Anguish was written on their faces as they told me the story. Their beloved son had fallen into the use of narcotic drugs. His addiction drove him to steal from his parents and then from others. Ultimately, his crimes sent him to a penitentiary. Now he was to be released and wanted to come back home. “He says he’s sorry,” the mother said. “He asks us to forgive him for all that happened before. Of course we do, but—”
“But,” finished the father, “we still don’t trust him. We still wonder when we’ll find our camera missing or money stolen from our wallets. We forgive, but it’s hard to forget.”
Forgiveness, as we learned it in childhood, goes something like this: One person says or does something unkind to another. The other is hurt, and the relationship is broken. The offender realizes his unkindness and says to the one he’s hurt, “I’m sorry.” The response is, “I forgive you,” and life goes on as if the misdeed had been erased from memory.
But it’s often more complicated than that. The offender may not realize (or want to admit) that he was at fault. He may realize it but refuse to apologize. If he does apologize he may be forgiven, but the offense might have left damage that is impossible to repair and equally impossible to forget. Or, the offended person may refuse to forgive, which leaves the relationship damaged.
Jesus’ disciple Peter once asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Some of the rabbis taught that a person was obligated to forgive someone three times but could refuse him on the fourth offense, so Peter thought he was being extraordinarily generous in offering to forgive seven times.
Jesus replied, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21–22). Since no gracious Christian would keep a journal of 490 sins, Jesus was in essence telling Peter that there should be no limit to forgiveness.
Why it’s necessary
Forgiving others is essential because of this one inarguable fact: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This means that every one of us needs God’s forgiveness. But why would you expect from God what you’re unwilling to give to others? That’s why Paul counseled, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Of course, the offended person must first realize that he or she is also a sinner and needs forgiveness, an attitude the Bible calls repentance. When Jesus says, “If you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15), it’s not just a matter of tit for tat. Jesus understood that if you can’t grant forgiveness to others, you aren’t in the right frame of mind to receive it, either. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know that they are not good, who feel themselves in need of divine mercy, . . . and know that the differences between the good man and the bad man are insignificant in [God’s] sight.”
Edward Rowland Sill’s poem, “The Fool’s Prayer,” captures beautifully the self-inspecting humility necessary to receive forgiveness.
These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.
The ill-timed truth we might have kept—
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say—
Who knows how grandly it had rung!
Given our own propensity for hurting others, it’s absolutely essential that we show them the same grace we’ve received from our heavenly Father, who promises to “forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Forgiving the unrepentant
Many years ago, my father agreed to work for a friend building a new house. They’d been friends since childhood, had always attended the same church, and had often socialized as their children were growing up. One day his friend came in while he was working, and with an unexpected anger that shocked my father, accused him of stealing building materials and padding his work time. My father protested the accusation—what possible reason had he to do either? But the man was adamant. In a moment, a lifelong friendship ended.
The conflict haunted my father. A few years later, when he was dying of cancer, it was one of the last things he talked to me about. He knew he had done nothing to deserve the exfriend’s rejection. Could he forgive one who’d never asked for forgiveness? God requires repentance of every sinner who wants to go to heaven. “He commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), for without repentance we can’t be forgiven, and without forgiveness we can’t inherit eternal life. Yet Scripture makes provision for forgiveness that hasn’t been requested by the offender.
Jesus Himself set the example when He prayed for His executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Forgiveness, even without the offender’s repentance, is actually important for your own mental and spiritual health. Perhaps you’ve known someone who, because he didn’t receive the apology or restitution he thought he deserved, carried a grudge throughout his life. He nurtured his bitterness, cherished his anger. One hurt cast a shadow over all of his life’s happiness. His unforgiving attitude didn’t hurt his enemy as much as it hurt him. He would have been far better off to shed the hurt and forgive.
This is a different kind of forgiveness, for rather than requiring the other’s apology, it anticipates it. Think of it like the “pre-approval” for credit that some businesses advertise. Even before the other person is sorry for his offense, you’ve pre-approved him for forgiveness! This doesn’t release him from the necessity of repenting of his sins in order to receive God’s forgiveness, but even before that happens, you’ve already decided to let go of any resentment you have against him. You’re just waiting for him to become aware of it.
Isn’t that what Jesus did for us? “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8; italics added). Jesus pre-approved us for forgiveness! He only awaits our becoming aware of it. Shouldn’t we do the same for others?
But what of those sins that seem nearly unforgivable, that have left lifelong emotional damage? A woman who was molested as a child by a spiritual leader hadn’t the psychological strength to restore the relationship with her unrepentant abuser—and no one could blame her. But her resentment was poisoning her, spiritually and emotionally. She had to let go of her hatred—in a sense, forgive him—and leave him to God’s judgment, which is the same attitude that Jesus took toward the men who were nailing Him to the cross.
While the Bible insists that we must forgive, it doesn’t ask us to forget. There are several reasons why.
One is that human beings can’t forget at will. Though we may sometimes wish we could erase painful memories, God designed us in such a way that we must wrestle with them in order to move beyond them. Those who overuse drugs and alcohol to dull bad memories are a cautionary example of what happens when we try to take shortcuts to forgetfulness.
In fact, forgiveness requires that we remember what we’re forgiving! Suppose that scientists had perfected a process to target and cleanly delete a specific memory of an unkindness someone has done you. What benefit would you gain from that person asking you to forgive something you couldn’t even remember? Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. Indeed, if we could forget, we wouldn’t need to forgive. Forgiving means remembering with graciousness, tucking the memory away in the back of your mind, overlaying it with love, and never thereafter throwing blame in the face of the perpetrator.
In some situations, it wouldn’t be wise to forget, even if we could. A battered wife may forgive her husband’s cruelty, but given the possibility of a recurrence, she ought to be alert to its happening again. One may forgive a convicted murderer, but he should still continue to remain in jail.
Forgetting isn’t a good survival strategy for a world where we human beings keep on sinning over and over again. That’s why the Bible says we’ll not forget until we’re beyond sin’s reach. “I will create new heavens and a new earth,” says God, and only then will “the former things . . . not be remembered, nor . . . come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
Yet surprisingly, even the all-knowing God of the universe will forget, for He said that a day is coming when “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). He promises that in the perfect, sinless universe He has in store, your sins will be erased from the mind of God and will be forever forgotten by both Him and you.
Can there be any more complete forgiveness than that?