I was watching a Channel 4 documentary the other evening: The Girl who Forgave the Nazis. It told the story of Eva Kor, a holocaust survivor who publicly forgave the Nazis for what they did to her. There was an interesting scene in the programme, in which she discusses her action with other survivors who are not sympathetic. Many have the view that the Nazis should never be forgiven for what they did. One man said they cannot be forgiven because they haven’t asked for forgiveness. And this got me thinking: does forgiveness only take place when someone is sorry?
The Bible is clear in its message to us – we need to repent, turn to God and He will forgive us. Biblical repentance is about change, about realising our actions are wrong and turning around and going in the other direction. God wants us to repent before He offers us forgiveness. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out (Acts 3v19). Luke 17 v 3-4 extends this to our attitude to those who sin against us: If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Forgiveness is clearly something that must be asked for, with the offending behaviour being changed.
And yet there are (admittedly not many) examples of forgiveness being asked for without repentance e.g. Luke 23 v 24 Father forgive them for they know not what they do and Stephen in Acts 7 v 60. And how can not forgiving someone fit with love your enemies (Matt 5 v 44)?
It’s not healthy to hold onto anger and bitterness. But is letting go the same as forgiveness? Part of the process of forgiveness must be letting go of the bitterness and hatred in your heart (see previous blog by Jon). But can you let go of these without actually forgiving? I find that hard to accept. To my mind, loving someone who has wronged you and letting go of the anger and hurt caused by them wronging you is the first step in forgiveness. It means that if that person ever does turn around and come and ask, forgiveness is right there waiting for them.
If we wait for repentance before we start that process, then we won’t be ready with real forgiveness when asked. God didn’t wait until repentance before forgiving – He didn’t even wait until the first sin! He planned the route to forgiveness and salvation long before we ever realized we needed it (1 Peter 1 v 18-21).
So, whatever you want to call it, start the process of forgiveness as soon as you can. Maybe even before there is anything to forgive!