“Therefore, you should pray like this:
Our Father in heaven,
your name be honored as holy.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
“For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.
Question: Can forgiveness be withheld? Perhaps there are two angles on this. One is not to do pretend forgiving. It is not genuine when you say you’ve forgiven but are still bitter, hold a grudge, gossip about the person, and so forth. We can both forgive the person who is unreconcilable and the person who, no matter how bad they hurt us, is wanting renewed community. Our forgiveness is not based either on the other party’s willingness to repent or reconcile, nor the severity of the other parties sin.
Jesus’ concept of forgiveness is radical: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.
Some would say that Jesus and the whole Bible teaches conditional forgiveness, that is, forgive those who have repented. Along with that, they might say that the Bible teaches we should always be open to forgiveness and reconciliation, and walking in Christ, with this attitude, is the antidote to bitterness. They might say that you can be unforgiving while not being bitter. They might also say that unconditional forgiveness is what leads to bitterness, I guess because they imagine that you would naturally feel bitter when that person you have forgiven has not repented. Lastly, the conditional forgiveness idea also might hold that when you forgive the unrepentant, you are disagreeing with God and you are enabling that person’s sin. You are playing God and barring that person from coming under conviction and being led to repentance.
Conditional forgivers may also view unconditional forgivers as being too permissive about sin and believing in universalism. How can unconditional forgiveness be reconciled with this? Is it possible that Jesus taught unconditional forgiveness, a radical forgiveness that went beyond Mosaic Law, and, that Jesús also does not enable sin and teach universalism?
I think that there is unconditional love that God has, and is illustrated throughout the scriptures, encapsulated in John 3:16 and Luke 22:34, where Jesus said, from the cross, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” Did Jesus wait for the Roman soldiers to repent?
When someone hurts me and it is offensive and I just don’t have the ability to sit down with them and have a back and forth, showing them their sin; is it appropriate to follow Jesus example and forgive them, ask Father to forgive them? I would say absolutely yes.
How do we forgive when we (feel we) cannot? How do we get healed or released after forgiveness? What about hard cases? How do we forgive when it seems or feels impossible?
Books on forgiveness that I have read contain stories of great wrong done and forgiveness. We might say “wow” and be encouraged, but at the same time feel shame that “I don’t know if I could do that” or “I have not been able do do that, so what’s wrong with me?”
Forgiveness for the Christian is something that God accomplishes. We just have to willingly participate in allowing ourselves to be filled with the grace to forgive that comes from God.
This post relies heavily on David Stoop’s book (Real Solutions For) Forgiving The Unforgiveable. Dr. Stoop died in 2021 at the age of 83. He was married for 60 years and this book was published in 2001 when he was 63. David earned a doctorate in Psychology from U of C, and graduated and taught at Fuller Seminary. At times, this post is like a book report. The thesis of the book is that we can forgive: here is how and not how.
Notes from Forgiving The Unforgivable, by David Stoop (put in my own words):
Sins that might seem to be unforgivable: (fill in the blank if you think of any)
No sin is unforgivable, but it feels that way and forgiveness is a process that takes time and may require steps to work through.
Myths and truths about forgiveness:
- Should we both forgive and forget? No. We should forgive, seventy times seven if necessary, but remember, not in unforgiveness or bitterness, but with self care and protecting others in mind. We have to “keep an eye on some people” and not close our eyes (forget) what they might do again.
- Is is good to get angry when you’re are trying to forgive? Yes! Anger is a secondary emotion that is rooted in hurt. Anger is a part of the emotional healing in the grief process.
- Should I give up all my hard feelings toward the person I have forgiven? Yes! To forgive is defined as giving up feelings of ill will or revenge. It does not mean that full trust is restored. Bad feelings that seem to resurface at times just means there is deep hurt that you are still processing, hopefully working through forgiveness.
- Should I forgive fast and completely? Sometimes, but often no. When someone is rude to you while driving, yes. But forgiveness in interpersonal relationships most often, unless it’s a small offence, takes a little time to process. It happened, it hurt, I need to grieve and recalibrate the relationship, and then I forgive. We mistakenly think that forgiveness without due process is Christian duty. The other person we are forgiving has shattered the relationship. We can forgive them, but not so fast. We must feel the hurt and anger, then grieve the loss of what was or what we thought was, and face the reality of what is.
- Over time I will feel better and forgiveness will take care of itself. False. Forgiveness is an intentional process. Denying and being desensitized and learning to forget, as in putting it out of your mind, is not forgiveness. Repression does not provide resolution.
- If I have forgiven I will no longer have feelings of hate towards the ones who hurt me. False. We can both love our enemies whom we forgive, and have feelings of hatred. We don’t live by and act on our hatred. Letting go of hatred is a process and/or a work of God in our hearts.
