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A long time ago, in a land far, far away; two loving grandparents used to stop and pick up 3 brothers and 2 of their cousins on their way to Sunday School. On the way, my cousin Rick began to argue with my brother Tom about something. And as we were getting out of the car, Rick tried to shut the door on Tom. As we all came into the room, the argument was still in full force and teacher must have thought to herself, what a wonderful opportunity to teach the class about forgiveness. So she called those two whipper-snappers up to the front of the room and in fine detective fashion determined the cause of the squabble. Then she asked the all-important question: “Tommy, will you forgive Ricky?”
“Sure,” Tom replied, and then hauled off and slugged Rick in the stomach.
“Wait a minute,” she yelled, “I asked you to forgive him, not hit him.”
“I will forgive him,” Tom protested, “but I had to get even with him first.”
Even though his logic was a little askew, at least Tom was willing to forgive. That may be more than the typical Sunday School student or even many devout Christians are willing to do. George Barna’s latest poll indicates that 40% of Christians admit they are currently struggling with forgiving someone who has wronged them.
Take Jim Rogers of Seattle, Washington, for example; a devout Christian who claims to understand what the Bible says about this subject. “Christ taught us that it’s something we Christians should be willing to do,” he said, “if the person who did you wrong is asking you to forgive him, then it is our clear obligation to do so.” But he has trouble with offering carte blanche forgiveness when that other person refuses to repent and ask for forgiveness. We can sympathize with his feelings: In 2002, his daughter, Jill, was killed in an armed robbery. And his son, Keith was killed two years later by a drunk driver. Neither of the killers has repented of their actions, so Rogers feels no obligation to forgive. “Don’t come asking me to forgive the people who killed my kids.”
Should Jim Rogers forgive the men who killed his two children, even though they show no signs of remorse?
Should we withhold forgiveness until the party who wronged us shows some kind of repentance or remorse or at least asks to be forgiven?
And a few well-meaning Christians would say, “Absolutely!” Why; well if God requires us to repent of our sin before He forgives us, then doesn’t it stand to reason that we should require our offenders to repent before we forgive them?
And they would point to Luke 17:3-4, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him?”
Jesus is here describing a situation where someone hurts us and then says, “I’m so sorry; I promise it will never happen again.” But it does happen again, and again and again. And Jesus is saying that just as God’s refuses to limit His forgiveness, we are not to limit ours.
But this logic fails to recognize a most important distinction: repentance is vitally important to receiving forgiveness, but not to granting it.
If the two who were responsible for the deaths of Jim Roger’s children would have said to him, “I’m sorry; would you please forgive me?” then the issue of repentance is very important. This is the case where the offender desires to be forgiven; and so acknowledges the wrong, feels bad about it, apologizes, promises it will never happen again, and asks to be forgiven. If you want to receive forgiveness, then repentance is going to play a very prominent role.
But we are talking about granting forgiveness which is another story.
Should Jim Rogers or any of us forgive someone who has wronged us when that person shows no sign of repentance?
And I say the answer is: absolutely! I believe that we are required to grant unconditional forgiveness. Let me tell you why.
Unconditional forgiveness is biblical.
Matthew 5:43-45 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.”
Mark 11:25 “And whenever you stand praying, forgive if you have anything against anyone; so that your Heavenly Father may forgive your transgressions.”
Luke 6:32-33 “If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much!”
Romans 12:17-20 “Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.
Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘I will take revenge; I will pay them back,’ says the Lord.”
Was there anything in those verses that suggest requiring repentance before we forgive? Forgiveness is the obligation of the forgiven, and we are the forgiven. Forgiveness represents a major part of Christian love and grace.
Unconditional forgiveness is more practical.
Demanding repentance can be both uncomfortable and impractical. For example, if repentance is a requirement of forgiveness, then that means, unless they come to us first, we must confront every person who wrongs us before we can genuinely forgive him or her. The boss who spoke sharply to us, the friend who forgets our birthday, the mate who forgot to pick up our clothes at the dry-cleaners, the friend who neglects to visit us in the hospital, and on and on it goes. Do we really want to spend our lives seeking repentance of everyone around us?
