Forgiveness when you get no or only a “so-so sorry”

At Harbor Community Church, we just finished our last sermon in the series “A Powerful Community.” I mentioned that it was apropos we ended with forgiveness, because I think extending and receiving forgiveness are perhaps one of the greatest displays of the gospel power we see in this life.

Of course there are extreme examples like those in Rwanda or Louis Zamperini in Unbroken, but there are many other forgiveness stories which might not be subjects of books. Yet they still bear the imprint of the work of the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness can happen in the extreme but is just as important on the everyday level.

While I was finishing  Seeking Allah and Finding Jesus on my Iphone this past Sunday, I received a question via text message. It was solid question: Can you really forgive someone if they didn’t or don’t ask for forgiveness?

The context of the passage Colossians 3:11-13, and thus the sermon, focused specifically on Christian community: the church is to forgive as Christ forgives. It presupposes some form of repentance. When I quoted Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, that too, presupposed someone has apologized.

 Someone may have robbed you of some happiness, reputation, opportunity, or certain aspects of your freedom. No price tag can be put on such things, yet we still have a sense of violated justice that does not go away when the other person says, “I’m really sorry.” When we are seriously wronged we have an indelible sense that the perpetrators have incurred a debt that must be dealt with. Once you have been wronged and you realize there is a just debt that can’t simply be dismissed— there are only two things to do. You can forgive. Forgiveness means refusing to make them pay for what they did. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death….Yes, but it is a death that leads to resurrection instead of the lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism.

So what happens when someone isn’t sorry? Can there be real forgiveness? Keller defines forgiveness as the releasing of some sort of debt, “refusing to make them pay for what they did.”

Do you release someone from a debt if they don’t want to be released? In that sense, you could say no.

But I’d caution a simplistic answer here, on either side. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing, but they are connected. Forgiveness can lead to reconciliation.

In As We Forgive, we see forgiveness and reconciliation. In the book Unbroken, we see simply forgiveness. Did Louis Zamperini really forgive, if his Japanese tormentor known as “The Bird” never confessed? They never reconciled, but did he forgive?

I think it would be unfair to not call this forgiveness. Louis wanted to tell this man about Jesus and to extend him grace. Grace is unmerited favor. The hope was that the Bird would be moved by this grace. Reconciliation isn’t possible outside of confession, but I do think some form or shape of forgiveness is.

Whatever “not forgiving”  someone because they haven’t confessed actually looks like, I know what it can’t look like:lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism.“-Keller. We are called to remove bitterness. Ephesians 4:31 “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Even if you never apologize, we have to let Jesus take our bitterness.

Seeking confession if necessary for your good AND theirs. Seinfeld’s George Costanza reminds James Spader’s character that he can’t skip the apology step in the 12 step AA program. George pursues him selfishly, not for the good of the other, but simply for his own satisfaction. However, even so, George does want a real apology, not just words. A real apology is something we can seek.

Love covers over a multitude of sins. Do I need to seek confession every time someone sins against me? I don’t think so. My love for you should allow me to release you from debt. If I can’t forgive, then we can talk.

We also have to understand that God seeks reconciliation with us. And he takes the first step. Showing grace to someone else might actually move them to repentance. After all, God’s kindness moves us to repentance, why wouldn’t our kindness move someone else to repentance? Showing grace to those who don’t repent is powerful. It didn’t move the Bird, but it has moved a number of people since.

Who is at fault is not always clear. Often times two parties can both be at fault, and perhaps the response to the offense was a sinful response. We don’t know whose fault it was that Paul and Barnabas split in Acts (if it was a sinful disagreement). Maybe both? But Paul does speak positively about John Mark indicating reconciliation. So something had to have happened. One party moved toward the other. I’ve seen people make confession a pre-requisite to even talking. That’s ludicrous. I know there are instances when one party is completely innocent and one is guilty. But let’s not presume that is always or even often the case.

Jesus asked God the Father to forgive those who nailed him to the cross. Stephen did the same thing when was being stoned. Did Jesus really forgive them? Did Stephen really forgive? Well, both seem to forgive. And who knows what it did to Paul, who was there for Stephen’s execution? It did nothing at the time, but Paul did say in Acts that God asked him why he “kicked against the goads.” Who knows if a seed was planted? Regardless, we see the desire to release someone from a debt based upon their ignorance of what they were actually doing.

Forgiveness is messy. It is not formulaic. It doesn’t happen overnight (though declaring forgiveness can) but can take years. Can forgiveness really happen outside of confession? Good question. Perhaps technically not, but possibly so, based upon what Jesus and Stephen desire?

I don’t know that trying to be technically correct is really the best way to go about forgiveness.  I know that God in His infinite grace moved toward me. And he still moves toward me when I don’t want to confess to my wife and kids that I’ve sinned against them. But He does. Sometimes when I ask Him, and sometimes it is uninvited (but welcomed!).

So in the end, we have to let go of bitterness, even if the debt has destroyed the relationship and the other person. We can seek confession for the good of BOTH parties, but we may never get it. Let grace have the final say and remember the cross. You probably have missed confessing sins (how could you not!) and the cross covers them all. Remember that in the context of relationships.

One thought on “Forgiveness when you get no or only a “so-so sorry”

  1. Geoff, I loved this article and I loved Sunday’s message. It has opened my eyes to forgiveness. Not that it makes it easier, but more understandable. I’ve heard people say that forgiveness is not about the person who has sinned against you but about you letting go. Kind of I guess but I think it’s more about what CHRIST did for us on the Cross. Like you stated, Jesus asked God to forgive them for crucifying Him. I love it when God opens the eyes of our hearts!

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