Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Prodigal Father: Loving the Unrepentant Sinner

[This post contains some sensitive subject matter and is not for young readers.]

"The Confession" by Dicksee

"Loving Father, pure and right
Waits, arms open, for the sight
of the wayward son come home.
Celebration waits alone."

~ from the song "Love Like Rain" by Daniel Doss

These lyrics are from the second verse of one of my favorite worship songs, which recounts the story of the Prodigal Son and explores how we are all like the sinful child who has wandered away from a father who waits with open arms to welcome us joyfully home. We serve a merciful God who is only too ready to forgive our sins when we repent--so willing, in fact, that He gave His own Son for this very purpose.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." ~ John 3:16-17

As Christians who serve this incredible God of love, we are called to be like Him, to forgive each other as we have been forgiven (Matt. 6:12, Luke 7:27-42). Moreover, we are to forgive anyone who asks us, not just once, but as often as they turn to us for forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-22).

But, how do you forgive someone who does not believe they need to be forgiven?

This is the situation in which I find myself with my father. For those of you who do not know, my father left my mother five years ago. I will not give too many details. Suffice it to say that the entire process was very long and extremely ugly, resulting in a great deal of heartache on my mother's part (the divorce was in no way mutual) and no apparent shame or mercy on my father's. To date, my father has never given any indication that he believes he has sinned or that he is in anyway sorry for his behavior. Now, only two years later, he expects us all to simply move on and forget the past. Forget...without forgiveness, which he does not think he needs.

I have been angry, and I have offerred that up to God. I have wanted justice, yet I know that God is just and will fulfill all justice in His own time(Luke 18:7-8, Jude 1:14-15), even particularly in the case of the adulterer (Hebrews 13:4). By the grace of God, I have waded through righteous fury, bitterness, fear, resentment, and He has led me out to find "the peace of God which transcends all understanding," (Phil. 4:7a). God has truly been faithful to me in this dark journey, and He has grown me so much through the experiences I have endured in the aftermath of my father's unrepentant sin.

I can even say wholeheartedly that I am at a place where, the moment my father should ask me for forgiveness, I would offer it with my whole heart. But, God forbid, what if he never comes to ask it?

In the song and in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father is waiting at home for his son to return, never knowing what has become of the son, never having to see the sins his son commits, never having to witness the pitiful decline of the young man into unrepentant wickedness. Sometimes, I think it would be easier to be like that father, remote, loving his son from afar, rather than having to be daily bombarded with the foolish and wicked choices his son continually makes. How hard it is to "wait, arms open" for a "wayward" loved one when that loved one is forever proudly displaying before us their sinful choices, accusing us of failing to love and accept them when we do not condone those choices.

So much easier, to wait somewhere else until the day they come for forgiveness. So much easier to forgive a repentant soul all at once, rather than having to daily humble ourselves before someone who sins and sins and proudly justifies those sins until they believe they do not sin at all. So much easier to not know what has become of our loved one than to see the iron grip in which Satan has them trapped by their own folly. Yet for many of us, this is not the way things play out. Instead, we have to grapple with another's sin every day, confessing in our own hearts that we are no better than they, that what goodness is in us is only from God (Ephesians 2:1-5). "There but for the grace of God go I."

We cannot forgive those who do not ask it. We ought not condone sin in any form. But, there is a way to love the unrepentant sinners in our lives. We can do it, first, by confessing our own weaknesses before God and thanking Him daily for His grace and mercy that redeem us fully from our own sins. We can do it by withholding judgment of the Prodigal Son (or Father or Spouse or Child), trusting that God is wholly just and will bring all to account in His own time. We can pray ardently for the redemption of this Prodigal Loved One, knowing as Job did that our "Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth" (Job 19:25). And, we can ask God to cultivate in us a spirit that is like His, ready at the first sign of repentance to offer full and complete forgiveness with love and with joy and with open arms.

These things are not easy. Life lived for Jesus rarely is. But, it is good. And, though it may seem impossibly difficult at times, we can trust the words of our Redeemer who said that "all things are possible with God" (Mark 10:27b).

* This post originally contained some rather broad "specifics" about the nature of my parents' divorce. After being convicted in my personal prayer time about this, I came to see that this was not honoring my father. I have since rewritten that section of the post. I do not feel that the alterations detract from the central message of this post, and I beg the forgiveness of anyone who may have been offended by the original content.


  1. Bethany, what a difficult burden to carry, I'll pray for you and your parents!

    I've been thinking all day about this sentence: "We cannot forgive those who do not ask it."

    I've just been wrestling with that since I read it this morning, actually! In Mark 11, it talks about forgiving one another so that the Father may forgive you. Forgiveness of our sins and the desire to joyfully serve, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls it "costly grace," is not given to us because of something WE do. God is the instigator of that forgiveness. Grace redeems the sinner, not the sin, just as forgiveness among people forgives the person--it doesn't condone the behavior. I certainly think we must not embrace or condone sinful behavior, but I don't think God calls us to hold things against people, especially since our sins, as Christians, are not held against us!

