As we pick up on this discussion of repentance and forgiveness, it is important to understand that repentance and forgiveness can be performed unilaterally.
For the victim, forgiveness offers freedom. Again, we must disagree with those who teach that forgiveness must not be granted without repentance. To insist that the victim withhold forgiveness until the offender repents actually serves to victimize the offended person twice: first by the offense itself and second by holding the victim in thrall to the offender by keeping her attached both to him and to the offense until he chooses to repent—which he may never do. Indeed, in some cases, people have been victimized by offenders who have died: Are they never to enjoy the peace that comes from forgiving the other?
No, the victim can cut herself or himself loose from the burden and corrosion of anger, vengeance, fear, and other horrible feelings arising from the offense by sincerely forgiving the offender. She is now free to walk away from this horrible part of the past and heal.
Similarly, an offender can truly repent whether or not the victim will forgive. In fact, a scandalous teaching of the Christian faith is that one can repent of one’s sins before a third party and receive forgiveness. The victim herself doesn’t even need to be there. How can that be right?
The “third party,” of course, is God. For God can forgive sins, since he is the one ultimately against whom we each sin. He is our Creator, toward whom we primarily owe proper attitudes and behaviour. And it is to God that the Bible primarily tells us to repent. (Check it out: the Bible says surprisingly little about repenting to each other, and a lot about repenting to God.)
Therefore, as the main party involved, God is empowered to forgive sins unilaterally. And the amazing fact of the gospel is that he wants to do so, for every one who will repent and trust him to do so.
Yet full shalom requires more than one-way forgiveness or one-way repentance. Beyond the offender and the offended is a third element in this situation, namely, the relationship between the two of them. The relationship must be repaired. And God longs to facilitate that.
So he commands us to repent to each other, as well as to him (Matt. 5:23-26). So he commands us to forgive each other. And so he promises to restore all damaged relationships to a state of shalom, whether in this life or in the life to come.
The cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and love thus appear here, at the heart of the gospel. Repentance and forgiveness demonstrate faith: in each other and especially in God, who commands them.
They demonstrate hope: in a fresh start and thus in the future, both short-term and long-term.
And they demonstrate love: not warm feelings, to be sure, which may or may not arise in the situation, but the essence of love is there, which is to go beyond dealing out “just deserts” to give to someone more than he or she deserves.
Repentance and forgiveness together are among the greatest gifts we can give to another person. They are among the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves. And they are among the greatest gifts we can give to God, who longs for us to be reconciled to each other and to him.
As we enter Advent and look forward to celebrating God’s great gift of the Christchild, can we try to give the gifts of repentance and forgiveness more freely? Can we summon up the courage to to ask for these gifts more freely?
For by repentance and forgiveness is the only healthy way we can go forward into the future—individually and together—with realism, faith, hope, and love.
Let us pray:
Our Father, who art in heaven,…forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us….