Author Greg Koukl
Published on 06/07/2021
Christian Living

Can One Forgive Another Person Who Doesn’t Want to Be Forgiven?

Greg answers a caller’s question about our ability to forgive someone who isn’t sorry.


Caller: When someone has done something to you that they are not sorry for, I’m wondering how that can be resolved when the most general response is, “Well, you need to let it go. You need to forgive them.” And I sort of understand what they mean, to the sense that it’s eating you up inside. That kind of stuff is emotionally helpful. But I’m looking around as purely—how can one be forgiven that doesn’t want to be? I mean, presumably God doesn’t forgive us if we don’t actually want it.

Greg: Right. I think this is a little bit of a tricky question, and the reason is because I think the issue of forgiveness—there are a couple of different angles to it in Scripture. Now, one of my mentors, Doug Geivett, philosopher over at Biola, wrote a piece or a chapter in a book about this, and his point was that your responsibility to forgive another transgressor a transgression is dependent upon their willingness to admit their wrongdoing and, in a sense, turn from it. In fact, Jesus made comments to this. If he repents, then forgive him. Well, how many times? Seven times? No, seventy times seven, but there are conditions there. It’s not unconditional.

And so, I think there’s a point there, all right? That is, that you are not going to give the person the sense that they are released from their guilt if they are not repentant of their behavior, okay?

So, the reason part of this—there’s another part to this I want to mention, but the part that is so weird is that, how do we release somebody else from the guilt when they’re really guilty before God more than anything else? So, I don’t quite understand how all that works, but if you were to sin against me badly, I would say, then you’re not forgiven for what you did because you’re not repentant about it, okay? Period. Now, that’s kind of the judicial side of it. Let’s just call it that. Then, there is that personal side.

If what I am doing—in light of the absence of your request for forgiveness and your subsequent repentance which would result in my forgiveness by obligation—is seething over it, and I’m turning it over, and I’m dwelling on it, I’m saying, “You dirty rat,” you know, “You’re doing this, you did that. Oh man, I just...” and over, and over, and over, this simply is soul-destroying.

And I’m thinking of relationships I’ve been in where I find myself—for things that were done that were wrong to me, and for which there is not the hint of repentance, no sense that there’s been any impropriety—and I’m going, “Oh my gosh,” and over, and over, and over, and this is where I got to go to God and say, “Okay, God, I’m stopping doing this. I’m just not going to do that.” This is my self-talk.

So, maybe this is what is being spoken of when people say you just have to let it go. Yeah, there are times when a person is not going to repent. Maybe they’re dead. They can’t undo, they can’t repent, they can’t say they’re sorry. None of that stuff. Now what? It is foolish to let those things continue to eat away at your heart. And this is where, you know, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is good, whatever is lovely, and anything worthy of praise...any excellence, let your mind dwell on these things. And so, this is where you have to go just for your own mental health.

Caller: And I have completely done that. It’s more of—it strikes me as somewhat unserious of someone to say, “You should forgive someone something horrible that they aren’t actually sorry about.” I’m like, that wound is real. I don’t want to minimize that by pretending that everything is forgiven when it’s not even capable of me granting that, okay? Harbor nothing. Nothing emotional tied to it, you know, I still want to keep that distinction.

Greg: Well, I think according to what Doug Geivett has written, that’s a legitimate distinction. The person is not forgiven. They’re not released. Jesus said, “Forgive as you’ve been forgiven.” Well, we're forgiven as we go before God and ask for cleansing and that kind of thing. Now, I don’t think we’re forgiven sin for sin in that way. It’s the idea that we go and confess we are sinners, and then we are cleansed and made whole and that kind of thing. But nevertheless, the dynamic is in place.

And so, I guess I could say, well, I’m not, in a sense, forensically offering forgiveness to that person. The slate isn’t clean. You haven’t dealt with that. That has not been resolved yet. However, I am not going to ruin my life over the fact that you refuse to acknowledge your wrongdoing. I’m moving on emotionally. So, that’s the kind of two-fold element I think that it’s probably healthy to keep in mind.

Caller: Thank you, Greg.

Greg: Does that make sense?

Caller: I appreciate that very much.