When Should I Forgive Someone Who Has Offended Me?
How do you forgive a brother or sister in Christ that has sinned against you? What do you do if this person is unrepentant over their actions? Steve Gallagher answers these questions in this interview from our archives.
Host: Steve Gallagher has joined me in the studio. Steve is the Founder and President of Pure Life Ministries. Steve, we want to deal today with a question involving forgiveness and repentance. An individual wrote us a letter and they are in a situation where someone has wronged them and yet has not repented for what they did. They want to know, is there real forgiveness for them to offer to this person who wronged them in this case?
Steve: Well, it can be a tricky matter. Jesus did give us a course of action in dealing with these kinds of situations. In Luke 17, He said, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” Now, the implication here seems to be that forgiveness is only extended if it's requested. To a certain degree that is true. But we should also keep in mind that Jesus asked the father to forgive the men who murdered him. Those people obviously weren't repentant. Yet it was one of the last prayers that he prayed before expiring on the cross. He prayed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” And you know, someone once said that forgiveness is the most Christlike characteristic a person can have.
So, you kind of have two sides to this tension. On the one side, if a believer sins against me or offends me and it has bothered me enough that it's not just going away, then the right thing for me to do is to go to that person in a humble and gentle spirit and try to express to them how their actions have affected me. In Luke 17 Jesus is using the term rebuke, which sounds harsh, but it doesn't have to be harsh. It shouldn't be harsh, because it should be done in a spirit of humility and hopefully in the end there will be reconciliation. If the person refuses to acknowledge what they have done or decides to avoid accepting the blame, then you have to decide if you are going to continue the process that Jesus laid out in Matthew 18, which is basically church discipline. In Matthew 18 it says that if your brother sins, go to him privately and show him his way, and if he doesn't repent, take two or three with you to correct him. And then if he still doesn't repent, take him before the church. Now I will say it would have to be something pretty serious to see that process through to its ultimate conclusion.
Now on the other side, Scripture tells us that love covers a multitude of sins. So, there is tension between the fact that we are given a scriptural basis to both confront, but also cover, sin. Now if you're filled with the spirit of love, you can overlook a whole lot more than if you are walking in the flesh. But you still must deal with the situation properly. If someone is unwilling to repent for their actions, it doesn't mean that we take our heart out and throw it down on the table for them to do us wrong again. We may need to withdraw our trust for that person, but that isn't a lack of forgiveness. We do still need to forgive people. But withdrawing trust is simply being wise with who we entrust ourselves to.
Host: I see. So, really the answer to the question comes down more to an issue of my own heart than the heart of the individual who has wronged me. Because if I really have a sight of the tremendous mercy and forgiveness that I have been granted by the Lord, then as I walk in that reality, it becomes much more difficult for me to hold anything against anybody else.
Steve: That's a very good point. And that is also in Matthew 18 in the parable of the unforgiving servant. But there's also the issue of what's good for the other person. If that person is going around offending people, if you can handle it in the right way, then you can possibly help that person by letting them know how they've affected you so that they don’t continue to offend others in the same way.
Host: But still having a forgiving heart, right?
Steve: Yes. And still doing it in the right spirit as well.
Host: Yea. And the Lord draws us with chords of lovingkindness even though we certainly don't deserve His forgiveness. It is often difficult to know exactly how to deal with situations. Now, you mentioned the process for dealing with a believer who has offended you, but it is probably even more difficult when you're dealing with a non-believer when it comes to responding to that individual.
Steve: Well, you are bringing up a good point, because you don't deal with an unbeliever the same as you deal with a believer. If a brother offends you, you go to him and you confront him or at least let him know what he has done. But it doesn't work the same with an unbeliever who has sinned against you. You just have to forgive them and do your best to let it go. Nothing is to be gained by confronting them about their sin.