Forgiving Those Who Have Hurt Us

A couple of days ago, I posted an article on dealing with the hurt caused to us by other people. Needless to say, the article brought some good interaction via the comment section here, on Facebook, and on Theologica (an online network for theological discussion).

I think the major interaction, and disagreement, revolved around these words of mine:

I believe that, if someone never asks for forgiveness, then there is no responsibility set upon us to forgive. You cannot forgive one who never asks for forgiveness.

Many of the responses that have come have challenged such a notion. I have been reminded that the call to forgive is unconditional, rather than being based upon whether or not the person asks forgiveness.

As I’ve pondered the responses, my mind has gone in a few different directions. The first has been to forgive everyone for disagreeing with me, even if they have not asked for such forgiveness. 🙂

Ok, not really.

My first thoughts have been that I actually agree with what has been shared. I might put it down to a case of semantics. As a communicator, semantics are important to me (and I have shared this in 3 posts here). You see, in my article, even though I suggested we cannot forgive unless the offender asks for forgiveness, I did share that we are still called to release the person(s):

Yet, take note of this. I don’t believe that allows us to keep the door of bitterness or anger or rage open. Why? When someone has wronged us and has not asked for forgiveness, I believe our responsibility then becomes to learn to let it go and release that person in Jesus’ name to get on with their life as we get on with our life in God.

Maybe this simply comes down to definitions. Of course, in the semantics game, we could be very detailed and say that this is all about actual forgiveness, not just releasing people and letting things go. But look at my language (in the words above and throughout the article). I am really talking about a work of grace and mercy in our hearts to be at the place our Father desires for us. Not simply letting go in some glib way only because we will never see the person again nor have to think about the offence. I am talking about a true and deep work of God.

So, in the first place, I think I am on the same page with any challenges. The conclusions were similar, the semantics were a little different.

But I have also begun to think about this whole issue a little more. To be honest, the last article was a re-post of an entry from almost a year ago. I have been busy with my house move and was simply looking to re-post an article because 1) a blogger doesn’t like a long lull in their blogging and 2) I thought it might be a good article for people to read. I just didn’t expect as much interaction. This will teach me to rethink what I re-post in the future.

Therefore, I am drawn in to think about this issue of forgiveness even more – Are we truly called to forgive those who have not asked forgiveness? Is our forgiveness to be unconditional?

In the previous article, I quoted a well-known New Testament passage:

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 2:12-13)

The challenge came that this passage, and others like it (i.e., Matt 6:12-15), do not put any conditions on forgiveness. We are simply called to the path of forgiveness (though that path might still be painful and long).

Again, in the end, I am ok with such a position. My disposition is to lean that way. I simply used different wordings to distinguish between how we deal with 1) those who hurt us and ask our forgiveness and 2) those who hurt us and do not ask our forgiveness.

But when we look at something like the account of the cross of Christ, we read these words coming from the lips of Jesus: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).

Here is an offer of forgiveness, and I suppose not everyone there was asking for forgiveness. Some would have definitely realised what was going on and repented at a later point (i.e., the centurion in v47). Yet not all asked for or even wanted forgiveness

But was this an unconditional extension of forgiveness? And, therefore, should this verse come into play within the whole discussion surrounding Rob Bell’s Love Wins (if interested, my book review is here)? Was Jesus offering actual forgiveness to people who were not asking for such, nor ever did ask?

Possibly.

Well, I think we could argue that he was offering actual forgiveness. But was there an exchange that took place right there or later on with all people involved, even without asking?

Again, if the answer is yes, then we might have to begin rethinking our view of forgiveness and some of the challenges that have come forth from Rob Bell. And I am not against nor fearful of such.

But was this forgiveness unconditional, as in, I forgive you even if you never ask?

I personally think most Christians would answer in the negative.

I am also thinking of another passage. The context is a little different, but I think the ‘principle’ might be worth pondering. The words are found in James 4:2 – You do not have because you do not ask God.

Does God forgive if we never ask?

You do not have because you do not ask God.

Of course, I don’t want to put all conditions of forgiveness on us, at least for those who are in Christ. The forgiveness of individual sins is not determined by whether or not I remembered to confess each and every one. Nor is it ultimately dependent on me confessing every sin before I die, as in if I wronged my wife tonight, didn’t ask her’s nor God’s forgiveness before going to sleep, and I died in my sleep. Would God then forgive me?

