I remember in the early years of trying to merge our two fighting styles that my husband and I had an argument. I was quick-tempered but equally fast to see my error and apologize. (I sometimes still struggle with quick anger.) However, in that beginning argument, when I asked for forgiveness, he would not give it. He needed time.
A day later, when he was ready to discuss and make up, I wasn’t interested. I wanted a turn with the power imbalance. I wanted him to hurt, or grovel, before I bestowed forgiveness.
I realized, though, that withholding meant we might just take turns refusing to forgive. That’s the loading dock to the never speaking again express train. So, I told him I needed him to always forgive me immediately, whether or not he felt it. And that I would do the same. We could say “I forgive you, but I need space to not feel hurt/angry, and we’ll talk later.” Basically, we don’t have a choice to forgive when the other comes in humility and asks for forgiveness. Over the last 28 years, we have fostered an environment of “quick to forgive,” so it makes it easy to be humble.
I thought about this recently when I heard a story of a pastor who sinned sexually. For reference, it was two unmarried people from different churches. There was no power dynamic or betrayed spouses. He came before the elders and confessed, then went before the church to apologize. The goal was to simply confess that he’d sinned in direct contrast to his teaching, and was sorry. The lead pastor publicly removed him from his position. After a year, they publicly restored him to his position. Also for reference, it was not a purity culture situation. He was preaching about sexual purity while sinning.
The intriguing part of the story for me was that he was careful, under the direction of the head pastor, to not ask for forgiveness. The man said, “I’m sorry,” but not “Will you forgive me?” Requesting forgiveness put the onus on the congregation and the head pastor didn’t want any requirements placed on the offended. He wanted them to be given space to grieve. He also wanted forgiveness to be genuine, rather than obligated or demanded. So it needed to be generated organically.
I once heard a man growl intimidatingly to his wife in public, “I said I was sorry!” I’m not sure what benefit that gave him, unless his wife was unrelenting in mentioning something and he was demanding that she drop it. Someone can request or even command you to forgive them. But the story about the pastor compelled me to see forgiveness freely offered as a special kind of sincere.
I think we just like to hear “Will you forgive me?” as a sign that the other person is sorry. But actually, if someone is sorry, they say it. And genuine repentance comes with change.
I think we like to say, “Will you forgive me?” to smooth things over without placing ourselves in a position to be too vulnerable. The other person has to take action when you ask. Saying you are sorry is saying that you are wrong and helpless. You could remain unabsolved.
I don’t think this will change anything in my marriage, because, like I said, we have a good culture of humility and forgiveness. But it has me thinking. Plus, I have lots of other relationships where I still need forgiveness.
Refusing to forgive
If someone won’t forgive you after you have repented, there may not be other options save self-flogging in front of them. In this case, you must find absolution in God alone. They have their own journey. Rather than hardening for self-defense, use it as an opportunity to deepen the intensity of your burden on God—to stand redeemed before him only. And for your own benefit, remember that there is behavioral change and there is heart-change. If you are truly sorry, you don’t just stop doing something, you (try to) give God access to how you feel about it. He is faithful to not only forgive, but to cleanse us, and that occurs in both the heart and in the actions.
Forgive and remember
God metaphorically or literally throws our sin into inaccessible depths in the ocean. (My husband once commented that this might be why there will no longer be a “sea” in heaven.) It isn’t easy for us to cast pain out of reach. It might be a blessing if we could, but maybe it isn’t necessary to get to a place where the wrong is completely forgotten. I think you can remember and forgive indefinitely. One thing to know, forgiveness is not giving someone permission to repeat the offense. Leslie Vernick writes in The Emotionally Destructive Relationship,
“But allowing someone to continually sin against us isn’t biblical love, it’s foolishness. It’s never in anyone’s long-term best interest to allow them to keep sinning.”
Think of severing a relationship as cutting off a limb to stop gangrene from spreading. You might need to separate yourself from someone who merely feels or expresses regret but does not change in heart and behavior.
Maybe it isn’t necessary to remove the person from your life, but you still need to enforce boundaries and prevent continued abuse. If you have this as a dynamic ingrained in a relationship, it can be one of the hardest things to remain in fellowship and stop the pattern. You’ll need the kind of forgiveness that remembers and is willing to let them go.
If you end the relationship and don’t forgive, you alone suffer, and it hinders your relationship with God.
And if you keep the relationship but don’t forgive, how can it be authentic?