What if Someone Doesn’t Want My Forgiveness

The Unpacking Forgiveness sermon series is bringing up all kinds of questions. I’m so glad. Feel free to email me (jerry@graceforall.org) with your questions. I’ll try to answer them here at enoughfortoday.org.

Can you forgive an unrepentant person? What if someone has hurt you deeply, or is still hurting you, but is unrepentant. They know what they have done (you’ve told them…or it’s obvious) but they refuse to accept responsibility. Can you forgive such a person?

First of all let’s define forgiveness. I’ll give you the short and the long definition. My favorite (short) definition of forgiveness is this: the refusal to punish someone for something they’ve done to you. We punish usually by our words. When someone hurts us we hurt them–by the things we say to them or about them. My favorite (long) definition of forgiveness: “When do we forgive others? When we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them. (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity)

Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

So what does this mean for the unrepentant person? In short, you can’t give someone what they cannot receive. John Piper says, “When a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion, he cuts off the full work of forgiveness.” As such, you cannot forgive an unrepentant person. Now I know what some of you are thinking. Whew! I didn’t want to. Now I’m off the hook.

Not so quick! Notice Watson’s definition and Romans 12:18. The phrases “strive against all revenge” and ” so far as it depends on you” show up. While you cannot forgive an unrepentant person, you must release them. Piper again says, “We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.”

While you cannot give someone what he is unwilling to receive, the question is are you really willing to give it? Piper breaks down Watson’s definition like this:

Here is forgiveness: when you feel that someone is your enemy or when you simply feel that you or someone you care about has been wronged, forgiveness means:

  1. resisting revenge,
  2. not returning evil for evil,
  3. wishing them well,
  4. grieving at their calamities
  5. praying for their welfare,
  6. seeking reconciliation so far as it depends on you,
  7. and coming to their aid in distress.

Ouch. This requires a real heart check.