Sunday, November 10, 2013

Should We Forgive an Unrepentant Person?

I am finishing up Nicholas P. Wolterstorff's freshly minted book, Journey Toward Justice.  It has been a challenging book for me--particularly in the categories of rights and forgiveness.  For this reason it is a good book, and certainly one I would recommend.

Professor Wolterstorff addresses an issue near and dear to all of us who care anything about relationships, I think; the topic is forgiveness.  I broached this subject in my own book, A Final Word on LOVE, so I was interested in his perspective, especially in light of the broader context of justice.

We all think about forgiveness frequently because life unfortunately is made up of events leading to either our need to forgive someone, or our need to be forgiven.  Some of us will harbor bitterness towards others, and that is that.  What Wolterstorff or I have to say on the matter will likely matter little to those of that persuasion.  But the rest of us see a value to forgiveness--if only a self-interested one--that is, we know bitterness eats the embittered soul alive; and forgiveness is a good vaccine against such cancer.

As a Christian, I know God fully expects me to forgive others.  Indeed, Jesus leaves no room in this:

"For if you forgive people their trespasses, your Father in Heaven will also forgive you.  If you don't forgive people (their trespasses), neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." [Matt. 6:14,15]

The Greek construction here is quite emphatic.  Jesus is saying if the front end statement (protasis) is true (i.e., if you forgive others...) then the end statement (apodosis) will always be the case (God will forgive you).  The corollary is therefore also emphatically meant: If I don't forgive others, then God will not forgive me.

Wolterstorff would stand on this; yet he and many others I know also believe you cannot, nor should not forgive someone who hasn't repented.  He quotes Luke 17:3-4 as showing even Jesus invoking repentance as a necessary condition for our decision to forgive someone.  He argues that even though Jesus clearly teaches us to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us and do not repay evil for evil but evil with good, Jesus never teaches us to forgive our enemy. Wolterstorff further argues God doesn't forgive us if we don't repent--that is, the necessary but not sufficient condition of receiving God's forgiveness is our repentance.

In practical terms, Wolterstorff believes if we forgive someone who doesn't repent, we are in effect saying his or her immoral action against us isn't really immoral; in fact, it doesn't matter, at all. Wolterstorff says the following of forgiving Hurbert, who has refused to repent of his deed against him:

"I submit that this is both to demean myself and to insult Hubert by refusing to treat him and what he did with full moral seriousness." [N.P. Wolterstorff Journey Toward Justice. Baker Academic (2013): p. 215]

I must confess, the good Professor almost had me convinced.  But I cannot accept his argument.  I cannot because I do not think any human being can love his enemy without forgiving his enemy.  An enemy is an enemy because they wrong us and continue to do so with no remorse.  How can anyone love such a person without forgiving him, when love requires fundamentally to treat the other person for his good because of his inherent worth (i.e., Wolterstorff's proper definition of human rights)--irrespective of his actions and disposition?  I ask again: How can we repay his evil with good, if we haven't forgiven him?  After all, forgivenness is to let go any obligation the other person might own us. How can we possibility love someone while still holding an account against the person?

I suppose it is theoretically possible for a person to pigeon-hole his complaints against someone, so he or she can treat the person as if those complaints don't really exist, and therefore love the other person without forgiving him.  But such a thing just doesn't jibe with what I know of human nature.  If I don't forgive someone, I will be embittered towards the person.  I may be able to keep my bitterness in check by not beating him up, or slashing his tires, but I will harbor bitterness against him.  The problem is our understanding of the love God calls us to.  Love is not only avoiding hurting the person in some outward sense, but in any sense.  And harboring bitterness--whether acted upon, or not--is hurting the person and therefore not loving the person.  This is what Jesus meant when He equated murder with anger (Matt. 5:21-26).  Certainly it is wrong to murder someone; yet if we harbor unresolved anger (unforgiveness) toward someone we will eventually murder them, either physically, emotionally, or politically; and therefore if we cling to our unforgiveness, we have already murdered our offenders.  Bitterness is an unavoidable consequence of not forgiving someone.  And bitterness is contrary to love.

The present world system sees the only way for people to face their actions is to force them to live the consequences of their actions.  Therefore, if I forgive an unrepentant person--so the argument goes--he or she will not have to live the consequences of his or her actions (i.e., whatever our unforgiveness delivers the offender).  This makes sense to us because we are children of this world system; its logic is hardwired into us.  But God is calling us to His kingdom system.  And even though it may seem counter-intuitive, the only real hope of our offenders coming to face their offenses is if they see true love expressed to them--regardless of their current disposition.  This is how Jesus brought us to see our Sin; Jesus loved us with the supreme act of mercy and forgiveness by dying on the cross--even though He was perfectly innocent.

If I follow the world's method, I submit the offender will rarely if ever come to face his or her own demons because he or she will be too preoccupied with either taking revenge against me for my unforgiveness, or proving why he or she had been justified in wronging me in the first place.  But, if I respond according to the methods of God's kingdom, the offender has a good chance of seeing his or her faults, and--guess what--will likely come to repentance.  Not always, of course.  But I don't love someone only because I expect or demand the right response, rather because I hope for the right response--this is the real beauty and promise of God's kingdom. Besides, I am not responsible with what an unrepentant offender does or does not do with my forgiveness; that is between him or her and God.

Therefore, I must always forgive people, regardless of whether they are repentant or not.


Jeff said...

Matthew 7:1-2 "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you."

Part of what Jesus is saying is you cannot know what is another persons heart - only God knows. You can see their actions and guess their heart but you cannot know for sure. How can I hinge forgiveness on knowing another persons heart when only God knows?