning repentance and forgiveness posed by the letter writer were a bit complicated, but boiled down to its simplest form it might be stated like this: “If we have been offended by a person who is not sorry about their actions, who has not apologized, and who may even be continuing their offensive behavior are we really obligated to forgive them? Wouldn’t we be encouraging ungodly and offensive behavior?”
At first glance it seems reasonable to link our obligation to forgive with the offending person’s obligation to accept responsibility for their actions and to seek our forgiveness with a heartfelt apology and genuine sorrow and repentance. After all, we certainly feel a lot more forgiving when a sincere apology is offered first.
I’m reminded of the apostle Peter’s question to Jesus in Matthew 18:21…“Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” If you will allow me to take some liberty here to read between the lines, I believe what Peter was implying was “If someone is inconsiderate enough to offend me beyond seven times, they can’t truly be serious about living in harmony with me, so why should I have to forgive them?” Jesus’ response in the next verse, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” indicates our forgiveness is not tied to the offending parties behavior.
Remember, the overriding principal concerning forgiveness is found in Matthew 6, verses 14 and 15…“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. “But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” I didn’t notice, here or elsewhere in scripture, a “good behavior” clause. (i.e…you should forgive them only if they behave properly.)
Forgiveness is an issue of the heart; your heart, not the offender’s. Unforgiveness is the root cause of much anger, bitterness, resentment, anxiety, hatred and strife. It becomes a roadblock to healthy relationships; including a relationship with the Lord. The ill effects of unforgiveness take their toll even when the offending party is unaware of any offense they may have committed. It’s the person who forgives who benefits most. It’s important that we do our part and keep our hearts pure, even if the offender doesn’t do their part. As my mama used to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
The letter writer presented another interesting thought. They wrote “My understanding is that God has a forgiving heart and desires to forgive us all, but are we truly forgiven before we recognize our need for forgiveness and turn to God and ask Him to forgive us?” This question actually helps makes my point. Yes, God desires to forgive us and responded toward all of us with love, making forgiveness possible. He did this, not in response to our good behavior (we weren’t repentant and asking for forgiveness) but in spite of our bad behavior. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” To receive the full benefit of God’s actions requires that we accept the gift with a repentant heart. Yet, whether we do or not, God has done His part. If we want to follow God’s example we will not reserve our forgiveness as a reward for our offender’s good behavior.
It’s important to note that forgiveness also has some relationship to the issues of “justice” and “restoration.” Forgiveness does not necessarily eliminate the need for justice, nor does it automatically require restoration of the relationship to what it was before the offense. Though an intriguing part of the forgiveness equation, to fully explore how justice and restoration come into play will have to wait for another time.