This week's question comes from Jenn who asks, "My interpretation of scripture is that although we are not to harbor bitterness or anger towards others, forgiveness can only come after the offending party has repented. Now just as a minor disclaimer, I believe that we cannot go through our lives holding every little unintentional slight as something a person needs to ask forgiveness for, and beyond that, if someone has wronged you, you have an obligation (scripturally) to approach that person and seek reconciliation. But beyond that, are we really to be 'forgiving' people who show no signs of repentance?"
There are many, many passages about forgiveness in the Bible, but the vast majority of them are found in the New Testament. Not that forgiveness is a "new" command, but forgiveness was one of the main themes Jesus taught his followers. Forgiveness was simply expected by those who choose to be disciples. Indeed, Jesus went so far as to say "If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6.15).
Although she didn't say, I suspect one of Jenn's primary texts is found in Luke where we read, "Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive" (Luke 17.3). An a priori argument can be made, therefore, that if one doesn't repent then they are not owed forgiveness. 1st John 1.9 suggests that forgiveness follows confession and repentance as well: "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Strictly speaking, then, Jenn's observation seems to be within the guidelines of scripture.
Mercy then, seems to be inextricably tied to repentance, i.e., without repentance there can be no forgiveness and thus no mercy. Certainly this carries with it the weight of logic as well as cause-and-effect. If I sin, I am forgiven if I offer contrite repentance. If I do not repent, I am not afforded mercy.
Not that this notion is without problems itself. As Jenn conceded, we don't expect those who unintentionally slight us to come begging for forgiveness. On the other hand, where is the boundary? What's the difference between an unintentional slight and a deed that requires repentance? If I don't call my wife when I'm going to be late, is that a slight or a sin? If I tell a "little white lie" and a not-so-little "white lie," which must be repented of - neither? Both?
But according to scripture, the complete burden of repentance-forgiveness doesn't rest solely with the one who sins. Jesus said, "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses" (Mark 11.25). In other words, if someone has done you wrong, you must forgive them if you expect to be forgiven. In this case there is no call for repentance - the expectation is that a disciple is a "bigger" person than the one who has sinned and so offers forgiveness by an unmerited act of mercy. Paul echoes this command in Colossians 3.13.
The problem with withholding forgiveness from someone, even if they do not repent, is that the grudge (and have no doubts, an unforgiving heart bears a grudge) corrupts our own heart and emotions. Disciples of Jesus are all about loving one another, and carrying a grudge, no matter how deserved, is as unloving as any sin we might have endured.
In any event, Christians are expected to be striving for perfection in their lives: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5.48). There is no one who can recall every single sin they have committed against God - impure thoughts, flippant word, undone deeds - all occasionally slip by us. If God chose to wait for our repentance, even for the sins we inadvertently commit, there would be no hope for any of us. Thankfully, God is merciful and offers us forgiveness, even for those sins that get by us. And So we must forgive those who sin against us, even when they don't deserve it or don't ask for it. Because although they might not deserve forgiveness, we do.