Finding Forgiveness

How do you forgive the people who have never sought your forgiveness? And what do you do when you have sought to restore fellowship and the other person just won’t respond?These are two tricky situations and here are just a few thoughts. Every situation is different, so of course there is no “three steps to a quick solution.” But, we can and should do all in our power to put things right. Sometimes you have to accept the fact that there is nothing more you can do.

Let’s begin with the people who never seek your forgiveness. You just can’t go through your whole life being miserable about how someone wronged you long ago. If they were the ones who sinned in the first place, there is no sense getting bitter. Why? Because that puts you into sin as a result of their sin. That is like lying down on the ground and letting your enemy put his foot on your neck. That is what bitterness does to you: it wields power over you, giving the adversary (the devil) the advantage. So we ought to first get rid of any bitterness. Then we must make sure that we are in a mindset to forgive. The best way I can think of to test whether or not you are able to forgive someone is to imagine how you would react if they came to your door and apologized. If you know for a fact that you would readily extend forgiveness to them, then I don’t think you have an unforgiving spirit. But if you know that you would not be disposed to forgive them readily, then you have some work to do.

Because forgiveness is a transaction of sorts, it is difficult to say you have forgiven someone when they have never sought your forgiveness. But Jesus asked God to forgive those men who crucified him, and they certainly did not seek His forgiveness. We are to forgive those who trespass against us. So that means our hearts must be disposed to forgive, even if they never ask. We cannot devote our thoughts to how they wronged us if we have forgiven them. We cannot think up snappy comebacks if we have forgiven them. If we have really forgiven, we are able to press on, and their old sin becomes completely irrelevant to us and our lives.

Some people carry their past around behind them like a ball and chain. They think of how they have been wronged and mistreated, misunderstood or ignored. It is very easy to remember the sins of others and forget how much we provoked them. Sometimes I think it helps to simply make a list of all the grievances you have against others. Then you can pray through the list, one grievance at a time, asking God to forgive you for holding a grudge. Then you can ask God to give you the grace to forgive those who wronged you. Only then can you breathe a sigh of relief that God has chucked your record-keeping far from you, and you can move on. Sometimes going through the list may work for a while, but then all the memories and the bitterness comes back. That is a very predictable temptation and you have to refuse to go there, reminding yourself that it has all been forgiven.

There is much provocation in this world. We have to be the kind of people who can overlook it. If we are always waiting around for an apology, chances are good we will be constantly provoked.

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10 thoughts on “Finding Forgiveness

  1. Great post. I wonder though. If a person has wronged you, and they have broken fellowship with you, though you have tried to reconcile, are they not in ongoing sin? Of course we shouldn’t be hanging around bitterly, stewing over their wrongs, but is it possible to forgive something that is ongoing?

    I’ve been seriously wronged several times in my life. Sexual abuse as a child for starters. The Lord has brought me past that though I’ve never received an apology. I’ve had loads of contact with this person as it’s a family member.

    I’m talking more of a “friend” who spread lies concerning me. Gossip that was untrue. She accused me of belittling others, when in fact I never had. They had known her longer, and chose to believe her. She will not even look my way in the supermarket. Sure, I’ve taken it to the Lord. Sure, I’d accept an apology, though I’m certainly not hanging around waiting for one. I’m not bitter toward her, and have felt compassion for her and her family as they have recently endured the pain of a failed adoption. BUT, her sin is ongoing. The fact that others still believe these lies, the fact that she won’t even speak to me. Does God forgive those who are unrepentant?

  2. Things can get pretty tangled, that is for sure. And if it is possible (and sometimes it isn’t) to seek pastoral help, God can use that to bring about reconciliation. Some pastors are willing to trouble shoot problems like this, particularly when both parties are in the same congregation. But sometimes the wrongs are so sweeping, that it is easier to walk away from the trouble than face the clean up. But I believe we should always be seeking reconciliation, at least in our prayers. Ask God to give you opportunities to return good for evil. Pray that the next time you see this woman at the grocery store that you will be friendly and warm toward her, even if she ignores you. Say hi anyway. The ones who look away are often hiding behind a guilty conscience.
    Does God forgive the unrepentant? Jesus prayed for his murderers, asking God to forgive them. Stephen imitated Christ in this prayer at his martyrdom. If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness. Though I do not know how God deals with all this, I do know He is just and kind, and He saves His people to the uttermost.

  3. Thanks, Mrs. Wilson, this is good.

    One thing that I have found helpful is to think and speak of my response in terms of “showing mercy” rather than “extending forgiveness”. Sometimes showing mercy looks like extending forgiveness, but sometimes it just looks like having a particular disposition toward someone who is unrepentant.

    Thinking about it in these terms also reminds me that my response to someone who is seeking forgiveness extends beyond the mere act of forgiving.

  4. You address an aspect of forgiveness that I have wondered about ever since I read a small book on the subject by Jay Adams several years ago. (I loaned the book out and never got it back, so can’t refer back to it.) To the best of my recollection, he states categorically that forgiveness must be a two-way transaction. Unless the offender seeks forgiveness, the offended cannot forgive. I believe he talked about the offended having to seek peace with God regarding the offense and the offender in this situation, but that it did not involve forgiving. I have never read or heard anyone else take this approach so strongly. You seem to hint at something similar, though your approach sounds a little closer to forgiveness (a mind-set to forgive if given the opportunity). Maybe Scott Moonen’s “showing mercy” is also related to this.

    Besides my rambling above, I have a question. When Peter writes in 1 Peter 4.8, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins,” do you think it’s talking about how we can love in such a way that we refuse to take offense over every little slight (“a multitude of sins”) from our brothers and sisters in Christ?

