A common question that arises, in times of scandal, personal crisis and war is this: “Jesus commands us to forgive, but are we supposed to do that in the absence of repentance?”
Here’s the short answer: Yes.
Here’s the slightly longer answer, given by our Lord himself: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” – Mark 11:25
The basic, radical teaching of the Christian faith, despite all attempts by our culture to avoid it, is this: “Love your enemies”. An enemy is not somebody who means well. An enemy is somebody who, impenitently and with malice aforethought, means ill and chooses to do you harm for the sake of his own selfish purposes. Enemies are people who mean to sin against us and who have not said (and for all we know may never say), “I’m sorry.”
Our faith binds us to extend forgiveness to them. And the fact they are impenitent does not give us license to hold on to bitterness toward them. The command is absolute: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those (everybody, not just the people who have satisfied us emotionally by a serious act of contrition) who trespass against us.
The reasons for this are twofold. First, we aren’t God. But second, because we aren’t God, our insistence on holding on to unforgiveness (which we call “righteous anger”) hurts nobody but ourselves and those around us and, as a general rule simply gives power to the person who hurts us.
Case in point: the various people we all know who imagine that somehow or other, suckling at the breast of fury constitutes “doing something” about priest abuse, or the war, or some other issue that arouses passion. The reality is it does nothing–nothing whatsoever–about getting rid of bad clerics, helping victims, or bringing a single person closer to God or to the communion of saints. The only actual, practical results are that people who refuse to forgive evils committed are filled with bitterness, feel an ever weaker grip on their faith, “encourage” one another in small (but growing) ways to consider the possibility of schism, hatred of their country or the enemy, and nurture an ever deeper cynicism. St. James is right: the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God (James 1:20).
The command of Jesus is to extend forgiveness to enemies. It is not to pretend the sin never happened. It is not to pretend the impenitent person is penitent. It is not to be non-confrontational, or bend over and take it, or see no evil. It is not to refuse to take practical action, up to and including jailing or (in a just war) even killing your enemy. But it is to forgive nonetheless. It is to wish their good, to refuse to let cynicism master faith, hope, and charity, to hope for the best while keeping a firm eye on reality.
Some people believe they can play the “I don’t have to forgive until my enemy says “sorry” game”. If we buy that, we have to realize that a) we are directly disobeying Jesus Christ and b) the punishment for that sin is found in the sin itself. For, nine times out of ten, our unforgiveness is going to punish ourselves, not our enemy. We are going to be handing our happiness over–for the rest of our lives, mind you–to people who may not even know we exist, much less care. We are going to sentence ourselves to be chained to misery forever and to be slaves of people long dead. It’s folly. And it’s why Jesus is right. Refusal to extend forgiveness (for “justice’ sake”, as we always tell ourselves) is, I believe, one of the most deadly manifestations of pride in the world. It achieves nothing of what it promises (“Someday that jerk will say he’s sorry and you’ll be vindicated for all the world to see!”) and it ruins not just our life, but typically, the lives of those around us who must suffer our descent into unrequited rage.
Indeed, refusal to forgive trains us for nothing but misery. We think we will find peace when They say they’re sorry. But if we’ve trained ourselves to be bitter and cynical, we will be stuck there no matter what They say (because who can ever believe Them anyway?) And besides, if one of Them says sorry, there are always going to be plenty more who don’t. So we hold on to our bitterness in any event.
Nope. Peace does not come from refusal to forgive. Nor does vindication, safety or security. Nor does any other good thing. Refusal to extend forgiveness (extend, mind you: it is up to the sinner to repent and receive it) does only harm–and primarily to the person who refuses to extend forgiveness.