A question I’ve struggled with many times, is what does it mean to forgive someone who is unrepentant and unchanged? Someone who may have done serious and genuine evil, but refuses to acknowledge it, has never apologized (or maybe offered a half-hearted, self-justifying apology), and has carried on with their life as if nothing happened? Who continues to avoid blame or responsibility, even years after the original offense? Who continues in their harmful behaviour, to you or to others?
It’s relatively easy to forgive someone who recognizes the nature of their offense, is truly sorry, seeks to make amends and changes their behaviour. It’s possibly the most difficult thing we will ever be asked to do, to forgive someone who remains unrepentant, who refuses to recognize or acknowledge the harm they did. Such a task seems completely impossible.
I’ve even questioned whether I have to forgive people like this. But Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness seems quite clear and without any exceptions: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Mark 11:25, Luke 6:27-28)
It’s helpful in this case to think of forgiveness using Jesus’ metaphor of debt. Unforgiveness is, in essence, holding on to the debt that someone owes us and demanding its repayment in some fashion. That may be revenge, it may be them being sorry, restoring something they took from us, or loving us again. We remain tied to the pain, the bitterness, the anger, and the resentment of expecting someone to give something to us that they either never can or never will. Those people, and their unpaid debts, control our lives, our emotions and our choices. We need someone to do something so we can be free and we are stuck because we cannot control them.
In many cases, the person cannot possibly pay back the debt. In other cases, they will not. They may be dead, or completely unaware of their “balance owing”. They may not care or even believe they have done wrong. In the meantime, we are the ones suffering.
A good question to ask yourself is: am I gaining anything by not forgiving? Am I going to get anything back from this person by not forgiving? Am I going to change anything? The answer is no. We’ll simply remain in pain.
We avoid forgiveness because it involves grief. It means recognition and acceptance of our loss, and realizing that it will never be paid back. It means letting go of the impossible and painful hope that someone else will heal us by changing. This grieving can be deeply and intensely painful but allows us to move on. It releases us from the past and allows us to move into a healthier and more peaceful future. The only other choice is to remain destroyed by what happened.
Regardless of what was done to us and how bad it was, forgiveness is within our power, with God’s help. It does not involve the other person, though the outgrowth of it might. Unforgiveness in some sense agrees with the evil; it perpetrates it by allowing bitterness, resentment, and the effects of the original wrong to negatively affect our feelings and behaviour. Forgiveness cuts the evil off outside of ourselves, allowing us to live free of what was done to us. It is not a statement about the rightness of the other person’s behaviour; it is a choice to let go of it so we do not remain crippled by it. It is facing the evil, the wrong, the hurt, and the pain, and letting it go anyway. It is not denying the hope for justice, but leaving the person to God and allowing his justice to prevail (Romans 12:19).
But what about reconciliation? A strong objection to forgiveness is the idea that it means reconciliation with a harmful person who does not acknowledge their wrong and has not changed. The idea of exposing yourself to further abuse or attempting to trust someone who has proved untrustworthy keeps people from forgiving. This is most definitely not what forgiveness means.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. Forgiveness deals with the past and cancels a debt that has already been incurred. Reconciliation deals with the future and the possibility of ongoing relationship. Forgiveness involves only one person—you—and requires no action on the other's part. Reconciliation requires both parties and depends on the other's current state. Forgiveness paves the way for reconciliation, if the other person desires that and demonstrates real repentance and change.
Jesus talks about the procedure when someone wrongs you: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
If someone has been confronted with the wrong they’ve done and refused to change, an appropriate response is withdrawal of relationship. This is not about hatred or revenge. It is about protecting yourself from further harm, and about giving that person the just consequences for their behaviour in the hope that they will repent. The sad truth is that many people never do. But you will be removed from the effects of their choices, and you will not be enabling or agreeing with them. Of course you can hope and pray for that person’s repentance. But you are not in control of their choices, only yours.
It is possible to genuinely wish someone well, care about them, and pray for them, without being in relationship with them. This is what true forgiveness leads to, even if angry feelings come up sometimes and you have to forgive again.
