How (& Why) to Forgive Someone Who Isn’t Sorry
Editor’s note: This story shares an example of forgiveness that centers around sexual assault.
Have you ever had someone do something to you that hurt you so bad you thought you could never forgive them? Perhaps you are currently in a rotten situation and have no desire to forgive the person who hurt you.
Forgiveness can be so tough.
When someone hurts me, especially out of malice, the very last thing I want to do is forgive them. Not only is forgiveness the harder choice to make, it feels unfair — as if they are getting away with their wrongdoing.
There is a different way, though. Here’s an example.
In 1984, a man broke in and sexually assaulted a woman in her apartment.
Jennifer, the woman who was attacked, survived and did her very best to identify the assailant for police. She swore up and down that it was a man named Ronald, whom she identified in a line-up.
Ronald was convicted of one count of rape and one count of burglary.
Despite the fact that the investigation was not thorough, Ronald spent more than 10 years in prison before DNA evidence proved his innocence and he was finally released.
After his exoneration, Jennifer met with Ronald in person, a bold move for someone whose accusation got him locked up for a decade. She looked at him while sobbing and said, “If I spent every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of my life telling you that I’m sorry, can you ever forgive me?”
He did the one thing she never imagined. He cried and he muttered the words, “Jennifer, I forgave you years ago.’”
When I think of the toughest relational mistakes I’ve been a part of, I can’t even begin to compare them to what Ronald and Jennifer experienced. I ask myself, “If someone accused me of something I did not do and it cost me 10 years of freedom, would I be able to forgive them?”
It’s nearly unfathomable.
People like Ronald leave me in awe of how deeply grace can move us. Because he could forgive, he was truly free — he wasn’t bound by the past or regret or self-pity or anger. He had found a way to accept what had happened to him without letting it define him.
At various points in our lives, in both big and small ways, we are faced with a decision: Am I going to hold onto this grudge or am I going to forgive and move on?
Withholding forgiveness does more harm to us than the person we’re angry with. It’s like putting ourselves into a prison cell and locking the door. On the other hand, forgiveness improves our health, humility, and gives hope in dark situations. It is more freeing, dumbfounding, and beautiful than we ever thought.
I know the awful feelings of remorse and guilt someone experiences when they’ve done wrong, so I feel called to forgive others who find themselves in the same place. It was a lesson I learned six years ago when I royally screwed up.
I went around telling people a secret I’d promised to keep. The secret was something that a friend of mine was deeply ashamed of.
Everyone was going to find out soon enough, but she wasn’t yet ready for them to know.
I opened my big, fat mouth and told them, despite promising to hold it confidentially. Of course, that came back to bite me when word got around to her that I’d shared her secret and talked badly about her behind her back.
I immediately felt regret, shame, and sorrow. I wanted to take back my actions so badly. I knew I’d messed up and I’d lost the trust of my friend, who was deeply hurt. Months later, our relationship was still broken and she wasn’t talking to me. I’d never known how important and powerful forgiveness was until I so desperately wanted it for myself.
I learned so much from that situation, but one of the things that stands out years later is to never withhold forgiveness. This doesn’t mean we are naïve or never upset with someone when we are hurt — it just means extending forgiveness to them instead of holding out.
But what do you do when someone isn’t sorry? What do you do when you may never receive the apology you feel you deserve?
You choose to forgive anyway. Why? Because God forgives us.
Don’t forget that Jesus died for the people who betrayed and killed him. So when we have a hard time forgiving people who hurt us, we can follow his example. Letting go of our resentment is the only way to find freedom.
Remember, grace wins every time.