Andrew and I recently discussed the tough issue of how to forgive someone who hasn’t sought forgiveness. In other words, how can a Christian forgive someone who has never asked to be forgiven? What do you do if someone has very obviously sinned against you in a big way but hasn’t tried to make things right? This issue will be handled a bit differently depending upon whether the person is a Christian or an unbeliever, whether the person is under church discipline or not, etc. I appreciate how Ken Sande talks about this topic in chapter ten of The Peacemaker.
“When an offense is too serious to overlook and the offender has not yet repented, you may need to approach forgiveness as a two-stage process. The first stage requires having an attitude of forgiveness, and the second, granting forgiveness.”
“Having an attitude of forgiveness is unconditional and is a commitment you make to God (see Mark 11:25; Luke 6:28; Acts 7:60). By his grace, you seek to maintain a loving and merciful attitude toward someone who has offended you. This requires making and living out the first promise of forgiveness, which means you will not dwell on the hurtful incident or seek vengeance or retribution in thought, word, or action. Instead, you pray for the person and stand ready at any moment to pursue complete reconciliation as soon as he or she repents. This attitude will protect you from bitterness and resentment, even if the other person takes a long time to repent.”
“Granting forgiveness is conditional upon the repentance of the offender and takes place between you and that person (Luke 17:3-4). It is a commitment to make the other three promises of forgiveness to the offender (i.e. not rub the incident in the person’s face, not talk to others about it, and not let it stand between people). When there has been a serious offense, it would not be appropriate to make these promises until the offender has repented (see chapter 6). Until then, you may need to talk with the offender about his sin or seek the involvement of others to resolve the matter (Matt. 18:16-20). You could not do this if you had already made the last three promises. But once the other person repents, you can make these promises, closing the matter forever, the same way God forgives you.
Sande then goes on to show how this model is biblical and has to do with the gospel: Jesus prayed “Father forgive them…” as he died on the cross. At Pentecost, after Peter’s convicting sermon about the cross, people repented and received forgiveness from God.
Forgiving someone who has seriously sinned against you (and God) is very often a tough thing, especially if that person doesn’t own up to it and keeps on living in sin. It would be foolish and unbiblical to act as if nothing happened, and it would be sinful to wallow in anger towards that person. Instead, we should reflect upon the gospel, pray for an attitude of forgiveness, and be ready to forgive fully when the person truly seeks reconciliation.
Furthermore, reconciliation and forgiveness doesn’t mean that the restored relationship will be perfect. It will take time to heal wounds and there are consequences for sin. If you forgive someone who has abused you but truly repented of it, for example, you don’t have to let that person be intimately involved in your life or your family’s life. You can forgive someone, work on mending the relationship, but still place limits on involvement for the interest of your family and their safety/health.
Obviously there’s more to the issue; it is quite complex. Andrew and I both recommend Sande’s book, The Peacemaker for these types of issues. As pastors, we’ve read it, re-read it, and discussed it with each other when counseling situations come up in our own lives. If you haven’t read it, you should do so sooner than later!