In some cases, you may remain involved with the person, but the relationship has to be shallow or limited. There are a myriad of situations, and each one requires wisdom. Someone else might not change, but you can be completely free, regardless of what they do or do not do. That is what forgiveness gives you.
I'm just writing to say a big thank you for writing this article.
I've been struggling for about a year to forgive someone who caused me a lot of hurt and tears.
This article was a big wake up call and has really inspired me in terms of trying to figure out how I'm supposed to deal with my pain.
I feel like I know what I'm supposed to do now. I know it will be hard, but after reading your thoughts on forgiveness, I feel like I will be able to find the strength to do it.
Thank you and God bess.
Thank you so much.
Your article has really made me examine my faith and my foundation, and to add to your article, I find that a strong part of forgiveness is trusting in God and believing that He will take care of you and your heart, and that His justice will prevail, whether in this life or the next, if the person does not repent. He has also made me understand that we can't be responsible for other people's sins, and we are not in control to change them. I guess the hard part is recognizing that people are able and willing to do you harm, when all you've wanted to do was right to them... And in the end, the Word says clearly in Romans 8:28 that all things work for the good of those of who love God and are called by Him. So really, we just need to believe that He will take care of us and doesn't want unforgiveness to cloud our view of HIS glory and HIS love for us HERE and NOW.
I am truly grateful, God bless you so much!!
You're so welcome Jeremy! I'm so glad that it was a blessing to you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. God bless you in the difficult but oh-so-worth it struggle of forgiveness, because you are so right, he will take care of you.
Thank you so much for your response to this article. It has helped me to move forward and do what I suppose to do. Thanks again and God bless you!!!
You are so welcome. I am sincerely happy that my experience has been used to help you. God bless you too.
This is so good. Just what I need. Thank you so much! Especially for showing the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. I was praying and asking God to show me how to forgive. This is a huge blessing. Un-forgiveness is crippling. It is a prison. I don't want it hindering my growth, and my future. Thank you again : )
No problem Wes! Thanks for sharing that. May God bless you as you seek to follow him, and set you free from everything that's holding you back.
Thanks for this article. I have been dealing with a personal matter with a man I was involved in a relationship at work. He violated my trust, lied, used me (and others), and has absolutely no remorse for the way he behaves. I have to be around him at work, but I choose not to interact with him face-to-face anymore. I wondered how I could ever possibly forgive this person, whom I had considered a very close friend, when I am reminded of what he did every day and he acts as if nothing ever happened. The fact that you can forgive and withdraw from a relationship to prevent further damage is enlightening and makes me feel hopeful. Especially when dealing with someone who has no intention of changing and truly only thinks of his own feelings. It is hard seeing him interact with others and put on a "show" at work when I and a few others know what he's really like now.
I appreciate this article and the good points it makes. Now, here is the tricky question. Assume there is a marriage and a cheating spouse. The aggrieved spouse hopes to restore the marriage, but the cheating spouse "isn't ready to give it up yet." Oh yeah, there are minor children.
Does the aggrieved spouse require the cheater leave? Does that help the situation, or strengthen the outside, illicit relationship? How long does a spouse hold out to restore a broken marriage?
Hi WillG, that's a very good question. I'm not married and I am not sure I'm qualified to offer advice about such a difficult situation. My best response would be to say that the cheated-on spouse should get good counselling, and try to discern what the wisest course of action would be. Ultimately if the cheating spouse doesn't want to give up the outside relationship, I believe the betrayed spouse does have biblical grounds for divorce according to Jesus (Matthew 19:9) if all possibilities for seeking reconciliation and change have been exhausted and the cheating spouse doesn't give up the outside relationship. It seems to me that in this situation the cheater may want the "comfort zone" of staying in the marriage and with the children, but also keep the illicit relationship. If so, requiring them to leave may force them to make a final choice. Just my 2 cents, I am truly saddened by these type of situations and I hope and pray for the best outcome.