- By forgiving, am I saying that what happened didn’t matter? No. Forgiving does not make something bad good. It does the opposite by bringing to light the badness and getting us in touch with our anger and sadness. Facing how much it did matter gets us in touch with what we are forgiving. Saying, “It was no big deal”, is exactly what forgiveness is not.
- Is forgiveness a one-time opportunity that can be missed? No, not really. Forgiveness for big losses, big pain, big injustices takes time. Forgiveness is short-circuited when we do not process the pain.
- I don’t have to forgive until the person who hurt me repents. No, this is false. Forgiveness is an act of obedience (Matthew 6:14-15). When we forgive someone, we are not minimizing their sin nor expunging it. We are letting go of bitterness and adopting an attitude of forgiveness. When we forgive someone who has not repented, we are turning them over to God. Much more on this in the next section.
- I should forgive even when the person who hurt me does not repent. Yes and true. You can forgive someone who is not reconciled to you nor to God. By not forgiving, you hurt yourself by remaining a victim or staying bitter. When I forgive, I am cancelling the debt that the offender owes me, and giving the matter to God. When I see or think of that person, I no longer bring up the memories or the charges I have against them. I am set free. This does not mean we are reconciled. The ultimate goal of forgiveness is reconciliation and when I forgive my heart is available for reconciliation. I don’t wait for them to repent before I forgive, but we also cannot move into reconciliation until they repent which is their own choice and doing. My forgiveness does not signal that we have reconciled nor that we will, but only that I have dropped the charges. Especially if the person who hurt us is dangerous or is still doing their hurtful actions, we need to and should practice safety and set boundaries with or towards them. You can forgive someone fully, but refuse to have any relationship or contact with them.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
In part one I wrote that the purpose of forgiveness is reconciliation into community. In part two I wrote about living in and through Christ’s agape love as the only way to be forgiving, to be a forgiver. In this third post, I am discussing the mechanics or the how to of forgiveness. Firstly, forgiveness is based on Christ and in Christ. Secondly, forgiveness is based on obedience to Christ. Thirdly, we need to keep in mind that forgiveness and reconciliation are different.
It is a distortion or misunderstanding to equate the two as one. Forgiveness is not reconciliation and visa versa. But reconciliation comes only after forgiveness and is the purpose of it. More important than reconciliation with the person who wronged you is being reconciled to God. If I am full of judgement and hate and bitterness towards someone, I am not reconciled with God. By forgiving, which is a process where I feel and express the hurt, anger, and loss, then let it go and cancel their debt, I am reconciled to God and ready, if possible, to reconcile with that person.
I believe that when we have unresolved, unreconciled hurts, angers, bitterness’s, and losses we become distorted in our view and witness of God. On the one hand, we don’t believe and practice that forgiveness equals reconciliation, nor do we believe that all hurts and offenses should not be forgiven until the individuals repent.
The key to know is that personal forgiveness does not equate to reconciliation. To learn this from Jesus, let’s look at Matthew 18 again. The interpretive key to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness are verses 21 and 22:
Then Peter approached him and asked, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?”
“I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven.
People who believe in not forgiving until the other person repents might see conditional forgiveness taught by Jesus in Matthew 18 and Luke 17. Maybe these are not the best passages for making the point of forgiving unconditionally, but Jesus teaches unconditional forgiveness in Mark 11:25:
And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven will also forgive you your wrongdoing.”
Here we have unconditional forgiveness. Not reconciliation into community, but forgiveness. When Jesus commands us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44 and Luke 6:35), wouldn’t that love include forgiveness? How could it not? It is a stretch to believe we should love people but not forgive them. Jesus commands us to do both. Forgiveness that is without love is not forgiveness and love without forgiveness is not love.
If we should obey Jesus in what he says in Mark 11, then why did Jesus talk about the other person repenting in Matthew 18 and Luke 17? It would appear that repentance is the prerequisite for forgiveness, as in it opens the door and without repentance forgiveness is impossible. But that is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying that the goal is reconciliation. but that forgiveness and reconciliation are two distinct stages. You are always to forgive, but when there is repentance, then there can be reconciliation.
To love is to forgive, but forgiveness on one side does not give reconciliation. To love someone and forgive them does not mean that you trust them. Trust is built. Love and approval are also different. You can love someone and not approve of them or their actions. You can love but be unreconciled.
A whole other way of looking at Matthew 18 and Luke 17 is an intervention to reconcile a broken relationship. When we go to a person to show them their fault, they might not even realize there is a fault. The wrong that this is an antidote for is taking offense at something someone did, but never telling them and withdrawing from them, shunning or distancing, and punishing them, keeping them indebted to you in bitterness, and perhaps punishing them by gossiping about them, slandering or maligning them, based on your misunderstanding them or the unreconciled differences you have with them that you have never had the courage or been loving enough to show them.