    I'd love it if you'd tell me what your thoughts are about this really got me thinking today!

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  2. Chloe- I agree with you (and Bonhoeffer) there's no such thing as costly grace. The moment something is "required" for it, grace would cease to be grace. And, as you said so well, "God is the instigator of that forgiveness." All grace, including that which enables us to forgive others is given freely from our gracious Father, and not because we deserve it.

    Additionally, I agree with you that "forgiveness among people forgives the person--it doesn't condone the behavior." I'm not sure I was fully clear. I am eager and ready to forgive my father...but he doesn't believe that he has done anything wrong. I do not feel that by forgiving him I would be condoning his actions, but I do believe that by sitting idly by as he continues to sin as though nothing were wrong is a form of condoning. If my father were to see the error of his ways and come to me for forgiveness--or to any of the other people his actions have hurt so deeply--then, it would be wholly unChristian of me to turn him away--for God has forgiven me so much! How could I in turn not forgive my earthly father? For me, the rub is that my father doesn't believe he has sinned and, in his pride, will not ask forgiveness but justifies himself time and again.

    For me, the issue I'm mulling over is: What do you do in the interim before the sinner repents? Naturally, when they become repentant, we ought to honor that, allow them to put their sin in the past and forgive them as we have been forgiven. But, how do you live with the present sin before it has been repented of?

    Hope that's all a little clearer. And thanks for commenting; I always enjoy hearing your thoughts :)


  3. I had similar struggles to your own only with my mother. She has some sort of undiagnosed mental disorder. She could sway between a loving mom or a very abusive, insane person. It was an unstable childhood that I still suffere scars from.

    I forgave her because she had a mental disorder but I wish that I had broke contact with her much earlier then I had. She continued in my adult years to attempt to manipulate me. I would have saved myself heartache if I had chosen to pray for her from afar.

    The final straw came six months before her death. She was beginning to use the same mental and verbal abuse against my kids that she used against me. Not wanting my kids to be exposed to this-and knowing that I couldn't get her to stop-I broke contact with her.

    Some people have asked if I feel guilty for not having had contact with her the last six months of her life. My answer is NO, no guilt at all. I was better able to honor her by not being filled with resentment and very real pain at her plus I could pray for her from afar. Its easier to forgive an abusive person when you don't expose yourself to their poison.

    Sorry for the long post but I wanted you to know that some of us have had similar experiences with our parents.

  4. Deb,

    Thank you so much for sharing. It sounds like your mother--God rest her soul--had borderline personality disorder. I have known several individuals with this disease and it is truly hardest for those closest to them, since it is upon these people that the extremes of the disorder are unleashed. What a blessing that it seems God lead you to a place of protection and has freed you from any sense of guilt in a very difficult situation.


  5. Thank you. Although she was never diagnosed, I have often wondered if my mom had Borderline Personality Disorder myself.

  6. eek, Bethany, I hope I haven't misrepresented the Bonhoeffer view of things. What he means by "costly grace" (which he endorses!) is salvation that cost our Lord (by the sacrifice of His only Son). So, while it is freely given to us, we understand that price, and are motivated and determined to serve others and devote our lives to discipleship. Cheap grace would be grace that's taken for granted and not made into a part of our lives. Sorry if that's kind of confusing terminology, it was for me, too! Bonhoeffer originally wrote in German, so the translation may have something to do with it.

    Hope your weather is less stormy than ours is today!


  7. Chloe- Thanks for the clarification! I was definitely confused. Yes, I agree that grace comes at a price--the price of Christ. But, I have heard people speak of grace as though it costs US something--that we have to do something to receive it, and that's what I thought you meant originally. Have you ever read Randy Alcorn's "Grace and Truth Paradox"? He has some amazing stuff to say in there that refutes the concept of "cheap grace" that I think you would enjoy. So, yeah...I agree with you. Darn theological terms getting me so confused!


  8. Thank you for this, Bethany. My brother is the "sore spot" in our family. He has struggled with alcohol and drug addiction in the past and has alienated himself from our family by treating my mother in a terrible manner. It has been a great burden to bear for my parents.

    Over the past few years he has transformed, however, and is now married and wanting to adopt a child with his wife. Recently our family has really been in turmoil: is it the right thing to do for him to adopt when it has been such a struggle for him to just exist himself? Will he be a loving parent? And mostly, can we forgive the problems of the past in order to move forward and TRUST that he is a new person? It has been challenging these last few weeks and I am ashamed to say that it is proving very difficult for me to be ok with this adoption...I simply cannot get over who my brother was and I am terrified that he will bring a child into our family that will be exposed to his struggle.

    I appreciate your words and I pray to be able to open my heart and trust that this situation will only lead him further away from the evils of his past and into a brighter and love-filled future.

