“If your neighbor sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” — Jesus (Luke 17:4)
This is the only place I know of where Jesus is quoted as making “repentance” a prerequisite for forgiving someone. It brings up several fairly strong reactions in me…
First, I am grateful for this prerequisite, because telling an abused person to reconcile with an unrepentant predator is horribly destructive advice. Sadly, this sort of advice has often been common in the church.
Secondly, repentance does not mean the person feels sorry for what they have done. It literally means that they have “turned around” and are now going in the opposite direction. Repentance is way past feeling sorry. In fact, abusers often feel sorry – be it at some mentally disturbed level — for their actions, but they haven’t repented. Beware of people like this and do not think Jesus was teaching us to reconcile with someone who desires to hurt us again.
Thirdly, in another accounting of this event in Matt 18:15-22, the focus is not on forgiveness and repentance, but on the instruction to “rebuke the offender”:
“If a neighbor sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If they listen to you, you have regained your neighbor. But if they do not listen, take others with you to talk to them . . . “ (Mat 18:15-17)
It makes good sense to go alone and offer the person a way to listen (or repent) in private when one’s physical safety or mental well being is not at risk. Yet for me, telling someone that they have wronged me is the hardest part. Creating space for an unrepentant person to acknowledge their error is hard, because I expect to see denial, anger, manipulation, and rudeness directed at me. I would far rather just forgive, forget, and walk away. But pointing out (not to others, but to the person directly) that they have hurt me is just as much a teaching of Jesus as forgiving them.
Finally, there is another part of this teaching of Jesus – one that is equally hard. We are to get involved when someone has been wronged by another. Could I be a friend – not a neutral friend – but a supportive friend to one who needs me to go with them to seek reconciliation? Would I be willing to go with the offended person to talk to the person who has wronged them? Would I be willing to suffer the offender’s wrath which would likely now be directed as much at me as the one hurt? Am I going to be the kind of person who stays out of things, hiding behind the popular notion that it just isn’t any of my business? Or do I take this part of Jesus’ teaching seriously too?
Jesus is asking a lot. He fully expects his followers to put themselves out there.
April Love-Fordham is a progressive Christian author
living near Atlanta, Georgia. Learn more about her and her books here.