Hi,thank you very much for this response.I dated a woman for 8 years and have a 7 year old daughter.I Loved this woman completely and I cared for her that she completed me especially for giving me my daughter and also loving my other kids.My Mother passed away and I lost my Job.She left me because I could no longer provide for them as I was not working anymore.I was destroyed and had pain almost every second by just thinking what has happened.I Prayed almost every second to try and find answers and God just did not hear me.This happened for 3 years and staying with family(uncles) ect with no Job,no access to my daughter ect.Today Im a free Man,I have found God and work and a new woman in my Life who picked me up when I was destroyed and held my hand.Now the woman who left me has came back and I am struggling even now how to forgive her.Even after reading this article,I find it very difficult not to be angry at her.I do not even want to meet her.I send my uncles to pick up my daughter as she never said shes sorry for what she has done and just expects me to allow her into my Life,Maybe one day I will be able to face her,my fear is how will I react when I see her and also thinking about what she has placed my daughter into...But again thank You for your article and God Bless You.
I am so hurt about my husband cheating on me after 36 years of marriage, just because he is going through a mid life crisis, strip clubs and texting, buying the strippers clothes and bras, I will never forgive him, I can't forget my pain. It hurt when I found all of this out. I am a beautiful person, a good mother and grandmother, work hard, that is when he was cheating, when I was working. so forget forgiving, that won't make me be free, what will make me be free, is if he died, then I will be free. I wish I could kill him and not have to wait for a natural death, but I won't go that far. I just wish I could wipe out the look on his eyes when he saw his stripper friend and his blank was getting all excited. and i'll never know who she is so I could go kill her, too, for thinking it is nothing to strip and play around with married men. I hate her too. F this world and forgiveness. whoever could forgive that is just a stupid idiot. and its never going to be me. We should break up and get a divorce, but that is where it gets hard because of my kids and losing my house. I wish this never happened or I never found out, but it did happen, my punishment for him will be a forever hated life and to use him for every drop of energy he has. His money will be my love. I still wish I could just kill him and end all this bullshit. Forgiving is bullshit.
How do I do that with my father? Who stole from me and my mother, and had my mom's house bulldozed during a divorce? It destroyed our family's, until that time very good, financial situation. All because he, for lack of better words, didn't want to share. I'm going to be married in the next year and a half. I'm going to have children. What do I tell them? What do I do about inviting him to the wedding? What do I do? It was my own father. I can't divorce him like my mother did (and she was obviously smart to divorce him). I'm serious. This stuff has messed with me for 11 years now. I forgive then later something happens and I get very angry. I refuse to forgive, and that makes me feel even worse. I'm almost suicidal sometimes because of it. Please help. Please I have been to therapy so many times I can't fix it. Please please help me.
Hi Nathan, I'm very sorry to hear about what your father did to you, and very concerned to hear about how it's affected you. I will pray for you, but in the meantime I will share that the thing that has enabled me to forgive those who have hurt me is the knowledge of God's complete forgiveness of me in Jesus, and also the knowledge that as his child he will take care of me and will justly judge the wrongs that have been done to me. I don't know where you might be spiritually or what your faith (or lack thereof) might be. I would encourage you that in my experience Jesus has had the power to deliver me from a seriously hurtful past. I would love to talk to you about it if you would like to contact me using the form on this site at http://plousia.org/contact. If not, I'd encourage you to find a Bible-believing pastor or friend to pray with you and talk with you. But I seriously hope and will pray for your deliverance from this hurt and that it will not continue destroying your life, particularly for the sake of your spouse and your future children, as that is crucially important.
I have been praying and asking God to show me how to forgive my father for his abuse and his subsequent denial of the abuse. He has become more hardened of heart and more mean. I was lost as to how because of his denial and because he is difficult to even like. I asked God to show me how and He led me to your article. Now, I am on the road to do what God has asked of me- true forgiveness. I'm not there yet but my way is clearer thanks to your article. Thank You God, and please bless the writer of the article.
Thanks, Elisheba. I am thankful that the article helped you, and I will be praying for you in your journey of forgiveness. It is not easy but it is so worth it. If you'd like to talk more you are welcome to use the contact link to email me, and I'd be happy to discuss this more with you.
I can't thank you enough for this article.
Thank you, I needed this explained to me for a very long time. Thank you for quoting Jesus, please Dear God, let the healing begin.
How do we learn to forgive when the person asks for forgiveness but keeps denying to everyone what they've done in the pass.