How do you Forgive Someone who Refuses to Change?


When we hear the old saying, “an eye for an eye,” we tend to think of primitive or barbaric justice. But this saying actually captures the force of both modern and ancient justice. Aristotle explained that justice requires a recompense for what was lost; accordingly, he called it “retributive,” re-paying justice. Justice corrects for wrongs deliberately enacted, but limits the correction by a principle of proportionality. Were we to strike back for wrongs based solely on our feelings, our actions would turn from justice to revenge, as our retaliation would far exceed the actual injury.


Let’s imagine an example . . . suppose you were to sneak into my cattle pens at night and make off with twenty of my cows. Retributive justice demands that you repay me the lost cows. If you have already eaten or sold them, then you owe me the value of the cows. If you cannot pay that value, then you owe me the value through labor or through your hide, pain inflicted that somehow reaches to the measure of the pain you caused in depriving me of my cattle. The idea is that what is taken must be either positively restored to the victim or negatively withdrawn in the perpetrator’s person. But the harm to be inflicted on the perpetrator must be proportionate to what he caused in his victim. We all recognize the need for criminal penalties to vary according to the severity of the crime. This is the modern equivalent of the ancient theory of justice.


But Jesus offers us a very different principle. Instead of “an eye for an eye,” instead of proportionate retributive justice, he asks us to forgive. Now, there are two levels at which we could understand his teaching on justice and forgiveness: personal and civic. In both cases, we could apply either the retributive or the forgiveness models. If you personally slight me or harm me, even though it may not be a crime, I might attempt to strike back at you through some similar or worse non-criminal action. Is Jesus talking about these personal strikes or the sorts of criminal action illustrated by the cow theft?


It’s difficult to imagine how any magistrate could forgive someone 490 times for criminal offenses and not entice every criminal in the world to enter his city’s gates!

Well, for one, I suppose it’s difficult to imagine how any magistrate could forgive someone 490 times for criminal offenses (Jesus’ famous “seven times seventy” reply) and not entice every criminal in the world to enter his city’s gates! It would undermine civic order. Then again, Jesus himself recognized political sovereignty, both when he mentioned giving to Caesar what was owed him, and when he recognized Pontius Pilate’s authority as coming from God himself. Moreover, when Jesus forgave the thief on the cross, he forgave him only spiritually (personally); he didn’t rescind the political punishment that the thief recognized he deserved. So, it’s not likely that Jesus meant his teaching on forgiveness to provide a model of jurisprudence. But what we Christians are well aware of is that he at least intended it to govern our interpersonal interactions. So, for the sake of our argument here, let’s look solely at the personal (non-criminal) dimension of Jesus’ teaching.


When Jesus forgave the thief on the cross, he forgave him only spiritually (personally); he didn’t rescind the political punishment that the thief recognized he deserved.

Let us consider, then, what Jesus’ alternative theory of justice—as forgiveness—might really mean. Prima facie it appears that he is simply dismissing justice altogether. But the Scriptures are replete with instances of divine justice, so a dismissal hardly seems likely. Moreover, in Romans 3 St. Paul explicitly recognizes a second kind of justice, though St. Paul employs the term “righteousness.” The Greek roots for both “justice” and “righteousness” are the same, dike, so we need to explore the common conception. St. Paul begins the Epistle to the Romans with the traditional Jewish and Greek theories of retributive justice divinely applied to human conduct. He continues in the second chapter of Romans explaining that we will all receive the due reward or penalty for our actions, exactly proportionate to what we have done—immortality and honor for those who persevere in doing good, damnation and harm for those who choose evil. But then, in chapter three, he suddenly introduces this new kind of righteousness, a new type of justice—a justice not grounded in the old Law, but instead grounded in Jesus Christ and available through faith. What might this be? And how does it square with the old theory?


Unless God did something radically different, the demands of retributive justice would separate us from him forever.

