Do we forgive people who haven’t said ‘I’m sorry’?

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By Elizabeth Prata

Forgiveness is a Christian activity we should have on our heart and mind often. When Mike Riccardi preached at Grace Community Church recently he addressed the topic. Later on his Facebook page, he posted Albert Martin’s words. Someone asked him a question that I’ve been asked, and it was a question I’ve often wondered myself. Are we supposed to forgive a person who is unrepentant of their sin against you?

First, Albert Martin words posted from Mike Riccardi:

The one who forgives makes a solemn four-pronged promise. When you say to someone who has asked your forgiveness for a specific sin, ‘I forgive you,’ you are making this promise:

1. I will not knowingly remember this thing against you.

2. I will not speak of this thing to any others.

3. I will not raise it with you again.

4. I will not allow it to be a barrier in the restoration of our relationship.

I grew up in an Italian family. There were certain things I was taught, either implicitly or explicitly. One was that we must hold grudges. If a wrong done to us was bad enough, you turn a grudge turned into a vendetta. Secondly, the longer you hold a grudge or perpetuate a vendetta, the stronger you looked to others. Naturally in the family there were arguments, splits, and anger abounding. Segments of the family that were “not talking” to others. People were ‘in’ or they were ‘out’. Sigh. Needless to say, forgiveness offered was fairly unknown. So was seeking forgiveness. So, needless to say, after I came to Christ (thankfully!) I had a hard time understanding the concept of forgiveness.

After Mike Riccardi’s post above had been up a while, a lady asked this question based on the 4 points:

Should this be our promise even if one does not ask for forgiveness?

Mike Riccardi answered:

“Otherwise sound Bible teachers disagree on this point, namely, whether mutual forgiveness (sinner to sinner) is to be conditional (as is God’s forgiveness of us, conditioned upon genuine repentance) or unconditional (unlike God’s forgiveness of us).”

“I am one who takes the former position: that the Bible makes a distinction between the disposition or readiness to forgive (e.g., Ps 86:5) and forgiveness itself, and instructs us to always cultivate that disposition or readiness to forgive, such that there is never any bitterness or vengeance in the heart, and such that the moment that forgiveness is genuinely sought from us we grant it eagerly from the heart.”

“But at the same time, I believe the Bible teaches that the actual conferral of forgiveness, by definition, only happens when an offending party confesses and seeks forgiveness from an offended party. I base that on a couple of strands of biblical teaching.”

  1. The distinction between the readiness to forgive and forgiveness, as above.
  2. The consistent teaching that God’s forgiveness of sinners (which is conditioned upon the sinner’s confession and repentance) is to be the pattern of our forgiveness of one another—not only explicitly in passages like Eph 4:32 and Col 3:13, but also indicated by the fact that the very same terms are used for God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of one another. If God does not confer forgiveness upon any except those “who call upon” Him, but rather stands “ready to forgive” them (Ps 86:5), then this ought to be our practice as well.
  3. Luke 17:3-4 seems to me to be the clearest passage in which this topic is dealt with, and Jesus’ instruction is explicitly conditional: 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.” Here, forgiveness is explicitly conditioned upon repentance. I simply cannot square the teaching of unconditional forgiveness with the “if-then” conditional statements in this passage.

“But again, let me repeat: this does not mean I think we should cherish an unforgiving spirit or nurse resentment against someone who has sinned against us but who hasn’t come to seek our forgiveness. Both I (who think forgiveness is conditional) and the one who thinks forgiveness is unconditional believe that the Christian’s behavior should look exactly the same in this scenario—cultivating a cheerful disposition and readiness to forgive, eliminating any vengefulness or bitterness in their spirit against the other person, behaving happily and without rancor toward him even before he asks forgiveness. The only difference is in what we call that behavior (readiness to forgive vs. forgiveness itself); there’s no distinction in any behavior itself. Hope that helps.” –end Riccardi quote

It does help. A biblically based answer to a Christian life question is always helpful. So, have a soft heart and abounding love for others in the faith, always being ready to forgive, but actively conferring it only if the offending party has sought it. And don’t nurse bitterness.

I noticed that in my family, nursing grudges and fanning the flames of anger is a heavy baggage. It is a burdensome load to carry around. If a person who genuinely wronged us seeks forgiveness, the Holy Spirit empowers us to be genuinely forgiving. And once we release that load, how light we feel! How clearly we can see the other person’s pain and hurt. We should be empathetic to the person who wronged us, because people don’t usually hurt us out of malice. They’re hurting too. Clearing that up with the fragrance of forgiveness heals wounds.

But on the other hand, it was good to read that we are not doormats, not allowing every kind of behavior and forgiving it whether the person is sorry or not. I, too, agree that if the person comes to you, we should be ready to forgive.

Some years ago I accompanied the kindergarten class on a field trip to the Fire Station. Of course the kids were excited to see the big shiny trucks and all the gear. The firemen explained how they are always ready to race out and fight a fire. They do a lot of work in advance of a fire. Firefighters make sure the truck is clean and everything stored in its place. Even their personal gear is ready, down to the boots they can hop into, so they can race out to do their job immediately. A Christian should likewise be actively preparing ahead of time for the moment we can forgive.

Cultivate a soft heart, be ready to forgive if the person coms to you, and don’t feel guilty about not conferring forgiveness if they haven’t. Your cultivation of forgiveness will be ready for the next person to come to you!

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