And doesn’t such a confrontational lifestyle contradict the essence of Christian love? A love that “keeps no record of wrongs.” (I Co. 13:5)
John McArthur writes, “The heavy emphasis on forgiveness in scripture is not meant to make us confrontational, but quite the opposite. When scripture calls us to have an attitude of forgiveness, the emphasis is always on long-suffering, patience, benevolence, forbearance, kindness, and mercy . . . not confrontation.”
In his book, simply entitled Stuck, pastor and author, F. Remy Diederich, talks about the power of unconditional forgiveness and how it empowers us to live new lives. In an online article he writes:
A big downside to thinking that forgiveness is conditional (beyond the fact that I don’t see the Bible supporting it) is that, knowing humanity, we will always find a reason to NOT forgive, right? We will always think that someone hasn’t repented enough, thereby justifying our not forgiving. How convenient. How human. We are called to something higher. Plus, conditional forgiveness encourages us to carry lists against all the people that have offended us over the years. Rather than being seen as a gracious child of God, people avoid us for being a rigid legalist who carries grudges.
And what happens if we have lost track of the person who has offended us? Are we automatically sentenced to a life of bitterness because so and so left no forwarding address?
And how many of us desperately desire to hear the words: “I’m sorry, please forgive me?” but death has rendered that person incapable of demonstrating repentance.
You see how the gift of unconditional forgiveness provides a way we can let go of the wounds of the past inflicted by those who not willing or incapable of repentance?
Unconditional forgiveness is beneficial.
Probably the best reason to forgive unconditionally is the emotional and spiritual healing it brings to our lives. So often when we think of forgiveness, we think about what it’s going to do for that other person. What we don’t realize is that forgiveness is really an act of self-interest. We’re doing ourselves a favor because it frees us to live more peaceful lives.
How many of you have participated in a three-legged race? One of your legs is bound to another person and you try to hobble to the finish line. And as you go you’re thinking, If I could be free of this guy I could win this race. But the rules don’t allow for a solo run; for better or worse, you must remain tied to your partner.
Demanding remorse, regret or repentance from our offender is emotionally binding us to that other person. We are doomed to hobble through life together.
And it is only forgiveness that enables us to cut the cords that bind us to that person. When we release that person from their offense, we are in effect saying, “I no longer wish to be emotionally tied to you. Whether you repent or not is between you and God, not you and me. I’m moving on.”
Perhaps God has brought to your mind someone who has wounded you deeply and yet is either unaware or unmoved or separated by distance or even death. Are you tired of being bound to that person? Do you wish to be freed to run the race that Christ wants to see you run? Then you’ve got to find your way to forgiveness.
I know it’s hard. Unconditional forgiveness is probably the most difficult thing many of us will ever have to do. Yet at the same time, the rewards are more than worth it. Philosopher Bernard Metzler once said, “When you forgive, you in no way change the past, but you sure do change the future.” And I would add “your future.”
Just ask Jim Rogers.
I remember the moment that “I got it” about forgiveness. I knew that any Christian worth his salt should strive toward forgiveness. I had analyzed the word many times,
coming to the conclusion that it was not about condoning bad behavior; rather, it was about forgiving persons, not actions. I had studied the relevant scripture passages. I had prayed to experience God’s healing forgiveness for myself. I had prayed to be able to forgive the two who had hurt me in a life-changing way. However, when I read the words of Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking, I realized I had not plumbed the depths of the process. I hadn’t admitted to myself that, at its core, forgiveness is an act of radical self-interest. The truth of his words made my scalp prickle.
‘Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger that results from un-forgiveness is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back . . . in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.’
My heart stood still at the power of those words. My reliable “truth bell” rang in my head. I saw the bitter cost of un-forgiveness: nothing short of the utter erosion of one’s life. And, I decided that I wanted no more part of it.
I pray that if you are suffering from the sometimes horrendous consequences of un-forgiveness, that this series of messages will set you as free as Jim Rogers is today.