Maybe Jesus is not teaching on how we should not forgive others until they repent, but that we should care enough to confront or confront caringly enough that the other person has a chance to say they are sorry!
Loving our enemies and loving our neighbor involves forgiving them, being forgiving. And the ministry of reconciliation starts with love.
“You have heard it said, but I say unto you.”
Conditional forgiveness is old school, but Jesus and the Apostles teach unconditional forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift of grace. In Christ you can forgive the unforgivable. In Christ you can forgive someone who is unrepentant.
In Christ we are also not fooled, not in denial, not uncaring. We know and see and care about sin and sinfulness. We forgive but are careful. Repentance from the other is not a requirement for my forgiveness, but carefulness is. I care about the other person’s dangerousness, foolishness, or selfishness. I care about safety and I forgive. You can do both.
The pathways of depression, bitterness, or forgiveness (Dr. Stoop, Forgiving…, ch. 4, 5, 6)
The path of depression:
Offense –> Hurt –> Denial or blame self –> Shut down emotionally –> Depressed
The path of bitterness:
Offense –> Hurt –> Tell and retell –> Choose to –> Accuse and excuse –> Obsess –> Seek payment/revenge –> Isolate and withdraw –> Bitterness
The path of forgiveness:
Offense –> Hurt –> Tell and retell –> Choose to –> Place appropriate blame –> Grieve –> Forgive –> Consider reconciliation –> Rebuild trust
The health benefits of forgiveness (from Stoop, ch. 9)
A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.
The Minirth-Meier New Life clinic news letter in January 1995 had an article about a study at Duke University Medical School, that said that the number one killer in the United States was something they called “the hidden death syndrome: related to unforgiveness. (Stoop, Forgiving…, p. 130)
“One study of cancer patients who had been diagnosed as terminal (expected to live six months or less) found that those who completed a special anger-management program — along with traditional medical treatment — were more likely to go into remission..”(ibid, p. 131)
Genuine forgiveness never does away with accountability (ibid, p. 137)
Q & A (Stoop, chapter 10 notes, in my own words)
- What if the damage is severe? Can forgiveness be inappropriate?
Very hurtful or damaging sin against us can take time to work through so that it (the process) is not superficial or in denial. A grieving process may be appropriate. Reconciliation with or repentance by the one(s) who hurt you is not the basis for forgiveness and should not be what keeps you from forgiving. Matthew 18 teaches us to forgive “no strings attached”. Forgiveness does not mean it didn’t happen or we are reconciled. Forgiveness means I have cancelled your debt and am no longer filled with feelings of bitterness and a need for revenge or getting even with you.
- What if the person who hurt me seeks my forgiveness, but I am not ready?
Make it your rule of life to always forgive based on being a disciple of Christ. Decide to forgive but take the time to process your grief. Grieving is a process that has an end, like making a cake or doing a workout. Even marathons have an end. So process your hurt through the grief process. You may need to talk to someone or journal it towards getting your story out and being ready to let it go.
- What if my working through this process of forgiveness that involves uncovering painful events and facing them so that I can forgive could cause hurt to others?
Seek wisdom from God about making revelations to others. My process of getting free and forgiving does not depend on being affirmed or endorsed by any person (but Christ). If you discover or begin to acknowledge what has been a family secret, your healing does not depend on other family or extended family or friends sharing your revelations of secrets exposed.
Any desire to share or reveal secrets that could be shocking or hurtful to others should be checked. Is my desire rooted in revenge, or self-righteousness?
Someone might be working on confessing their wrongs and they want to talk to you about what they did in the past. First, this person may believe that they need to do this for their process of growth. Second, the revelations could be hurtful to the one confessed to.
For the person who commits adultery, they have recognized their sin and sought forgiveness from God. They tell a friend, their same sex group, or their pastor or counselor. The next step is, should they tell their spouse? If they don’t tell, isn’t that unfair or furthering the deception? But what if telling will devastate their spouse and the loving (agape) thing to do is not tell and bear the humbling of having sinned and been forgiven before Christ alone and spare your beloved spouse’s feelings?
I am not telling you what to do, but just making suggestions and asking you to pray for wisdom. The news of betrayal may be so crushing to your spouse that telling them only serves the purpose of getting relief for you, so now you’ve hurt them double.
It is a mistake to try to get reconciliation and forgiveness at the same time or wait for reconciliation before forgiving. An example is a sudden end to a relationship. And you stew on it and are perplexed at being cut off and do not grieve the loss because even though you are hurt and mad, part of you refuses to believe this person is out of your life. After a time, months or even years, the chance for reconciliation on some level comes up and you refuse it or reject it in anger and hurt, because you never forgave. If you have forgiven, you might welcome seeing this person again or hearing from them, and you might have the chance to say, “Hey, what happened? You disappeared.” And then comes reconciliation, maybe. They tell you their side and you might really be surprised.
