There is a certain man I often visit who likes to discuss matters of faith with me. I visited him recently and he asked me whether we should always forgive others, even when they've done something terrible, and if they're not even sorry for it. I told him that forgiveness has no limits. He then asked me more specifically... "Would you forgive a pedophile who had abused your son?" This is a tough question; pedophilia has got to be the worst offense possible! I hear that pedophiles are even hated by all the other prisoners in jail. Could I even forgive such a person?
Christ commanded us to forgive, and there should be no limit to our forgiveness. Jesus illustrated this in a parable (Matthew 18); a man who owed some enormous amount of money (in the millions, say) was forgiven his debt, but then refused to forgive one who owed him a small debt. The man who forgave the large debt was furious; how dare this man withhold forgiveness of such a small debt when he had just been forgiven millions? So it is with us; since Christ has forgiven us of all our sins against Him, how can we withhold forgiveness from anyone? Consider it this way... God forgives every sin, even pedophilia. And if Christ can forgive a pedophile, who am I to withhold forgiveness? "A servant is not greater than his master". Jesus clarifies this parable in saying that unless we are forgiving of others, God won't be forgiving of us. This is because it demonstrates that we are not "born of the Spirit", for the fruit of the Spirit is love, and forgiveness follows love. (See #51: What is the unforgivable sin?)
Forgiveness aims to restore the relationship between the offender and the offended. In the case of God and Man, God forgives but we must repent, which is the natural result of accepting forgiveness. The relationship is not repaired if God forgives only but we remain unrepentant toward Him. Now imagine the pedophile who thinks he can take advantage of my forgiving nature - he wants to sexually abuse my son expecting that I'll just forgive him and our relationship will be as though it never happened. But if a man intended to abuse my son, what good is it whether I forgive him or not; he doesn't care for our relationship at all. The expectation of future forgiveness of sins should keep us from committing those sins in the first place. And if I forgive him it is because I, at least, do intend to maintain a relationship between us. But what kind of a relationship do I want from a man who has sexually abused my son? ...
Earlier in Matthew 18, before the parable on forgiveness is told, Jesus tells His disciples:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
When Peter hears this, he understands that it has to do with forgiveness. He asks "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven." Again, seventy times seven is a way of saying "there is no limit". As 1 Corinthians 13:5 says in the NIV translation "love keeps no record of wrongs." By contrast, unforgiveness and hatred are inseparably linked. In as much as love should abound in us, so should forgiveness. In the passage above, it's saying that when your brother sins against you, you should seek to bring him to repentance (ie to "gain your brother"). Forgiveness should have already taken place on your part. This is in the context of the Church where the offender professes to be a Christian. But if you've sought repentance diligently and they still won't repent, we "let him be as a Gentile and a tax collector". That is to say, we come to the conclusion that they're not genuine Christians. (You have to consider the Jewish audience Jesus is speaking to here, where "Gentile" stands for anyone outside the faith.) But how do we treat people outside the faith? We seek to lead them to Christ! This is not where we find the limit to our forgiveness, as it may sound to some readers. This is as I explained to my friend; through forgiveness I am able to carry on loving that person, and seeking to bring them to Christ. "If someone abused my child," I explained, "I would feel so much compassion toward them... they are so lost and in need of Christ!" This is the kind of relationship I would still want with the man who abused my son. Forgiveness emerges out of the character of love, and especially Christ-like love which even loves one's enemies. And if I did forgive a pedophile, it would not be inconsistent for me to
turn him over to the police in the interests of protecting my son or
other children from further abuse. It would also be out of love in an
attempt to help the man himself.
Now in thinking about all this, I feel that there's something clearly lacking... it's all hypothetical. I can say I'd forgive a man who sexually abused my son as much as I like, but even I have to wonder; How would I really feel? What would I really do? And so I tried to think of a time in my life when I really did forgive in spite of a grievous offense. And after some time of self-reflection, I discovered something wonderful. I realized that I couldn't really track down any feelings of being horribly offended by anyone, precisely because I had forgiven them! Forgiveness repairs relationships, after all. But I came up with this... Trying to step outside of my own mind, I think that by rights I probably should be resentful of my mother. My mother used to ridicule and mock me all the time. It was, one might argue, a form of abuse. I do remember hating her as a teenager, and even into my twenties, before I gave my life to Christ. But God has given me a forgiving heart. We can forgive whether the offender is repentant or not; my mother wouldn't even know she'd done anything wrong, let alone repent of it! Yet because I forgave her in my heart there is no hatred or resentment. Some will probably say, "Well, maybe you've just grown up and matured?" And maybe my mother's offense wasn't as serious as sexual abuse... but at least consider how many adults are still resentful of their parents and hold grudges against them for a similar childhood experience. As this friend of mine and I were discussing forgiveness, he shared that one person in his life that he could never forgive was his father. For what offense, I don't know. But it's all too common for children to become estranged from their parents through unforgiveness. Yet Christ gives us the power to forgive because He has forgiven us, and is ready to forgive still.
"pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:28)