When there’s no repentance

When there’s no repentance…
In all my research on this subject, in conversation with family and friends, and in my own personal experience, an absence of repentance is the single, standout, most common obstacle to being able, or even willing, to forgive.

Somehow, a lack of repentance and, perhaps worse, a complete lack of recognition of the offence, compounds our hurt, heightens our distress and, eventually, hardens our heart.

We want to be vindicated.
We want justice.
We want closure.
We want life to be fair and, sometimes, it just isn’t.

Offering complete forgiveness, even in the face of genuine remorse, can be difficult enough but when there’s no repentance, well, that’s usually just too much to ask.

And yet… the Bible clearly instructs us to forgive as (in the same manner that ) God forgave us.

‘Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as, in Christ, God forgave you.’ (Ephesians 4:32)

‘Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.’ (Colossians 3:13).

The key to this difficult situation – forgiving when there’s no repentance – is, as always, to consider the Bible model.

Confession + repentance => forgiveness

To confess : to acknowledge to ourself and to others (especially the offended party) that we have committed an offence or done something wrong (from Latin meaning to declare or avow)

To repent : to demonstrate sincere regret and remorse for a wrongdoing or an offence, to forsake or turn away from that activity.

To forgive : to stop feeling angry or resentful (towards someone) for an offence, flaw, or mistake. To no longer wish to punish that person. To write off (cancel) a debt.

We see that God forgives us when we confess and repent. ‘Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.’ (Proverbs 28:13)

‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 John 1:9)

‘Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.’ (Acts 3:19)

By contrast, God does not forgive those who refuse to repent and turn away from their sin. We must acknowledge our sin, repent and forsake it if we are to receive God’s merciful forgiveness. And, just as God requires repentance, we too must apply that same requirement.

So, in the case of a lack of repentance, do we forgive or not? Well, the answer is yes and no and yes – in that order. (Actually, it’s not quite as convoluted as it sounds – please bear with me!)

Yes: Forgiveness begins in our own hearts and concerns our own attitude. It has to do with praying for and developing a forgiving heart. At this point, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with the person who hurt you.

Consider how God reveals His immense love to us. ‘But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

We were fully degenerate at that time. We neither recognised our sin, let alone repented from it, but God paid the price IN ADVANCE so that, at a later time, having confessed and repented, we could access the miracle of His forgiveness. A willingness and intent to forgive – to stop feeling angry or resentful, to no longer wish to punish, to cancel a debt – is absolutely compulsory for the child of God. This reflects, in effect, a ‘vertical’ relationship with God as we model His divine forgiving heart. So the first step to forgiveness begins in our own hearts and with an act of obedience.

Ideally, we should let the other person know that forgiveness is on offer. It may be that they really don’t realise how much they’ve offended or it may be that they do and are ashamed to come to you. It may even be, sadly, that they’re fully disinterested and immune to your distress but, whatever the case, if we have a problem with another Christian, we are to speak to them about it and try to resolve it. ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.’ (Matthew 18:15) Note that it was Christ Himself who gave this instruction so this is mandatory.

Forgiveness is, then, an act of obedience and it’s fully independent of the offender’s response. As God’s children, our primary, overriding responsibility is surrender and obedience to God’s will. Nothing else matters; not our pride, not our distress, not our own sense of justice. Obedience to God’s will isn’t our top priority; it’s our one and only response. When we forgive from the heart, God knows we’ve honoured His will and obeyed Him. We honour God by our obedience and He honours our obedience by His blessing.

No: Forgiveness is a two-person process and the second element of forgiveness relates to and is the responsibility of the offender. Forgiveness can only be accessed through confession and repentance and where the person who has wronged us neither acknowledges their guilt nor repents they simply cannot access God’s forgiveness – or ours.

If that person refuses to discuss the situation, confess and repent they are not forgiven. It’s impossible to make another adult do something they don’t want to do and if they don’t want to seek peace and reconciliation, that’s entirely a matter for them. Of course, relations remain fractured and reconciliation is unlikely, if not impossible.

One way we might look at this situation is think of forgiveness as a key to unlock a prison cell. The key is in the lock but, until and unless it’s used, through repentance, the door remains closed. This is entirely how our own access to salvation works. The means for freedom, Christ’s sacrifice, is in place but, until and unless we repent and believe, the door remains closed and we are not freed from the burden and consequences of our sin. This is, in effect the ‘No’ part of forgiveness. It’s not so much that we withhold it but rather, that the offender won’t access it.

Yes – again! It may be, after some time, that the offender does repent. In this case, we must forgive; fully and completely and then work to complete the reconciliation process. Reconciliation doesn’t always happen immediately and is by no means guaranteed but it should definitely be our goal. This reflects, in effect, a ‘horizontal’ relationship with our fellow Christians as we model God’s divine love and His forgiving heart.

I would sum up the entire process as;
an obedient heart before God
a willing heart open to forgiveness and reconciliation
an open door to the offender

Love, by definition, should be unconditional and forgiveness, as a function of love, should always be on offer but it isn’t unconditional. It requires repentance.

If we are obedient in all things, we can leave the situation in God’s capable hands and move on with our lives free from bitterness and resentment. While this may still seem difficult, we must be aware of the exorbitant cost of a refusal to forgive. (This will be the subject of the next post in this series.)