I believe that the grace and mercy of God are sufficient (overly sufficient!!) to cover such, even if I didn’t ask or forgot to ask. If it were dependent on me, can you imagine the emotional torment? I am recalling Martin Luther. And I have personally been in that place of torment in my early days as a Christian.

But this is now getting into the daily practicalities of walking in forgiveness, as well as motivation. And I am not so much wanting to deal with all the in’s and out’s of that, at least not today. Suffice it to say, for those in Christ, I believe the grace and mercy of God have been extended unconditionally to us because of the new disposition we now have as sons and daughters of God in Christ. This is who we are and we are to enjoy all the benefits of such.

But noting my reference to the words in James short letter, and especially pondering the exchange that took place following Christ’s words on the cross, my conclusion is that forgiveness is not extended unconditionally. In a sense, one must ask (though I would say it is a work of grace to even be brought to the place of asking forgiveness, whether forgiveness of God or of other human beings).

Still, the challenge continues that, even though God does not forgive unless he is asked through true repentance, we are however called to forgive unconditionally. The reason – God is holy and perfect, we are not.

But the question follows – Would God call us to something that he himself is not required to?

Maybe.

Of course, one could counter that, if God is as perfect as he is, should he not be willing to unconditionally extend forgiveness to all of those who never ask of it? (Where is Rob Bell when we need him?)

It’s possible. In one sense, as I pointed out earlier, I believe it happens. God forgives even when I forget. Not to mention how God deals with the mentally incapable, unborn children, and small children without much of understanding of the need for forgiveness. Of course, these ponderings flow out of a more Augustinian view of original sin and that we need forgiveness even before we commit actual sin. Nevertheless, I digress…….

Back to the important question of the hour – Would God call us to something that he himself is not required to?

Again, it’s possible.

I’m right now trying to rack my brain of any instances and, at this early point in the morning, I am failing to recall any.

But maybe unconditional forgiveness is the one area God calls us to live out, even if he himself does not practice such. Or maybe God’s forgiveness is extended to all regardless.

I lean towards a negative with both notions. But I am open to reconsidering each.

In the end, none of what I have said in this article or the previous one has been about side-stepping our call in Christ to forgive those who have wronged us. And I think that has been pretty evident.

Whether we stick with the view that unconditional forgiveness should be extended, even if the person never asks, or we term it as forgiving those who actually do ask for such and releasing those in Jesus’ name who never ask for such (or some other similarly worded statements), I think we are approaching this in a way that emulates the heart of our Father to a broken world. To extend love and grace and mercy and forgiveness and compassion, true love and true grace and true mercy and true forgiveness and true compassion, is part of our calling.

These have been interesting and fascinating questions to ponder. And so I look forward to more interaction here and elsewhere.

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10 thoughts on “Forgiving Those Who Have Hurt Us

  1. In my opinion often forgiveness is hardest to give when it is our pride or ego that has been hurt, in these situations it’s so difficult to forgive and let go because we want some kind of justification that actually we are not stupid or un-loveable or whatever. People are flawed we hurt each other and don’t realise it, and sometimes we intentionally hurt – it is also incredibly difficult to forgive in the case of intentional hurt. I believe that holding on to grudges and hurt will in the long run damage me more than the original hurt and therefore i always *try* to at least move on from the situation and not dwell on the damage.
    It is also very difficult when someone who is in the church hurts us because not only are we hurt but also we judge them and their actions against the standard of their beliefs, the old hypocrisy problem. *sigh* relationships are difficult!

  2. More great though, Scott. As I read it, the Lords Prayer came to mind. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us. If our forgiving others is patterned after how God forgives us, I think it is important to look at the first part of that…. Asking for forgiveness. Just a late night thought that I will have to flesh out better tomorrow on Theologica.
    Daniel

  3. It seems that what you’re talking about is a matter of semantics – “forgiveness” or “letting things go” seem to be exactly the same thing. I think also it’s probably important to draw a distinction between forgiving someone and being in a relationship with them. You can forgive someone, and yet still not trust them and not be in a relationship with them. I think that what is often necessary to restoring relationships is repentance, which is different to asking for forgiveness. I haven’t thought it through a lot, but I think that maybe this is how it works with God – He’s already forgiven people – sin was already paid for on the cross – and I don’t think God is living with bitterness in his heart towards everyone who is still offending him – but in order to be in a relationship with him, to be saved, that requires repentance – a complete turning towards God and away from sin.

