Sunday, May 27, 2012

"Will you forgive me?" -- Asking for forgiveness

Where does the Bible say that we should "ask for forgiveness" from someone we have wronged? I know that the Bible says that we should forgive others. And I know that if we confess our sins to God, he will forgive us. And I know that we have wronged another we should go and seek reconciliation. But it seems to me that going to someone that you have wronged and then asking them to forgive you is adding burden to them rather than taking it away. 

Let's say John injures Tom in some way and Tom is hurt. Then John goes to Tom and says, "I'm sorry, will you forgive me." I'd say that John is doing a good thing in admitting his culpability when it comes to having hurt Tom. But then he follows that quick admission up with an added encumbrance for Tom, that of having to forgive on demand. 

Asking for forgiveness and giving forgiveness are two very different things. The latter involves consciously being willing to let go of the argument or the emotional hurt in order to renew the relationship. The former is a request. Some treat it even as a demand -- the moment that I ask you for forgiveness for something I have done is the moment you need to make that conscious decision to give up on your side of the argument or your side of the emotional hurt. I have known people who used it as a means of ending an argument with the upper hand. You admit that you're wrong, but then force the other person into a position of loss by dictating that the argument is now over and your feelings toward me must now be restored since I said "sorry." And if you can't do that, then the problem is definitely with you and not me. 

So I'm curious. Can you think of a passage in the Bible that says that when we have wronged someone we should ask for their forgiveness? Certainly we should try to restore the relationship and certainly we should admit to our guilt in our part of damaging the relationship. But does the Bible say we should then vocally put the onus of forgiveness upon the other party? 


  1. I did a brief word search on "forgive", and can't find a passage that matches exactly the scenario you specify. A couple of thoughts come to mind, thought.

    a) On the one hand, "demanding" forgiveness seems not to reflect the repentance that's supposed to be present in an apology --- and as you point out, some might use the demand for repentance as a means of manipulating others.

    b) Is this a distinction without a difference? Again, as you point out, Scripture is pretty clear that you have to forgive others. Does it matter who reminds us of that command? Yes, it's immensely annoying when the offender reminds us of God's command to us. But that doesn't make God's command any less binding upon us.

    I've struggled a lot with the notion of forgiveness over the last few years --- on both a theoretical and practical level. But I'll pause before I talk any more on the topic ...

  2. I think there's a definite difference. Someone throwing themselves at our feet (as Proverbs 6:2-5 points out... which my mom brought up on FB) should be an opportunity for us to forgive them. But the point at which they stop the throwing of themselves at our feet and ask for forgiveness, THEY've transferred the burden of action from themselves to us. Which means they're no longer at our feet, are they? They've removed themselves from a position of submission and put themselves in a position of exchange -- I have said I'm sorry. Now it is your turn to act by forgiving me.

    I have no problem with the fact that we should forgive. I completely get that. What I don't get is this belief that we should expect others to forgive us on our own time table. That just seems rather domineering to me.

    I'd be curious to hear more about your struggles with forgiveness some time, Jim. You've posted something on that before, haven't you?

  3. I also can't think of anywhere in the Bible that we're told/encouraged to ask people to forgive us. I like what you said about the throwing themselves at our feet thing - there's nothing wrong with someone humbly admitting they've wronged you and asking for your forgiveness in a "please can you bring yourself to forgive me" sort of way, but demanding it is just not on.

  4. More generally, I'd be hard-pressed to name a scripture where we as believers get to demand anything from any other believer. This is how Ephesians 5 has been abused over the years, for example; I can't compel my wife's Biblical submission to me, just as she can't compel my Biblical love for her. God, on the other hand, has the right to demand that each of us act Biblically.

    Matthew 18:15 says that we can point out others sins to them --- of course, only in the context of attempting to restore them. But it doesn't say that we can demand any particular action, only that we can point out their sin. It is only if they refuse to listen to our pointing out of their sin can we (eventually) cast them out of fellowship.

    I've posted briefly on the topic of forgiveness before ... but that was long before some of my healing on the topic.

    I read a wonderful IVP book on forgiveness that was very helpful in how I think about forgiveness --- especially in regard to one individual in my life that I struggle with forgiving. By God's grace, and some Godly interventions, things are better than they were, although not completely what they should be yet.

    The best thing in the book is a functional definition of forgiveness that I find helpful, and may be germane to this discussion. The authors define forgiveness as the decision made by the offended that the relationship with the offender is more important than the offense. That doesn't mean that the offense was/is unimportant, or that the act of forgiveness heals the wound. In fact, the size of the offense makes forgiveness an incredibly powerful action, not a passive one.

    And so, back to the original question: what do we make of someone asking for forgiveness? By the definition I cited above, it might be seen as an invitation to renew the base relationship once again. And so I am somewhat hesitant to dismiss such actions as inappropriate on a global basis. But then I return to my first point: Scripture does not seem to allow me to compel the action of any other believer.

