Have We Lost the Meaning of Forgiveness?


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It’s a common scenario: The loved ones of a victim of a jaw-dropping crime give a press conference in which they announce that they forgive the person who murdered, raped or otherwise brutalized their family member. The perpetrator hasn’t apologized for orchestrating the tragedy or expressed a modicum of regret for the crime. The family members have only just begun the grieving process, only just begun to digest the torment their loved one endured. Yet, they offer forgiveness anyway. But can forgiveness at this early stage be anything but perfunctory? Is forgiveness without repentance even possible?

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, argues that our society has cheapened the meaning of forgiveness over the years. According to her: “There is a watered-down but widespread form of ‘forgiveness’ best tagged preemptory or exculpatory forgiveness. That is, without any indication of regret or remorse from perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, we are enjoined by many not to harden our hearts but rather to ‘forgive.’ ”

Is this what forgiveness should look like? One individual causes grievous harm without a shred of remorse and those wronged simply give the creep, the unrepentant creep at that, a pass? That’s certainly not justice in the worldly sense of the term, but many Christians argue that they have a spiritual duty to forgive. After all, if they don’t forgive others for their sins, God won’t forgive them for theirs. Some Christians have a different take, however.

Pastor John Piper of desiringGod.org questions if “in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person.” While he acknowledges that Jesus instructs his followers to love and pray for their enemies, forgiveness of an unrepentant person plays out differently than forgiveness of a contrite one does, he says.

“The difference is that when a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion (turning from sin to righteousness), he cuts off the full work of forgiveness,” Piper says. “We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.”

In other words, forgiveness doesn’t mean that we remain chums with people who harm us or that we continue to give them intimate access to our lives. We forgive the unrepentant by placing our hurt in God’s hands, not by behaving as if someone else’s destructive actions don’t matter. Behaving that way makes it easy for our transgressors to go on to victimize others. Setting boundaries and keeping the unrepentant at arm’s length are just a couple of ways to let toxic people know that their misdeeds were not appreciated and won’t be tolerated in the future. When applicable, holding such people accountable in a court of law sends a strong message that forgiveness is more than just letting bygones be bygones.

Have you had to forgive someone who expressed no remorse for the pain they caused you? What did that process entail?

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