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The Three Conditions of Forgiveness6 min read

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forgiveI admit it, the title of this post is misleading. In actuality, as Christians, we are to forgive others without condition. The relevant passages teach us that we are to:

  1. Forgive people as many times as they sin against us (Matthew 18:21-22)
  2. Forgive them because God forgave us (Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13)
  3. Forgive them or you will not be forgiven (Mark 11:25, Matthew 6:15)
  4. Forego vengeance because God will do that (and it will be much worse for them than our petty repayment – Romans 12:19)
  5. Love our enemies (Luke 6:27)
  6. Seek to quickly earn the forgiveness of others who have something against us (Matthew 5:23-26)

But does this mean that we are to be doormats, letting people take advantage of it? No. But to understand why and how we are to forgive, let’s examine the three possible conditions that exist.

As I see it, there are two parties, and therefore three possible combinations of circumstances.

1. Offender repents, Offended forgives

This, of course, is possibly the best outcome, since the relationship has a real chance at being repaired. However, I want to introduce another factor, which is the broken TRUST that must be rebuilt. Even if we forgive an offender, forgiveness does not necessarily mean that the relationship can return to the previous state of intimacy and trust.

In fact, other concepts associated with repentance include restoration and rebuilding of trust through demonstrated trustworthiness. I may forgive a person who has stolen money from me, but forgiveness does not mean that I immediately return to loaning him money or letting him watch my children. God has made me steward over my resources, especially my heart, and being guarded is not unforgiveness, it’s prudence.

2. Offender Repents, Offender cannot forgive yet

As someone who has hurt others, I can tell you that even if people forgive you, you have to walk straight and narrow for a long time to help rebuild the relationship that forgiveness merely restarts – it does not restore it, necessarily.

I’ve seen Christians who, after saying they are sorry, expect the Offended to quickly ‘get over it,’ and if they don’t, think that the offense is somehow being held over their heads. While that may be a possibility, we are not in control of how long it takes for the person whom we hurt to heal.

What we can and should do is remain contrite and patient, being willing to do whatever we can to treat the other person with care, respect, and patience. Sin is serious. And if we are offended by their slowness to forgive us, we need to forgive THEM for as long as it takes.

3. Offender does not repent, Offended forgives

The question raised is, if we forgive an offender who has not admitted guilt, what does that look like? Does that mean we ignore their continued hardness or sins against us? Are we doormats?

In this case, I think we can at least express that we were hurt even if they did not mean it. If they are to grow in love, that will concern them. In addition, if they are continuing to sin against us, we can kindly rebuke them with truth and again, as good stewards, guard the heart and other things in our stewardship from them. That is not unforgiveness.

To repeat that important idea, the balancing principle is one of stewardship, and by the way, I find this the same principle that balances out extreme pacifism.

Should we let terrorists slay us and our children, or can we resist them, even kill them righteously? To allow others to take advantage of us could be the sin of poor stewardship, just like allowing injustice or not crying out against it.

Forgiveness may erase the guilt, but it does not immediately rebuild the trust, nor does it mean the level of intimacy may immediately resume without a period of restoration and rebuilding of trust. There is no reason that our theology of forgiveness should make us enablers of abuse or fearful of dispassionate justice or use of lethal force against aggressors.

Yes, there is a time to be martyred. There is also a time to kill those who are trying to rape our children. Both from a Biblical perspective. Don’t get me started! Doh, too late!

In Reality

In my life, I had someone steal $40,000 from me, which led to my bankruptcy and loss of all of my retirement savings up to age 45. This person left town in the dead of night, and a few years later, I found out his new address. What should I do?

I never followed up with him. It was obvious from our parting words that he was unrepentant, and he knew my contact info, and could have approached me. I did not want a relationship with him, though I did pray for him, I didn’t want to waste my own time with him – plus, he owned a handgun, was given to drink, and I had a wife and small children.

I have another friend who’s caustic enough that I unfriended him on Facebook. He has reached out to me a couple of times to be refriended, but I just don’t want the irritation in my life. Is that unforgiveness, or just prudence? I don’t really dislike him at all, and wish him well, but I don’t want to rebuild relationships with toxic people.

What say ye?