Let’s think about what God is really up to in our world. He is seeking to transform human beings overridden by vice and unhappiness into lovers of God and their neighbors, thereby completing their human nature. For the love of God is the purpose of human nature (this is why Jesus tells us that it is the greatest commandment). So, only through our love of God can we ever truly be complete, truly be happy (or “blessed” as Jesus liked to call it). Now, here’s the big question: if the argument of Romans stopped at Romans 3:20, if, for example, God hit us with precise retributive justice, would we ever love him and complete ourselves in him? No, for we’d be cut to bits by our own vices, never made fit as pure brides for the perfect groom. So, unless God did something radically different, the demands of retributive justice would separate us from him forever.


Retributive justice only establishes the good negatively by taking out of our “hides” proportionately the harms that we inflict on others.

But God loves us, we hasten to insist. Right, he does, and love implies seeking the good for its object. However, retributive justice only establishes the good negatively by taking out of our “hides” proportionately the harms that we inflict on others. And we do so damage ourselves through our sins. Our evil conduct has horrible consequences for our relationships, leading to divorce, bitter children, shattered friendships, lost employment, and still further damaging coping mechanisms, an endless spiral toward destruction. We pay for our bad choices. Whether in this life or in the next, justice is done. As Jesus put it to Nicodemus, we are already condemned.


So, retributive justice doesn’t restore us positively, doesn’t make us better. And only by becoming better people can we ultimately become lovers fit to know God face to face. For as the writer of the Hebrews indicated, without holiness no man shall see God. How is a soul, bleeding from its own vice, going to approach God? In his fresco, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” Masaccio showed us how Adam and Eve fled the garden, the look of anguish and hopelessness. Not exactly a bridal portrait. So, God had to do something quite different, something restorative, if he intended for us to love Him again after our sins.


Forgiveness always costs the forgiver.

To understand how positive justice through forgiveness is possible both for God and for human beings, we have to dissect forgiveness. The person who is harmed by an offense is the only person who can forgive the harm, because that person suffered the loss, but here’s the kicker: forgiving worsens the loss. If you steal those three cows and I catch you on the prairie licking your chops, my cows are long gone. So, I have a decision, don’t I? I could get payback by taking out on your hide the pain you caused me by stealing those animals—that’s the negative impact of retributive justice. Alternatively, I could choose to forgive the sin, but doing so makes me suffer the loss not only of the cows but of the right for justice. This is why forgiving one another is so difficult for us. We have to eat the loss, eat the sin, to spare the sinner. Forgiveness always costs the forgiver. However, by eating the loss myself, I have the opportunity to positively restore you to living a better life and improving your character, thereby becoming just rather than merely receiving the lashing of justice.


Our spouses and our friends are not our children, so it is really not up to us to “teach them a lesson they’ll never forget.”

Imagine a situation in normal life where your wife, let’s say, has committed a serious harm against you, and you are angry about it. What’s the best possible result in this situation? Ideally, it’d be for your wife to realize her error and choose to come back to you and make the situation right, to choose to become a better wife. Of course, you could become so angry that you set aside your vow to always seek her good (for that’s what love is), and just blast her with your anger, or, worse, start committing harms against her in retaliation. A form of retributive justice, perhaps. But to what end? What have you really accomplished here, what have you done that is positive? Retaliating against personal injuries and insults so often only starts a spiraling cycle of miseries that destroy our relationships. Demanding justice might provide momentary satisfaction, but the counter-harm done to the originally offending party usually shatters the trust central to intimacy. Our spouses and our friends are not our children, so it is really not up to us to “teach them a lesson they’ll never forget.”


And let’s ourselves never forget the story that Jesus told of that steward who owed the king a fortune and begged for forgiveness of the debt. You will recall that the king granted the request, only to hear a few days later that that very same steward found a fellow who owed him a fairly small amount of money, but instead of emulating his king’s mercy, the steward handed the man over to the debt collectors. Enraged, the king re-instated the steward’s original debt and handed him over to the torturers till every cent be paid retributively. This story echoes the line from the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are debtors to us.”


Imagine if the steward had instead emulated the mercy that he had received from his king! The king’s mercy would have been rewarded with the production of a just and charitable character in his steward, positive justice, the true reconciliation of a transformed life. But the steward squandered that opportunity for improvement, forcing us to ask the difficult question: what do we do when the people we forgive turn around and hit us again?


