Recently a friend, whom I will call Samuel, asked me to address a dilemma he faces. He is now a Christian, but formerly he lived a life in which he offended and hurt many people. In relating to those whom he hurt in the past, he finds that they want him to express remorse, but when he does, they don’t trust him to be sincere and want him to demonstrate remorse in unspecified ways. Samuel finds this situation very painful and is tempted to withdraw and keep silent. I think Samuel’s dilemma may not be unique, so I wanted to share the gist of what I said to him:
“Sadly, this is a common human response, Sam, and from a Christian viewpoint, its mere humanity is what is wrong with it. When people are wronged they naturally want revenge, and when they ask you to prove your remorse, they are saying that their desire for revenge has not been satisfied. They want to see you suffer. Desire for revenge is the root of bitterness from which springs all sorts of violence. Jesus tells us that we are obligated to forgive whoever asks us for forgiveness even if they sin and come back 70 times 7 times (Matthew 18:21-22)! He did not add a qualification that allows us to ask them to “prove” they are sorry. Nor did Jesus allow us to say “No” for any reason. In forgiving, we are not so much trusting the petitioner’s sincerity as we are trusting Jesus. We cannot know the hearts of other people—nor our own!—but we know the heart of Jesus! Petitioners can never do enough to prove that they are sorry to people who do not understand that they need forgiveness as much as the petitioners do. If we know that we have been forgiven a great debt, we will not hesitate to forgive others. Your point from Romans 5:8—that Christ died for us while we were sinners and enemies—was spot on target! God said “Yes” to us before we had even asked!!! I am amazed and completely humbled by his grace. All this reminds me of Jesus’ story of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). We all ought to pray, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” and have nothing to say to God or others about our goodness.
“But you asked about your dilemma and not the offended party’s dilemma. I simply thought considering the obligation we have to forgive others when they ask for mercy would help us think clearer about the petitioner’s dilemma. If we are required to forgive those who ask us without knowing for sure that they are sincere, aren’t we—the offending party—also required to ask for forgiveness even when we cannot know that someone will extend it? Even if we are sure that they will not forgive? After we’ve faced our sin in God’s presence and have accepted his forgiveness, if possible, we should express remorse and ask forgiveness from those we’ve hurt. If someone doesn’t trust our remorse or grant our request for forgiveness, even though it is hurtful to us, in the spirit of Jesus we should in our hearts forgive them for not forgiving us. For they are in the wrong and need God’s grace and help. We should pray for them to come to know their forgiveness in Christ! And as we pray for our self-made enemy, God may grant us healing from the hurt of rejection. Indeed, I believe he will. It may be your remorse and requested forgiveness that finally confronts them—the supposedly innocent party—with their sin of not believing in the forgiveness of sins. Your costly remorse and their reaction could be means of their awakening and redemption.”