Is There A Time To Not Forgive?
I always fear being misunderstood when writing on this topic. God’s grace and forgiveness is central to His character and message. I would never advise one they must not forgive those who do not regret their actions. For others it is nonsensical to even consider forgiving when there is denial or no remorsefulness for wrongdoing. Today, when forgiveness is discussed among Christians, those seeking forgiveness and those not seeking forgiveness are often not differentiated.
Does the Bible really teach always forgiving those who don’t admit any wrongdoing? The Bible is abundantly clear we must forgive those who seek forgiveness, for this is exactly what our God does for us. Can you imagine a world where there is no forgiveness? Must we though pretend that repenting doesn’t matter? Can forgiving those who don’t seek forgiveness cause even more psychological trauma for victims? We don’t want to be held hostage to our bitterness against those who have sinned against us, but insisting to forgive those who deny any wrongdoing isn’t always the biblical mandate.
The Old Testament says on several occasions that God is not willing to forgive the rebellious who have no desire to change. [i.e. Joshua 24:19-20; 2 Kings 24:1-4] Did God perform some type of forgiveness ritual before punishing evil behaviors? In dealing with sin in the church, it doesn’t say forgive the unrepentant on the way out the door. [Matt 18] In the same chapter the servant in debt drops to his knees and begs for mercy. The Master forgives his debt. Then, when the servant doesn’t forgive his fellow servant the Master, who is described being like God, takes back his forgiveness and shows some tough love. People may only truly change for their own good and those around them when their sins are not ignored.
The parable of the prodigal son is surely a story of easy forgiveness. Wait! The father didn’t forgive the son on the way out the door with his inheritance. The son was not expressing any regrets. He was trying to avoid stepping on his old man throat on the way out. But, the son returns and admits his sin and confesses he is no longer worthy of being called his son. Bingo! Dad instantly forgives and the other brother gets mad. In Luke 19 people were upset because Jesus was forgiving Zacchaeus, the tax collector. What is Jesus supposed to do? Zacchaeus told Jesus he planned to give right now half of his possession to the poor, and those I cheated I will repay fourfold. The Bible just doesn’t talk much about forgiveness when folks are not repentant.
There are even times where Jesus talked about not forgiving. In Mt 6:15 Jesus made a point of the importance of forgiving others if you wish to be forgiven your sins by God. God’s grace is easy but not foolish. Certain blasphemy will not be forgiven if one is not repentant. [Mt 12:31:32] Our eternal destination is our choice. God is not going to force anyone to be with Him in heaven against their will. Does God perform some type of forgiveness ritual before condemning the unrepentant to eternity without Him? Most passages only discuss forgiveness when repentance or confession is present. Luke 17:3 says: “If a brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.” I John 1:9 says: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.”
It is true Jesus taught His followers to love their enemies. [Mt 5:38-48] Jesus’ love is radical, but He was not saying soldiers on the battlefield could not defend themselves against their enemies. Jesus was not saying repentance isn’t important. He was saying pray for your enemies. Forgive your enemies if they confess their sins, though we may not feel they deserve it. Don’t seek instance justice. Anyone can hate their enemies back and demand an “eye for an eye.” Many of us would not be the people we are today if not for God’s radical love. In Acts 7 Stephen forgave his stoners as he was dying, but this isn’t necessarily applicable in every situation according to biblical teachings.
The biblical emphasis suggests with forgiveness it takes two to tango. If one confesses their wrongdoing, God is always willing to forgive. I would never discourage one if they forgave their transgressor despite their lack of regret, if this rest best with their soul. I can think of no biblical example where humans are advised to not forgive. Stressing forgiveness in these situations for some though can cause more psychological stress for the victim. The guilty may need to face the harm they have done others to stop the cycle of victimization. Sinners must recognize how their selfishness is ruining their lives and the lives of others they impact. Some people are only brought to their knees for their own good when dealt with realistically and honestly.
Not forgiving the unrepentant is not the same thing as being bitter. All agree no purpose is served by allowing another person’s sins to continue to hold one hostage. Look to God and those who have successfully dealt with bitterness to move on. Prepare your heart if the unrepentant seek forgiveness. If they don’t confess, you don’t have to pretend it doesn’t hurt. God made us for relationships. Don’t seek revenge. God is able to handle revenge without being vindictive. Please do not conclude from what I have written that one can earn forgiveness by paying back what they have taken from someone (i.e. childhood with appropriate parental love, sexual purity). Christians don’t forgive because others deserve it; Christians forgive because God forgave us, but confession is an integral aspect of how we receive God’s grace.