- Forgiving seems unfair. They hurt me and now I have to do the work of forgiving?
Forgiveness is about obedience to Christ and self-care. We forgive so that we can live in love and grace and freedom. Forgiveness is not denial of sin and wrong. Fairness really is not a kingdom value.
- How do we know if the person who offended is sincere in their apology?
Number one, when someone has hurt you it is a violation of trust. If they apologize and ask forgiveness, we are automatically skeptical. We are thinking self-protection. If we have not forgiven them, then we might view their apology through vengeful anger. Even if, and hopefully we are, willing to forgive them and be reconcilable, violated trust takes time to rebuild. It is okay to feel skeptical while accepting the overture of reconciliation. It is also okay to be skeptical and feel not ready to reconcile. You have the right to say or feel that this overture is welcomed, even skeptically, and also say that you are not ready. You can say, “I need some time”.
Sometimes an offender wants to reconcile, apologize, or seek forgiveness and they are aggressive or demanding about it. They may be sincere and a “Type A” person, or they may just have personal brokenness where, while their apology is very sincere and authentic, they are insensitive or selfish. Both can be true. That being said, an apology or seeking forgiveness and some sort of reconciliation can be insincere. We cannot know someone else’s heart. A fake apology may be another type of abuse. A person may offer an apology but not be able to “be good” so to speak. Their apology is sincere, but they hurt you again. Should you forgive them, over and over? Yes. Should you set boundaries or be careful? Yes. Should you isolate and avoid everyone or only relate to people superficially to avoid getting hurt? Probably not. You might employ an objective mediator or your personal counselor to help you if you are not sure of someone’s intentions who has deeply hurt you and asks to apologize, ask forgiveness, or reconcile with you.
- What if I don’t want to forgive?
Dr. Stoop wrote:
“Are you trying to protect yourself from further hurt by your refusal to forgive?”
“Are you trying to forgive something that is ongoing, and do you need to set some healthy boundaries first?”
“Do you feel empowered by your not forgiving?”
What might you be holding on to that is blocking your forgiveness? This is the question we need to answer so that we can be obedient. When we are reluctant to forgive it may be linked to not having appropriated God’s forgiveness personally. Be honest to God, telling God you don’t want to even though you realize it is the right thing to do and ask God to help you.
- What about the pain of seeing or relating to a person that hurt you?
Learn boundaries, limits, and assertiveness. If the person is someone you live with or are in a partnership with, you may need to ask for and make space and communicate this. We can say “I forgive you”, but not feel it and we can also wait to forgive until after we have had time to heal.
The overriding principle is that forgiveness is obedience and is healing for ourselves. It may seem strange to forgive someone or a group who hurt you who are unaware or unwilling to own that they hurt you. Even though the ultimate or ideal goal of forgiveness is reconciliation and restored community, I cannot make it happen but only prepare myself for it through authentic forgiveness that is rooted in Christ. My openness to communal reconciliation does not mean it will or must happen. Relationships have to be mutually matched.
Final notes and thoughts
The context of Matthew 18 and Luke 17 (and Matthew 5:23) is a believers community. People you have relationship with and share life together. In that setting, we can pull a person aside, ask to speak to them, sit down and have an important conversation where we tell them their fault or how they offended us. Hopefully, they see their fault or see that they hurt us and say they are sorry, repent, and we forgive them, and the fractured relationship is restored and we move back into doing life together. But many times, most of the time, we do not have a relationship with the offender in which we can have this hard conversation. That then puts us in the category of being the person who is worshiping God and realizes that they are holding a grudge. Jesus instructs us to let it go and forgive them.
A Christian is a person who is in Christ and whom Christ is living through them. With that in mind, the radical forgiveness of Christ is to say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”. When someone hurts me, intentionally or unintentionally they might be a non-believer or a believer. I can say what Jesus said and forgive them. This does not mean it doesn’t matter, doesn’t hurt, or is not very offensive. Being sinned against is very real and I choose to forgive.
My forgiveness is not denial or without grief. My forgiveness does not imply I don’t have boundaries or care about safety. You can have and set boundaries, be safe, and forgive. There is disciplinary action for infractions while there is forgiveness. There is a restoration process while there is forgiveness. There is sometimes a restitution plan while there is forgiveness. There may be a legal, trial, or time-limited separation while there is forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a choice that we choose over and over. Restoring a relationship or rebuilding trust is a careful process. When I forgive, I open the way to restoration of relationship. Unforgiveness blocks my relationship first with God and then with people. I don’t want that. So I forgive you if you have offended me and please forgive me if I have offended you.
Forgiving The Unforgivable, David Stoop