The object of forgiveness is not the perpetrator but is instead his sins. We forgive people (indirect object) their sins (direct object).

Let’s explore an answer by noting something really interesting about the nature of forgiveness: the object of forgiveness is not the perpetrator but is instead his sins. We forgive people (indirect object) their sins (direct object). Why? Because forgiveness is negative, not positive. The Greek word for “forgive” is the same word used for divorce or tearing apart. God thus divorces our sins from us, tears them apart, and crushes the guilt that we bear. He cleans the slate by taking our sins on himself. However, God’s putting away our sins does not mean that we are automatically reconciled to him. We too have a part, the choice of repentance in the act of faith to accept God’s mercy. God never forces himself on anyone. So, if we stubbornly refuse to change, then our reconciliation to God is blocked. We remain enemies of God.


Even when the person injuring us remains fixed in his determination to plot some further harm, we can still choose against striking back in the same manner. Obviously, we should be on our guard and take prudential steps to minimize his impact, but a counter-attack crosses the forgiveness line.

In the same way, we are told to forgive our enemies (not just friends and spouses), people who never say that they are sorry or show any sign of willingness to change. Forgiveness means putting away those sins too, and we can do that whether or not the other party also puts away his sin. If both parties do so, then we achieve the ultimate goal: Reconciliation. But if not, we are still responsible to forgive, to set aside those sins. It’s critical that we not confuse the negative thrust of forgiveness as putting away another’s sins with the positive objective of reconciling damaged relationships. Even when the person injuring us remains fixed in his determination to plot some further harm, we can still choose against striking back in the same manner. Obviously, we should be on our guard and take prudential steps to minimize his impact, but a counter-attack crosses the forgiveness line.


When we give in to the desire to strike back, the pleasure we take in fantasizing about doing so gradually turns into an obsession that pollutes our peace of mind.

There is a silver lining however. Even when the choice to set aside the demand for retaliation yields no positive result in the intended party, the choice to negatively set aside another’s sins still provides a positive benefit to the forgiver. When we give in to the desire to strike back, the pleasure we take in fantasizing about doing so gradually turns into an obsession that pollutes our peace of mind. Paradoxically, by engaging in the circle of personal attack and counter-attack, we can become as bad as the person who started it, sometimes even worse. Our quest for retaliation can even spill out onto other parties by way of our dragging them into our own rage. When we alternatively choose to set aside the sin for ourselves, we essentially liberate ourselves from becoming dominated by someone else’s behavior. Our choice to set it aside, to forgive, releases us from becoming controlled by the reactions that the other person seeks to achieve.


Power taken back is freedom redeemed.

We know from criminal cases that victims of crime have to act against the crime—against the criminal (in court) and against the effects of the crime (through new creative action)—or else they will be defined by it. They have to “take power back” to use the now-popular phraseology. What does this mean? It means that the control over one’s life must be taken back from the criminal who stole it. A new kind of life, chosen in spite of how one feels, becomes necessary to slowly though surely redefine oneself. Power taken back is freedom redeemed.


The same principle is at work on the personal violation level. When we choose to forgive, we are putting the sin away not just for the perpetrator but for ourselves! We are saying that we will not be defined by this sin and by its bitter effects. While we hope that the perpetrator will realize the injustice of his action and change his behavior, we nevertheless realize that even if a personal reconciliation may never be possible, our choice to forgive sets us free.


When we choose to forgive, we are putting the sin away not just for the perpetrator but for ourselves.

Lastly, consider this: when I set aside the demand for retribution, God himself takes up my cause. If the perpetrator repents, then God restores both of us. If he refuses ultimately to do this, then God restores me. But it takes faith in God’s promise of ultimate justice to activate the hope that alone can generate real forgiving love. Thus, forgiveness is an act of faith, knowing that God will restore all loss in the final judgment, restoring what was lost to you in your love for another, in your setting aside the demand for retribution. This is a kind of justice unimagined by Aristotle, but consistent with his theory, because in the end, all can be made whole.

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