(This is the fifth entry of a series on forgiveness. Can you forgive the unrepentant?)
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
At the foot of the cross we stand. We look up and come face to face with the reality of our own sin. Jesus Christ suffered God’s wrath against our sins. Willingly and lovingly Jesus obeyed the Father as he hung on the cross. Willingly and lovingly he went to his death for the forgiveness of our sins.
At the foot of the cross we humbly bow before our Savior and Lord. Here, by the grace of God, we are freely forgiven and brought to peace with God. Freely, for we cannot pay the price. Freely, for in his mercy and compassion the Father sacrificed his Son. Freely, for the Son in his mercy and compassion died on the cross becoming our sin. Such an awful price was paid by God.
With our hearts continuing to be bowed in humility before the cross we live as children of God. How can we not forgive those who wrong us? When we refuse, like Peter when the rooster crowed the third time, we look toward Jesus and his eyes penetrate our hearts. Here is where our forgiving begins, at the foot of the cross. As the forgiven and as imitators of Christ forgiveness is to be ingrained on our hearts and in our nature as children of God. “As Christ has forgiven you.”1
“When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals–one on his right, the other on his left. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him…The soldiers also came up and mocked him” (Luke 23:33, 35, 36). The forces of evil gathered around the cross. Jesus was abandoned by friends and followers, given over to his enemies. “He stared into the abyss of evil. His choice was clear: join it or defy it.”2 Jesus chose to defy evil. He forgave his enemies. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Enraged by Stephen’s preaching of Jesus as the Christ, the mob stoned him to death. “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60).
What do we do with the way Jesus defied evil with forgiveness? How do we respond to Stephen’s imitation of Christ, facing down evil with forgiveness? What is our response when faced with wrong done to us, with an offender who has not repented, who refuses to listen, and who couldn’t care less? When that offender is no longer in our lives and there will be no opportunity to hear and experience his repentance? Do we join him in his wrong doing by holding on to anger? Do we hold a grudge in bitterness and resentment? Do we allow the wound to fester and the infection to worsen?
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you….if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back….If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?…And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-36).
Read the above again. Open your Bible and read the complete text. Enemies, are they not those who refuse to admit wrong doing, to accept responsibility, and to repent? Those you know will not pay to you what they owe you, a good description of those who refuse to repent for wrong done to you. Jesus is telling us to let go of the anger and the hatred. The bitterness, the resentment, the desire to get our just due, the desire for vengeance, Jesus teaches to replace these with love. In that love he tells us to do good to our enemies, bless them, pray for them, do not demand payment. Imitate the Father being kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful towards them as God is merciful. I see forgiveness within this teaching. Yes, forgiveness of the unrepentant. As the Father sees us all, Jesus wants us to see the wrongdoer not through the wrong, but as he is, a weak human being.
Vera was a victim of a date rape while in college decades ago. Though long past, the memory was still very much alive. When remembered or shared the pain was felt again. Those strong negative emotions flooded back into her heart. Memories come out of no where, at the most unexpected times. A smell, a chance encounter, a song, a news story, opens the door from that secret place where memories hide and they attack the heart replaying the details, invoking the emotions.
A choice had to be made Vera realized. She had to decide to remain a victim or to overcome what happened to her. If she continued to wallow in bitterness, resentment, hatred, and the desire for vengeance, her life would continue to be controlled by an enemy, by the person who committed that horrible sin against her.
Vera decided she had to stare down the abyss of the evil that had devastated her life, defy it, and imitate Christ. She had to make the decision, trust Christ, and love her enemy and forgive him in imitation of her Father. She said, “I have forgiven him. That doesn’t mean I have to trust him with my life. Believe me, I don’t. I am working to love him as an enemy.” She had to work on compassion and empathy toward her enemy, praying for his well-being, for his good. Yes, praying he would face his sin and change his life.3
Someone will point to Luke 17:3-4, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” The implication some argue is that if there is no repentance there can be, must not be, forgiveness. I believe this is a misunderstanding of the emphasis of Jesus’ words. If someone sins against us seven times in one day and each time comes back and repents most of us conclude that person isn’t repentant at all. The emphasis of Jesus, his point, is forgiveness. Patiently, with longsuffering, forgive, repeatedly if necessary. The point is, forgive.