    I think the point of both the Lord’s prayer and the verses in Col 3 are that God, who is rich in mercy, forgives all our sin, so we ought to do the same for others. That’s what the context would imply – not – remember those times God didn’t forgive you? – its ok for you to do likewise…

    With the James quote, I see what you’re saying but to be honest it seems a little out of context for talk about forgiveness. It doesn’t seem that’s what the whole passage is really dealing with. (but that’s just my personal reading of it!)

  4. Abby –

    He’s already forgiven people – sin was already paid for on the cross – and I don’t think God is living with bitterness in his heart towards everyone who is still offending him – but in order to be in a relationship with him, to be saved, that requires repentance – a complete turning towards God and away from sin.

    This is one of the big discussion questions surrounding soteriology, but if God has already forgiven people, why would he ever hold their sin against them in judgment? If they are already forgiven, do they need to ask?

    On James 4 – I think if you read vs1-3, one might suppose James could be referring to prayer. So why not apply this to the prayer of forgiveness?

    I would have loved more of your thoughts on what I asked and pondered about the nature of God. Mainly 1) Would God call us to something that he himself is not required to? and 2) Is God’s forgiveness is extended to all regardless? (which I referred to above).

    • haha, sorry my ‘paper’ didn’t come up to your standards! Just an off the cuff response as I am busy today. Will have to think more about it I guess. I think my main issue is that however salvation is worked out, I don’t think it gives us a loop hole to get out of forgiving people. And I think you’re on rocky ground, at the very least, pastorally, to be suggesting that, however you qualify it with saying ‘but that’s not what I really meant.’ I will have another think about and maybe write some more later!

  5. Yes, I do need a little more from you on the deeper things.

    I am by no means giving anyone a way out of what God commands and desires. That is what I have tried to clarify, and I know you know that. Again, I actually agree with what the sentiments that people have suggested that we should forgive unconditionally. But there are questions to consider, and only because of recent discussion have I started to think about them more deeply. Hence this second article (and maybe more). I, too, want to learn more on this issue and will continue to ponder and pray, to ultimately hear from God on the nature of forgiveness. But I will never ever give anyone an out to hold bitterness and not let people be released/forgiven for wrongs, even if the offender never asks for such.

    • Yeah, I do know that’s what you really believe and practice and preach hopefully!

      I guess my issues with this are more pragmatic than theological – you will find that about me a lot! I’m content that I don’t know exactly how salvation works out. I’m content that God is a vastly superior judge than me and knows the depths of people’s hearts, and can maybe not forgive someone until they ask for it without getting bitter and angry and consumed with hatred for them. I’m not any of those things though. And so where I am happy to leave the ultimate decision on whether to forgive someone in God’s hands, I am not happy to leave it in mine. So I’m not content to say that we don’t have to forgive people unless they ask for it because that may or may not be how God works out our salvation. Does that make sense at all? I think it just leads us down a dangerous road, which needs all kind so caveats and qualifications that the bible never makes. I think, again on a pragmatic level, that if I forgive someone, then its for me, its so I’m not bitter. But if I ask someone for their forgiveness, its so that our relationship can be restored. Again, forgiving someone does not entail a restoration of the relationship or trust.

      I don’t know. I don’t have any very good theological reasoning behind any of this! Just my own thoughts. All I know is that I’ve been forgiven much, both by God and other people, and therefore I have no grounds to not forgive others, even if that’s how God works. And maybe God’s judgement is different to his forgiveness? Because he can forgive you, but still let you have to live with the consequences of your sin. For example, if you steal money, God may forgive you but you still have to pay the money back, or do the prison time. So I guess maybe its that God’s forgiveness is unconditional, but people still have to face the consequences of never repenting of sin or living God’s way. Again, I don’t know! Don’t have any good answers – and actually don’t really want to argue, more contribute to the discussion…

  6. “I believe that, if someone never asks for forgiveness, then there is no responsibility set upon us to forgive. You cannot forgive one who never asks for forgiveness.” – quote. (I called this an exchange point.)

    “Well, I think we could argue that he was offering actual forgiveness. But was there an exchange that took place right there or later on with all people involved, even without asking?” -quote.

    Well, my though is when we talk about forgiveness, it is only about ourselves. There are no exchanges point for forgiveness.

    • i mean it’s a matter of ourselves. you “add” an exchange point from someone who hurts us. again… there are no other involvements from a ‘third party” (people who hurts us) when talking about forgiveness.

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