In my last post, I argued that Jesus’s whole point in telling the “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” was to say to Peter (and to you and me by extension) that we shouldn’t have to ask how many times we should forgive someone when they sin against us. Knowing that we are like the first servant in the parable who was forgiven a debt he could never repay, we are to stand ready, willing, and able to forgive others no matter how often they may hurt us or how great the pain they may cause. Forgiveness is not optional for us as Christians. We are to forgive others in direct proportion to the forgiveness we have received from God. But if all of that is true, as I certainly believe it is, it inevitably raises the question as to whether or not we are obligated to forgive those who hurt us even if they never apologize or seek our forgiveness. Are we as Christians to supposed to keep on forgiving others no matter what?
Forgiveness is relational
The short answer to this question is no; we are not called to forgive others “no matter what.” One of the reasons we know this is true is because, as we have previously said, forgiveness is always a relational category. It is never an end in itself in the Bible but always a means to the end of reconciliation (see my earlier posts on forgiveness). A relationship has been broken, and it needs to be restored. It cannot be restored, however, until and unless the sins that have caused the break have been dealt with. Once these sins have been forgiven, the relationship can be restored to its original condition.
The relational nature of forgiveness means that we have no obligation to forgive someone with whom we do not have a relationship. That is because there is actually no way for us to forgive in this case, because genuine forgiveness—at least in the way that the Bible talks about it—is always unto the restoration of a relationship. And this is impossible if there isn’t a relationship to begin with. There should no doubt be something akin to forgiveness that takes place in these kinds of situations. We ought not harbor bitterness and anger toward people for the things that they do to us, even if we don’t have relationships with them. We need to let go of the hurts that strangers may cause so that they don’t consume us or eat us up on the inside. But we can’t forgive them really and truly, because forgiveness is always unto the restoration of a relationship, and, if there isn’t any relationship to restore, then there cannot be any forgiveness.
Forgiveness sometimes requires confronting others
The relational nature of forgiveness also means that we have no obligation to forgive someone who does not apologize and seek our forgiveness for whatever hurt he or she has caused. This is because genuine forgiveness is impossible without both sides participating. One side must apologize and be willing to seek forgiveness and the other side must be willing to forgive. Without both of these things happening, reconciliation is unattainable.
We all know that a one-sided relationship is a contradiction in terms. Every relationship, by definition, involves two people, which means that reconciling the relationship requires two people as well. It doesn’t matter how willing one party may be to forgive if the other party is unwilling to acknowledge wrongdoing and to apologize and seek forgiveness. Restoration cannot happen until both parties want it and work for it.
What this indicates is that in order for forgiveness and reconciliation to take place, it may be necessary for us to confront those who have offended us if they are not apologetic on their own and don’t seek forgiveness of their own accord. This is not optional for us as Christians, because being in right relationships with one another isn’t optional for us (for more on this, see my first post in this series, “Why Should I Forgive?”). The ideal situation, obviously, is for those brothers or sisters who offend us to be walking closely enough with the Lord that they see and are convicted of their sins without anyone having to confront them. But, when that doesn’t happen, the Bible calls us to let them know that they have hurt us and to call them to repentance.
This is precisely what Jesus challenges us to do in Luke 17:3, when He says: “If your brother sins [against you], rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Here, Jesus is telling us that our brother or our sister—i.e., one with whom we have a relationship—must apologize and seek our forgiveness. That is the goal of the “rebuking” we are to give. And once our brother or our sister has “repented,” we are to forgive him or her so that our relationship might be restored, even if that means the process of rebuking, repenting, and forgiving must be done “seven times in the day” (v. 4). Reconciliation requires both parties actively working to secure genuine forgiveness even if the same offenses are being committed against us over and over again.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to be mistreated continually
Brothers and sisters who sin against us and “repent” will do more than say the right words, however. They will also be genuinely sorry (from the heart) for what they have done and grieved over the pain that they have caused. But, what is more, if they are truly sorry for hurting us, they will also want to do whatever they can to ensure, as much as possible, that they don’t do the same things all over again. If, for instance, we know that we are prone to throwing bowling balls in the gutter, and we refuse to put up the guard rails that the bowling alley provides or to take bowling lessons, we know that we are not really grieved over our tendency to throw gutter balls and are not really serious about keeping it from happening again. Likewise, brothers and sisters who aren’t willing to do whatever they can to change aren’t really grieved over what they have done and aren’t really serious about amending their hurtful behavior.
What I am trying to say here is that even though Jesus calls upon us to forgive our brothers and sisters “seven times in the day” (so long as they repent), this doesn’t mean that we are to allow ourselves to be mistreated. It is appropriate for us to put some “guard rails” in place or to talk with brothers and sisters who hurt us about steps that they can take to ensure that they don’t continue to do the same things over and over again. That might mean seeing a counselor. It might mean reading a book together that deals with the situation. Or it might mean agreeing to walk away from conflict for a short time in order to allow cooler heads to prevail later. The point is that we are called upon to forgive brothers and sisters who repent, but true repentance will be grieved over the hurt that has been caused and will want to take steps to ensure that the hurt is not repeated time and time again.
It also needs to be said that although we may forgive every hurt immediately upon repentance, that doesn’t mean that restoration will always follow immediately in every situation. Some hurts are so wounding that they may well require an extended period of time before the relationship can be fully restored. In some cases, healing will just take longer because the wounds are deeper. In some cases, trust will need to be rebuilt. The important thing is not the time that restoration takes, but the fact that progress is actually being made toward it. Restoration of the relationship is the end goal, no matter how long it takes for us to get there. Forgiveness and repentance are the necessary—and incredibly difficult—means to achieving the far more glorious end of relational unity.