Jesus on the cross, Stephen, Matthew 5, Luke 6, teach us we can, we must forgive even if there is no repentance. One more biblical text I suggest you read is Genesis 33. Did not Esau let go of his anger and hatred? It appears to me he forgave his brother Jacob long before Jacob came home and approached his brother in repentance.
Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, Paul warns us in Ephesians 4. Rid your heart of bitterness, rage, slander, maliciousness. Replace these with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. Waiting on the wrongdoer to repent, time passes, perhaps he never comes in repentance. The wound, the hurt, and the pain fester. You find yourself controlled by the one who hurt you, even if he is no longer in your life. You continue to suffer from the pain of the hurt inflicted. You victimize yourself repeatedly with what was done to you.
Forgiveness is about healing the hurt within you. Forgiveness is the healing of your anger, bitterness, and resentment. It is setting yourself free from the control of what was done to you, freeing yourself from the control of the person who hurt you. You do not have to wait for permission from the person who wronged you to forgive him. Sometimes he doesn’t care. Forgiveness is still forgiveness even if it stops within the forgiver’s heart, refused by the forgiven.
Reconciliation, the restoration of the relationship, bringing the relationship back to what it was before or better, this is a goal, the ideal outcome of forgiveness. Reconciliation, however, is not necessary for forgiveness to take place. To forgive someone who is unrepentant, who refuses to say he is sorry, who will not take responsibility for what he did, is not welcoming him back as if nothing happened. If he wants to come back, he must come with sorrow. He must come with repentance, accepting responsibility for his actions.4
To give the gift of forgiveness is to make the decision to let go of the resentment and bitterness. Forgiveness is the decision to overcome evil with good, to love with the love of Christ, loving even an enemy. Yes, for the one being forgiven to receive that forgiveness, to accept it, requires sorrow, repentance, and taking responsibility for his actions. It is important for the wrongdoer to understand when he comes with repentance he does not earn the right to forgiveness or to demand forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift, unearned, undeserved, to be freely given.5
A person cannot be made to repent. People are not like dogs to be pulled back on a leash. If someone who hurt you decides to stay away, to not repent, to not come back, let her be responsible for her own actions. An aside here as I have a concern for those who find themselves in abusive situations where the abuser comes back repeatedly, “I’m so sorry. I love you. If you just didn’t do the things that make me so angry!” First, this statement does not reflect repentance. “I’m sorry, but it is your fault,” is not repentance. Second, forgiveness is not welcoming back an abusive person submitting to his abuse repeatedly.
Why should we allow the unrepentant to keep us from forgiving, from letting go of the bitterness and resentment which are disrupting our lives? Why should we allow them to keep us from healing our souls by forgiving them?6
There is an old Jewish text, Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, which teaches, “If a man sin against thee…if he repent and confess, forgive him…But if he be shameless, and persisteth in his wrongdoing even so forgive him from the heart, and leave to God the avenging.”7 The apostle Paul exhorts, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Smedes writes, “Forgiveness is real even if it stops at the healing of the forgiver….Should you sentence yourself to the escalator of hate simply because the person you need to forgive does not want your forgiveness?”8
Stephen had a choice in that awful moment. He could join the mob in its evil and die with anger, bitterness, resentment, and a cry for vengeance. He chose to love his enemies. Stephen chose to overcome evil with good, with grace, yes, with forgiveness.
“In Forgive for Good, Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, writes that forgiveness means you become ‘a hero instead of a victim in the story you tell.’”9
____________ 1Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; see also Matthew 6:14-15; 18:32-35; 5:43-48; Luke 6:35-36 2Martha E. Stortz. “The Practice of Forgiveness: Disciples as Forgiven Forgivers” in Word & World (V. 27, No. 1, Winter 2007), 21. 3Ibid., 19-20. 4Lewis B. Smedes. The Art of Forgiving, When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 94. 5Ibid. 6Lewis B. Smedes. Forgive & Forget, Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (New York: HarperOne, 1984, 1996), 69. 7Ibid., 70. 8Ibid. 9Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace, How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 140.