Even though Jesus calls upon us to forgive our brothers and sisters “seven times in the day” (so long as they repent), this doesn’t mean that we are to allow ourselves to be mistreated. It is appropriate for us to put some “guard rails” in place or to talk with brothers and sisters who hurt us about steps that they can take to ensure that they don’t continue to do the same things over and over again.
In my last post, I argued that Jesus’s whole point in telling the “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” was to say to Peter (and to you and me by extension) that we shouldn’t have to ask how many times we should forgive someone when they sin against us. Knowing that we are like the first servant in the parable who was forgiven a debt he could never repay, we are to stand ready, willing, and able to forgive others no matter how often they may hurt us or how great the pain they may cause. Forgiveness is not optional for us as Christians. We are to forgive others in direct proportion to the forgiveness we have received from God. But if all of that is true, as I certainly believe it is, it inevitably raises the question as to whether or not we are obligated to forgive those who hurt us even if they never apologize or seek our forgiveness. Are we as Christians to supposed to keep on forgiving others no matter what?
Forgiveness is Relational
The short answer to this question is no; we are not called to forgive others “no matter what.” One of the reasons we know this is true is because, as we have previously said, forgiveness is always a relational category. It is never an end in itself in the Bible but always a means to the end of reconciliation (see my earlier posts on forgiveness). A relationship has been broken, and it needs to be restored. It cannot be restored, however, until and unless the sins that have caused the break have been dealt with. Once these sins have been forgiven, the relationship can be restored to its original condition.
The relational nature of forgiveness means that we have no obligation to forgive someone with whom we do not have a relationship. That is because there is actually no way for us to forgive in this case, because genuine forgiveness—at least in the way that the Bible talks about it—is always unto the restoration of a relationship. And this is impossible if there isn’t a relationship to begin with. There should no doubt be something akin to forgiveness that takes place in these kinds of situations. We ought not harbor bitterness and anger toward people for the things that they do to us, even if we don’t have relationships with them. We need to let go of the hurts that strangers may cause so that they don’t consume us or eat us up on the inside. But we can’t forgive them really and truly, because forgiveness is always unto the restoration of a relationship, and, if there isn’t any relationship to restore, then there cannot be any forgiveness.
Forgiveness sometimes requires confronting others.
The relational nature of forgiveness also means that we have no obligation to forgive someone who does not apologize and seek our forgiveness for whatever hurt he or she has caused. This is because genuine forgiveness is impossible without both sides participating. One side must apologize and be willing to seek forgiveness and the other side must be willing to forgive. Without both of these things happening, reconciliation is unattainable.