  5. Thinking of sin as debt helps me understand how the transaction might work on just one side. Sin creates a debt: the sinner owes me, for instance, the hundred bucks he stole from me or the car he just wrecked or the arm he just broke or the common courtesy he should have just shown or the happy childhood he should have provided. When I recognize his sin, I write a metaphorical invoice: “So-and-so owes me X.” Well, it doesn’t take any action on X’s part for me to rip that invoice into tiny little pieces and throw it in the fire. It doesn’t take his acknowledgement of the sin; it doesn’t take his regret or his apology or his genuine repentance.

    “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And how does the father forgive our debts? “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Grace and mercy precede our repentance, so we must extend grace and mercy before we receive repentance.

    Now if only I could stop “thinking up snappy comebacks,” I might actually get a handle on how to be gracious and merciful!

  6. It’s interesting that Satan is called “the accuser of the brethren” in Revelation. When we spend our time thinking of accusations against our fellow Christians, aren’t we doing the sort of thing he does?
    And by contrast, when we forgive even those whom we have a right to accuse, aren’t we doing the sort of thing that Jesus did on the cross?

  7. This is great convo. I really needed to hear these things for I have exact same concern as the first poster. Valerie, your illustration was awesome. Now if I could lay aside my snappy comebacks and anger fantasies over ways in which I’ve felt slighted. I have so much regret as I see where I protested because I felt wronged or violated, I was a great provoker causing things to become tangled–like Mrs. Nancy said. I”ve finally reached a place of accepting that I’ve done all I could do to make a mends and seek forgiveness for my injuries toward them.

    Although I struggle as I fight to bring my anger unto submission because the person refuses to speak to me in spite of my seeking resolve our head butting (talking face to face with a counselor even). Its like I’ve been judged and condemned without taking a closer look to understand. The only difference between me and my sibling is I’m seeking to come closer to so as to have truth applied to my perceptions, fears, pride, etc…To have them all disarmed because I really believe the behaviors I’ve encountered from this person is NOT the sum total of who they are. There is too much good and Christlikeness I see. And I’m hurt, frustrated and sometimes angry that they’ve not had the same optimisim to bank on Christ’s work in me.

    This is so discouraging and embarassing as I see unbelievers getting along and squashing issues (over much worse injuries) more cordially than Christians. Our theology is pristine, our doctrine and exegesis is irrefutable but we are cold hearted toward each other. Easily offended and dismissive, unable to look each other in the eye.

    You said something that I’d like you to clarify Ms. Wilson. You said essentially its easier to walk away than to stick around and clean up the mess WE make. (both parties are often times equally responsible).

    Are you advocating just leaving a mess or are you just commenting on an observation of how humans typically deal with such tuff relational stuff? For I find this is what has happenend in my case with this person–a mess has been made. I was a greatly responsible (embarrasingly guilty) in creating the mess but the other party doesn’t want to clean it up with me. As much as it depends upon me there is peace…my heart is bent to forgive. Although, I can’t I’m disillusioned (person is a noted minister). Is it unreasonable for me to expect one so versed in Scripture to be so unforgiving. They are saying there is no hard feelings but their actions show that there are very hard feelings.

    For I’ve been the initiator in all efforts to talk, get clarity, explain myself, reconcile and I’ve been minimized and brushed off (forced to talk about about these deep issues via text message). It is very deep and much is left out that will bring clarity as to how its gotten to this level. But my pain is–why did it have to get this far with two Christians? This has brought me to much surrender as I see my need for more death to self such that God’s power can saturate and fill me. I’m craving it now that I see the depths of my failure in this situation.

    ‘At the end of the day, its not all that deep. Talking with humility, empathy, and eye contact can go along way to bridge gaps in communication created by misunderstanding, pride, fear, anger, distance or whatever.

    Do pray for me and that God’ would be glorified in both of our lives somehow through this and that a reconcilation of FRIENDSHIP can occur between us in a way that would honor Jesus!

  8. Of course I do not believe we should make messes and then just ditch! We should do everything we can to put things right. But often, the more muddled things become, the harder it is to sort out. Sometimes you can forget what caused the initial trouble in the first place. Pastors are often involved (as they should be) in helping fellow Christians get things resolved. But if a Christian has sought to do all he can before the Lord to fix things (seek forgiveness, etc.), then I believe there comes a point where he has to be content to let God sort it out. I know every story is different, and sin makes things so confused. So I commend you for trying to put things right, for seeking counsel, and for praying for a restoration. But if it still doesn’t come about, you may need to let it all go. Sometimes after years have gone by, people seek forgiveness. In the meantime, you have many duties before you and much work that needs to be done. Don’t let this be a distraction to keep you from it.

  9. Amen! Encouraging reply and for the record, I thought we were on the same page and but I just wanted to be sure of what you did not mention there. As I always thought we were on the same page here, I just thought you were saying essentially, “sometimes its necessary to walk away and leave the mess because to try to clean it up creates even more mess.” And since this is precisely what happened in my pursuing communication I was like, uh oh. So in asking that I was wanted to get some unbiased insight for my specific situation. That’s all. I’ve read enough of your post to know you would not advocate leaving a mess just because its difficult. But your reply has confirmed we are on the same page. And it has encouraged my stance at this point. To let it go as I’ve resolved the situation isn’t really ABOUT ME. Its way too lofty for me (Psalm 131). So I see that after you’ve done all you can–you just stand. All is well with me over it–at such times the cliche “God knows my heart” is really appropriate.

    Again would you please remember me in prayer that I’ll stay focused on him and walk in those good works he’s prepared for me as those many duties are already unfolding.

    Thank you for this blog!

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