    And I could write much more, but I will pause ...

  5. I've heard this definition somewhere before, but I don't buy it - it seems to totally ignore situations where we forgive people even though we have no relationship with them, like people who hurt us decades ago and are not part of our lives any more.

    Sure, this aspect can be part of the equation sometimes - deciding that a friendship is more important than the offence can be part of a decision to forgive, it can be a factor that helps us to forgive. But ultimately, I forgive because I am commanded to forgive and because I recognise that God has forgiven me everything I've done. (And also because I know that holding onto grudges isn't good for my own well being.)

  6. I think the definition still works in the situation you cite, though. To be sure, the "relationship" at that point is more virtual that real; the relationship you're restoring is the one in your head, not in real life.

    And using that as a definition for forgiveness can make it easier to think about fulfilling the command to forgive. I can't conjure up feelings of affection and light-heartedness for those I need to forgive; they've hurt me too much for me to be able to be all rainbows and unicorns as I talk to them. I *can*, however, make a decision that I will relate to them in a way that doesn't hold the offense against the relationship --- that chooses to move past the pain while still acknowledging it. And, in time, perhaps choosing to act as if the relationship is whole will heal the rest of it, and therefore make the relationship whole.

  7. perhaps. but i still think the act of asking is a means of shifting the requirement of action. throwing yourself at someone's feet should be invitation enough to restore the relationship. asking for forgiveness seems either trite, or demanding, in that case. the subservient position is enough and puts no overt demands upon the other person.

    i had someone say to me, "i'm sorry. will you forgive me." and i said essentially, "it's going to take me some time to sort that out." and he was offended that i didn't just reply "yes" right away.

    i'm not a very emotional person. but i'm also not emotionally flippant, which i felt was being asked of me. to simply say "yes, i forgive you" when i felt very put upon to have to say it right then and there without even thought or conscious choice going into my response, seemed far more offensive to me than saying that i couldn't right then. that's when i began to wonder why people think it's biblical to request forgiveness. i couldn't even find a passage where we request forgiveness from God. if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us (not because we requested but because we confessed). i think that's the theme in the bible. we submit ourselves, God forgives. there's no requirement for an overt request for forgiveness. ...

    That said, Psalm 51 pops to mind. There's definitely a request there to be cleansed of sin -- for the sin to be blotted out. Hmmm, I'll have to think on that. Does it make any sense to request something similar from others. Or is this a request that can only be made of God?

  8. I agree you can't just conjure up feelings of affection - I don't think that's what forgiveness is about (though our feelings towards the other person will, in time, become more positive as a result of forgiveness). Forgiveness means you choose not to hold it against the other person, whatever they've done, which was hurtful.

    I just think the "relationship" thing here is a bit of a red herring. Restoring a relationship can be a result of forgiveness, but it's not what forgiveness means and it's not why we are commanded to forgive.

  9. I think I understand. I've been in a situation where someone was expressing a need to hear me say in words that I'd forgiven him and I just didn't feel ready to say that, and I felt put upon. Forgiveness for real can take time, you can't rush it. And I think you're right, the person who has wronged you shouldn't be then making demands on you, that's just adding another wrong.

  10. From a strictly philosophical/ethical rather than biblical perspective, it would seem that each party has something they can do to which is most honorable and most likely to reduce tension and suffering.

    The party who caused the injury should 'man up' and admit they were wrong. This does not involve asking for forgiveness or anything else. This person should recognize that for the moment they have given up their right to expect any particular action from the person they injured. It is a straightforward admission of the mistake and a commitment to try to avoid the mistake in the future.

    The party who was injured should forgive because anger and holding a grudge really harms them and others they interact with who may have had nothing to do with the incident. Forgiveness does not necessarily involve a complete restoration of the original trust between two people. That naturally will take time but is completely possible if the person who caused the injury consciously avoids doing it again. Forgiveness is letting go of the anger and recognizing the cause and boundaries of the injury. I do not think someone who demands forgiveness is looking for this kind of forgiveness. They are, as Meg correctly surmises in her first comment, looking fro the injured party to capitulate on their demands that their actions be forgotten.

    There was a beautiful segment on Sunday Morning about a man who was held prisoner by the Japanese during WWII who actively forgave his captors. He went to Japan and met the prison guards face-to-face - men who had starved and tortured him - and forgave them. In the interview he described how his flashbacks and nightmares ended once he was able to forgive. His story is told in the book "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand.

  11. I'll have to look that up.

    Have you ever heard of Corrie ten Boom? Her family was put into a concentration camp during WWII for helping Jews escape. She wrote several books and spoke a lot about forgiving her captors. A movie was made about her called The Hiding Place. Her story sounds similar in some ways to the prisoner held in Japan.

  12. I guess I presumed that it was biblical to ask. I will bear in mind, going forward, that it is not.