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Forgiving the unrepentant

July 1999 | by Eric Wright

Near the end of the film 2000 Acres a dying widow makes her sister promise to care for her two children – and pass on the family legacy. The legacy, it turns out, is hostility toward their unrepentant and abusive father. As she dies she whispers, ‘My sole accomplishment in life is that I didn’t forgive the unforgivable’.

The stubborn pride that holds a grudge is much admired among earth’s peoples. But what about God’s people? Suppose we seek reconciliation with a person who has grievously slandered us. What do we do if that person not only refuses to accept our offer of forgiveness, but adds to his false accusations? Or what if the person’s expression of sorrow is trite and hollow although the offence was grave? What do we do then?

Loving our enemies

Christ taught that our response to others should not be conditioned by how they treat us. ‘Love your enemies’, he said. ‘Do good to those who hate you … pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-29). We have probably filed these statements away in mental filing-cabinets marked ‘Impractical ideals’; filed them way back in a dark corner with some of his other uncomfortable teachings.

Does Jesus really expect us to dust off such injunctions – in 1999? They seem so unfair, so one-sided. And we still feel the sting of Jill’s tongue-lashing, or live amid the shattered pieces left by Joe’s unfaithfulness, or … (You fill in the blanks).

An Angus Reid poll suggests that willingness to offer forgiveness to others depends on the degree of hurt experienced. Among monthly churchgoers, 71% believe that ‘God is very understanding and forgiving’ but only 3% would be willing to forgive a drunk driver who killed one of their family members. The statistics improve somewhat among weekly church attendees, of whom 93% believe that God is understanding and very forgiving. Only 26% of these, however, feel they would eventually be able to forgive a drunken homicide.

A generous spirit

Distinguishing between God’s perspective on forgiveness and our own may help to clarify issues. In the moral universe, forgiveness is ultimately a judicial transaction between the sovereign Judge of all the earth and a repentant sinner. As men, we cannot offer people what is only God’s to give, nor are we called to pass judgement on the unrepentant. What he does ask us to demonstrate, however, is forgiveness in the sense of freedom from resentment, bitterness and malice. A generous spirit lets everyone know that the door of reconciliation is always unlocked. From the human viewpoint, this constitutes forgiveness.

Someone has suggested that forgiveness is ‘Giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me’. People with a forgiving spirit offer to those who have hurt them a compassionate, accepting attitude that refuses to allow the hurt to fester. Whether or not people accept our forgiveness, or forgive us, we are exhorted to ‘bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you’ (Colossians 3:13).

Twisted strands

Forgiveness does not absolve the forgiven person from taking responsibility for his actions. Nor does it deny the importance of making restitution. It is not ‘cheap grace’ that treats the offence too lightly. But it does recognise that only God can untangle the twisted strands of human depravity, because only he knows the heart. ‘Judgement is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’. In the meantime, he expects us to forgive ‘seventy times seven’.

Mark Thistle of Scarborough, Ontario, was savagely beaten when he mistakenly picked up the wrong change at a tavern. He remained in a coma for five weeks with a brain haemorrhage that left him epileptic, clinically blind, subject to mood swings and memory loss – and out of work.

Mark had drifted from his Christian roots. Although he returned to Christ during his recovery, he continually fed the fire of hatred for his attacker. He desperately wanted him to die and go to hell. When he heard his attacker’s story, however, a desire to forgive welled up within him.

In court he stood and said, ‘I’ve done a lot of thinking about this and in my own heart I bear no animosity. I totally forgive him. This whole experience has been a nightmare, but Jesus Christ has presented himself in my life through it. I’ve never felt better’. Mark had discovered the power of forgiveness!