Repentance First!

"Nelson Mandela never preached forgiveness." "The late Pope John Paul II, on the other hand, did rush to forgive." "It is less common to be reminded that forgiveness is inseparable from remorse..." John Goddard, Toronto Star, Sunday, 24 April 2005

Christians are expected to forgive a transgressor; after all, it is in the Lord's Prayer. It's assumed that since one has transgressed against others, one cannot withhold forgiveness when transgressed against. Love thy neighbour and all that. But I have a problem with that. As Goddard points out in his excellent piece, Jesus put repentance before forgiveness. In Luke 17:3 he commanded: "...if there's repentance, you must forgive." If there is repentance. If the transgressor regrets and feels sorrow for what they have done and resolves not to continue the transgression...

In all the times people told me to forgive, I often felt like a heretic when I replied that there is no repentance, so why should I forgive? The transgressors have told me by their inaction and by their inability to say even "sorry" that they have seen nothing wrong with what they did, that they don't think it was that big a deal, and that they are making me out to be the bad guy for making such a fuss. But by forgiving them, I'm agreeing with their lazy and prideful way of relating to another human being. I'm saying, "It's OK what you did to me, and it's OK to not express even a midge of remorse. We'll pretend it never happened."

The problem is that when a person wrongs us and expresses no repentance, it harms the relationship and rips our heart. Forgiving in the absence of repentance (even if forgiveness is a pseudonym for releasing ourselves from anger) does not repair the wound. The transgression is forever the pea under all those mattresses and has forever altered the relationship. Jesus understood why repentance was so important. True repentance, with real restitution, is the only salve that can heal the wound.

I do not need to forgive to keep the door open to a restored relationship, nor to feel compassion, nor to lose the anger and bitterness. Only the transgressor has the power to restore the relationship to a healthy place by first acknowledging their wrongdoing -- publicly would be good -- and then asking for absolution and offering restitution. Without repentance, there never can be a healthy relationship.

In Matthew 5:22-26 Jesus addresses transgressors and tells them to "first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him..." Yet that is not the part of the transgression equation most focus on. They focus on forgiveness. The injured party is the one that is leaned on. But Jesus quite clearly states that we are required to lean on the transgressor. Luke 17:3: "Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender..." When was the last time your friends or family rebuked your transgressor instead of telling you to forgive?