Have you ever sensed the need to forgive someone who has harmed you? Forgiveness is easier when they apologize. But, what if they’re oblivious or unrepentant?
Lately, I’ve done some thinking and praying about how to forgive someone who hasn’t asked. Before we get to that, we have to be clear about why we would consider forgiveness in the first place.
In the wake of being wronged, forgiveness is the last thing most people consider. We don’t want to sacrifice the sense of justice and control we receive from the anger we harbor and we don’t want to make ourselves vulnerable or weak all over again.
There are many who scoff at the idea of forgiveness. But, as a Christian, it has to be different for me. So, why forgive. I can think of three reasons.
1. We forgive to avoid the sin of hatred.
Immediately after saying that God blesses the merciful, the meek, and those who make peace, Jesus talks about the corrosive nature of hatred and how, ultimately, it’s equivalent to murder. We must not harbor or nurture resentment, anger, and unforgiveness. It imprisons us. If we are to be the kind of people God wants us to be, we must resist the gravitational pull of hatred and choose to forgive. To condemn, to keep a record of wrongs, to harbor resentment, and to loathe someone is contrary to God's will for us.
2. We forgive to follow Jesus’ example.
Jesus never sinned. He never broke the law. He blessed, healed, taught, and loved. But, he experienced the jealousy of the religious leaders, the betrayal of his closest friends, and the brutality of the Romans. And, he went to the cross. This is stunning: his last breaths weren’t used to plead his case or to curse his murderers; in his final breaths he asked God to forgive. And he asks me to follow him.
3. We forgive because we’re forgiven.
I have wronged God too many times to count. But, because of his mercy, grace, and love, and because of Jesus, I have been forgiven. And, if you’re a believer, you have received the same. We choose to be the kind of people who forgive because we’ve been forgiven.
Now that we know why forgiveness is on the table—and why Christians ought to pursue it—we can consider our question.
How do you forgive someone who hasn’t asked?
In the midst of a recent conversation about a fellow believer who mistreated me in the past, Kelly asked me, “Could you sit next to that person and take communion together?” After a flash of defensiveness surged through me, I had to admit to my insightful wife that I could not. This person hasn’t asked for forgiveness. As far as I know, this person has no sense of wrongdoing or responsibility. This person is someone I have very little chance of seeing again. However, if I am to genuinely live my faith, it is incumbent upon me to forgive.
So, here’s the process I’m allowing the Spirit to lead me through by God’s grace. It’s what I’d recommend to you if you have a wrong to forgive.
1. Understand how you have been wronged.
Your mind, like mine, has a way of either maximizing or minimizing traumatic events. Therefore, it’s vital to be clear about what happened. Pray through the situation. What led up to it? What was the sequence of events? What was said or done? Write it down on a list or in a journal. Be comprehensive. Refuse to gloss things over or to reason away. You were hurt. Understand it for what it is. (And, this is a great time to own your personal responsibility for what happened, even if it’s ever so small.)
2. Pray for healing.
Once you’ve acknowledged precisely how you have been hurt and have felt the weight of it, you’re ready to allow God to heal it. The process may take ages; it may happen piece-by-piece, layer-by-layer. Or it might be instantaneous. That’s not the point. The point is that God is the only one who can remove it. And he will.
3. Eliminate residual hatred.
Your healing won’t be complete as long as you’re harboring one shred of hatred, resentment, or condemnation. If hate isn’t removed, it grows. Pray about it. Journal about it. Confess it to a friend (without gossiping). Do whatever you need to do to get rid of it.
4. Release the offender’s debt.
Finally, there will come a time when you must release the debt that your offender owes. They may never understand that they’ve hurt you. They may think you’re foolish. No matter. If they refuse to exit the prison you’ve unlocked, that is up to them. The point is that you’re no longer the one keeping them there.
For a myriad of reasons, it might not be advisable—or even safe—to communicate your forgiveness to your offender. That’s OK. You can offer forgiveness without personal contact. Write a letter and burn it on the fireplace. Head out into the woods and voice your forgiveness to the foliage. Give it a voice and walk away.
In instances, it might be necessary to communicate forgiveness face-to-face or in a letter. If you have that chance, be prayerful, humble, merciful, and honest. State the ways in which you were wronged, share about your journey toward forgiveness, and utter these three words: “I forgive you.” Then, walk away from what you’ve dropped and refuse to pick it up again.
5. If possible, seek reconciliation.
If it’s not safe to contact your offender, your journey is complete. But if reconciliation is a possibility, leave the door open and embrace it if it comes. A reconciled relationship is a beautiful picture of the Gospel. If you can sit beside that person one day and commune together once more, what a wonderful thing that would be.
I’ll let this disclaimer be my final word on the topic of reconciliation: Reconcile with care. Your brave act of forgiveness doesn’t require you to make yourself vulnerable to becoming a victim again. It’s OK if the relationship has to change or if you have to be careful to abide by wisely placed boundaries.
What about you?
Are you holding someone in your debt? Do you need to offer forgiveness?