Last week, I shared some thoughts on forgiveness that I had earlier shared with some of my students and a few members of our church. As I mentioned, I received numerous responses to this subject. One notable question came from a member at our church who asked about the limits of forgiveness—specifically whether we are required to forgive those who do not actually ask for forgiveness. She said that she heard a prominent minister on television (you would recognize the name, but I'd prefer not to mention it since I cannot confirm the statement) say that we aren't required to forgive those who never ask for forgiveness.
This is certainly an interesting idea, but I think at the root of it might be an excuse not to offer forgiveness to those who are the most difficult to forgive. Forgiveness is never easy. It is the difficult option, not the easy one.
With all due respect to the minister my fellow church member mentioned, I disagree with this position, and here’s why.
It’s true that there are passages in the Bible that refer to a direct connection between repentance and forgiveness such as
“Be on your guard. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3—all references in this post from the HCSB). However, I don’t ever see any direct statement in Scripture that echoes what this minister was saying—that we don’t have to forgive someone if that person does not ask for forgiveness.
This is in spite of numerous passages about forgiving others which never mention anything about forgiveness being dependent upon repentance or a request for forgiveness:
"And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matt 6:12).
"And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven will also forgive you your wrongdoing" (Mark 11:25).
In fact, Luke 11:4 says we are to forgive everyone in our debt:
"And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves also forgive everyone [πᾶς = all, the whole]
in debt to us.”
Most importantly, I think Jesus offers the greatest example in his words from the cross:
"Then Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing'" (Luke 23:34).
Those who crucified Jesus certainly didn’t ask for forgiveness. I think this alone counters the idea that a receiver of forgiveness must request it first. [Note: I realize that there are issues regarding the manuscript evidence for this statement by Jesus, but strong arguments can be made on both sides. For recent discussions, see Marshal (NIGTC) and Comfort (NTTTC).]
Now all of this is not to diminish the horrendous acts people commit against one another.Forgiveness can often be a long process and is rarely quickly resolved. In fact, there are some who have suffered such horrible acts that I would not judge them at all if they could not reach the point of forgiveness in this life.
However, the other side of forgiveness is that not only does it rob power from the offender, it also creates power in the victim over the offender. To say to someone who doesn’t ask forgiveness, “I forgive you” accomplishes what Paul said when he wrote
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him.
If he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head” (Rom 12:20).
Forgiveness is not always easy, but it is liberating if it can be achieved.