Is “Confession” Really Necessary to Forgive?
Scripture seems to be clear that, for the sinner, the person who has committed the transgression against another, the confession and turning away from our sins and transgressions is a necessary step to enjoy the full benefit of forgiveness and blessing in our lives (1 Jn. 1:9, 2 Chr. 7:14, Ro. 10:9).
But if we are the ones who have been wronged, is a confession really necessary for us to grant forgiveness?
And forgive us our sins,
just as we also have forgiven those who sin against us
(Mt. 6:12, NRIV).
I am sure you have heard it said … maybe even said it yourself … that “I can never forgive THAT person until he or she looks me in the eye and ‘fesses up to what he or she has done!” … or perhaps a similar version akin to that common sentiment. You are especially likely to hear it from someone who has experienced or witnessed some sort of heinous act in his or her life.
And granted, I understand the sentiment. I often feel a hesitancy to forgive someone – even without a heinous act. After all, I can get “worked up” demanding an apology for a transgression as simple as someone cutting me off in traffic or for a server forgetting to bring my requested refill! I’m really good at being unforgiving.
The thing is, when I am demanding such an apology or getting “worked up” about “making this situation right;” I never really FEEL good about myself, feel good about the other person, or feel good about the world. My anger – call it my “righteous indignation” – doesn’t really accomplish anything at all. Usually, it just makes me feel bad and often, if I am honest, this anger or frustration makes me look like a … well, let’s just say “a jerk’ (instead of another common name for a donkey!).
Even when I am completely justified about my feelings in the situation – when the other person clearly did transgress or sin against me – my demanding an admission or an apology or even some suitable form of restitution rarely is beneficial to me. While in some cases it may be reasonable to seek this corresponding action from a person “in the wrong,” I’ve noticed that (in a lot of cases) it isn’t reasonable – and in many instances, it is impractical (if not impossible) to secure such a response from him or her. And while it’s nice if the person actually does acknowledge his or her transgression, usually it doesn’t change my world either way.
If a driver cuts you off accidently in heavy traffic, does it really do any good to lay on the horn and hope the errant driver will acknowledge his or her mistake with a wave of his of her hand? More often than not, that wave will be a one-fingered gesture that only exacerbates your frustration!
Even if it’s more serious, such as the case told in the classic, Les Misérables, where Jean Valjean steals silver from Bishop Myriel, who, not only forgives him, but vouches for him when he is apprehended for the crime. The Bishop saw that to fail to forgive the thief was of little value to him while to forgive him was of a far greater value than the price of all that silver.
And what about the parents of the slain children of Sandy Hook?
How were they able to forgive even before discovering the shooter was mentally unstable? Doesn’t the person have to at least acknowledge his or her sin against us before we forgive that person – or at least ask us for our forgiveness?
Despite the clarity of scripture about our own need to confess our sins to God and to those whom we have harmed (those whom are able to receive our confession), the testimony of scripture also seems to encourage us to forgive the sins and transgressions of others against us – even if such forgiveness goes unnoticed or unrequested.
Jesus, of course, offers the best example. When a group of friends lowered a paralytic man through an opening in the roof to be able to access Him (especially in the midst of numerous other religious leaders already gathered there) (Mk. 2:1-12), Jesus’s response was to say “Your sins are forgiven,” which created quite a stir. The primary reason for this “stir” was the religious leaders’ belief that only God can forgive sins. And while Jesus was proclaiming his authority over sin with this pronouncement, we should also note that He didn’t ask the man to confess his sins or even to profess faith in Jesus as a prerequisite (although Jesus did acknowledge the faith of those who lowered the man into the room), Jesus simply forgave.
Furthermore, Jesus later pronounced a blanket benediction on the world from the Cross when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing!” (Lk. 23:24). And even before this, Jesus taught the disciples to pray “Forgive us our sins as we forgive others.”
“AS WE FORGIVE OTHERS”?
Does this mean that if I hold onto my anger against someone who has sinned against me that God’s own wrath would be held against me until I seek forgiveness for every one of my transgressions?
Do we even know every transgression that we have committed against God? I keep learning more about God’s nature and his expectations for me every day of my life, and I’m also learning more about just how much God loves me (and you) to forgive those transgressions.
I don’t think God would hold his wrath against us for each unacknowledged transgression, but I have decided that God’s grace of “forgiveness” means that we can live a life in which we can forgive others even before they ask to be forgiven. And so, I’m going to try to live a life of forgiveness towards all … even if they don’t ask. I’ll probably be pretty bad at this for quite a while; I’ve got a lot of muscle memory of being judgmental towards others, but with God’s help, maybe I can experience forgiveness in a far greater manner than that I’ve known already. How cool would that be!
Forgive me, O Lord, for my ignorance and hardness of heart towards others. Teach me to forgive them without condition, even as you have forgiven me. Let the forgiveness I have received from you radiate out into the world so that others, too, may know Your Great Love. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Steve Van Ostran
American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains