Q Do I have to forgive another person for hurting me even if that person thinks she did me no wrong and therefore refuses to apologize?
A In answering your question, I am drawing wisdom from Lewis Smedes’s Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (1984), which I highly recommend. We should forgive others, even the unrepentant, because we need the healing that forgiveness provides.
Ideally, forgiveness is a two-way street involving repentance by the perpetrator and pardon by the victim. But when the perpetrator is unrepentant, the victim needs to free herself by forgiving. It is natural to feel deep pain and anger when we have been unfairly hurt or wronged. But if we left it there, our anger could become malice that festers and devours us from within, robbing us of joy and immobilizing our spiritual and emotional lives.
When we forgive, we let go of our hatred, not our anger—we should always be angry at injustice and wrongs. But if we let go of malice, we can see our hurtful memories anew—not forget them—and eventually come to the place where we are able to wish well for the person who hurt us. This is not easy; it takes time and patience. But if we don’t free ourselves, we allow that hurtful memory to continue hurting us well beyond its occurrence.
Forgiving the unrepentant person does not mean tolerating and accepting the wrongs committed. And you still need to hold the wrongdoer accountable. Ideally, the person needs to repent for the sake of her own spiritual growth, just as you need to forgive for your own spiritual health. But ultimately we cannot force someone into repentance.
—Shiao Chong is a chaplain at York University in Toronto, Ontario.