Is there forgiveness without forgiving?A reader asked if our forgiveness hinges “on our ability to forgive others.” I’m sure he has Matthew 18:21-35 in mind, especially 18:35.
In that section Christ applies the fate of a merciless and unforgiving person in one of his stories to his hearers in real life. It would help greatly to read the whole text and have it open before us.
If we ask about our “ability” to forgive there might be a bit of hesitation but as soon as we ask about our “willingness” to forgive the picture changes. There’s real complexity in this matter and we need to be careful what we’re saying because Matthew 18:35 is scary in its bluntness and very sensitive people could be steered in a ruinous direction. If we aren’t willing to forgive those who sin against us we will not be forgiven!
The brother must not be mercilessly shut out but is to be thought precious enough to be sought to get him back home (that’s what 18:10-20 is about). But it is a repentant brother who is to be forgiven (18:15 and see Luke 17:3-4). Winning him to repentance is bringing him to forgiveness. He finally wants to make it right because he has been pursued and now asks for mercy. The person who will not give him mercy in such conditions will not receive mercy.
And there’s to be no pretence. He is to be forgiven “from the heart” (18:35) rather than icily and permanently isolated or secretly held in hot contempt.
Other issues enter here, of course, which Jesus did not develop and we're not to suppose that this one section holds all the answers to all the honest questions that arise. It might take a while for someone truly and deeply hurt to “feel” like showing mercy even while they know that
that's what Jesus calls for and even while they approve of what Jesus calls for. Ideally they would want their emotional state to come into line with their desire to forgive. This is not the same as an “unforgiving spirit”.
There are numerous important questions that cluster around this immediate one. If a man is genuinely sorry for embezzling money and we believe him and offer him full forgiveness, does forgiveness require that we entrust him with funds again? Even if we're sure he has a weakness in that area? If he has "made moves" on our wife but has convinced us that he is profoundly penitent about it and we forgive freely would some lingering uncertainty about his ability to behave uprightly in the future mean we haven't forgiven him? I'm sure most of us would say that we'd want to assess each situation for the good of the transgressor and those he might sin against. There's nothing sinister in any of this but with a good heart, a willingness to take risks as God has with us and making sure we don't speak and act like we're God Almighty who knows all reconciliation and harmony can be gained.
In the meantime, spreading the sinner's shame (which is a face of non-forgiveness), harbouring hatred and cherishing grudges means there can be no forgiveness unless repentance takes place. Matthew 18:35 is there for nothing and we're very good at finding "good" reasons for bad things!