  9. Bethany,

    Thank you for sharing with us.

    I had a very difficult situation with my sister almost 15 years ago.
    I worked on forgiving her, in many stages, for years. I found a lot of help when I googled "forgiveness".

    I believe it is very definitely possible to forgive without the object of your forgiveness believing that they need it.



  10. Kate,

    I would love if you could share some the resources that helped you. And, I would love to hear more about how you feel that someone can be forgiven without believing that they need it.

    At the point I'm at now, I feel like I can forgive in my heart without my father believing he needs forgiveness, but I just don't see how the true reconciliation can come about without God leading him to repentance. Does that make sense? I would love if you could offer me some more advice as to how I might approach fuller reconciliation with my dad.


  11. I received this comment in an email from a lady who wished to post it anonymously. I do not typically permit anonymous comments, but as this poster did email me so that I might contact her regarding it, and as the comment was so wonderful, I agreed to post it here for her.

    Dear Bethany,

    Our family has been through a difficult breach with one of our children due to her rebellion and sin. I won't go into the details as they are not necessary.
    We have been told by some that we are unforgiving, unloving and horrible parents because we don't just accept her rebellion, basically sweep it under the rug and act as if nothing ever happened. We have been told by others that we are doing what we must to protect our other children and to uphold God's definition of repentance and forgiveness and restoration.

    It's not that we're unforgiving or unloving or bitter or judgmental. It's that God gives us standards in Scripture that we must uphold. If we don't, then Scripture is subjective and emotional and means nothing. We have other children that we must also protect from easy believism and an easy-sin easy-out belief system. (that grace may abound.)

    God, in His mercy, moved our family away from the area where we once lived and our daughter still lives. This has allowed us to at least have long-distance contact and keep lines of communication open. However, since she believes that she has not sinned, she does not believe that she needs to ask for forgiveness.

    What is God's stand on forgiveness? Are we to think like a Unitarian that says that everyone is saved regardless of their reprobate condition before a holy God? Or are we to think like Scripture that says the repentant are forgiven and saved? This is the order we see in Scripture:

    1. Confession - acknowledging sin (/If we confess our sins/ He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins....)
    2. Repentance - true sorrow for the sin
    3. Forgiveness - granting forgiveness to the offending party
    4. Restoration - restoring the relationship - insofar as it can be restored. There are situations for full restoration may not be able to happen
    5. Trust - is not automatic, ground that must be regained through the offender's life and proof of repentance.

    It seems odd to me that the church would require forgiveness for the unrepentant when God requires repentance for forgiveness.
    Forgiveness is a transaction. It must be asked for in true humility and repentance. Then if true humility and repentance are the reason for the confession and repentance then we cannot be unforgiving and continue to punish them for their sin. We are obligated forgive. If, then, we do not forgive, then we will not be forgiven by our Heavenly Father.

    What is important in the interim between offense and repentance/forgiveness is to not harbor bitterness and to be ready to forgive and restore when/if repentance happens. We are commanded to put away all bitterness, wrath anger and clamor. If we can give the situation/person over to God and acknowledge that He is sovereign and that Romans 8:28 is really true, then we can rest in God's timing for repentance, forgiveness and restored relationships.
    What is important in the interim is to pray, pray, pray for everyone involved in the situation.

    I believe it is a false gospel to say that forgiveness is required without confession and repentance.
    There is so much more that I could say, but not the time in which to say it right now.

    I want to encourage you to continue to lift your father up before the throne of God in prayer, continue to weed out any root of bitterness, wrath or anger in your heart as a result of this hurt. I want to encourage you to be prepared to forgive when God deems the time is right. And I want to encourage you to ask for a peace in the situation.

    May God grant your father the ability to agree with Him on what sin is. May God grant your father a repentant heart because of this agreement. May God grant a restoration of relationships in your family.

    In Him,
    A Prayerful Mother Awaiting the Day of Repentance, Forgiveness and Restoration, should God grant it.

  12. Thank you very much for posting this piece. Forgiveness through trial and constant testing is part of our walk in Christ that is skimmed over too often. Your blog made a difference to me today, thank you again.

  13. "We cannot forgive those who do not ask it."
    Actually, you can forgive someone who doesn't ask for it. You don't have to tell them about it, but forgiveness isn't something you do with words. It happens in your heart. We're not commanded to forgive those who ask us; we're commanded to forgive all men.

  14. I read your article. I believe that you can forgive someone from your heart, because it is really God who forgives. Actually, I think that what you are describing as "loving the unrepentant sinner"...letting go of bitterness, anger, actually forgiving your father in his heart. I found this article that may help you understand what I mean.

    I sincerely hope this helps you. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

  15. We can most definitely be like God and forgive those, who know not what they do.

  16. Anonymous - I agree. But, my situation is not about forgiving someone who knows not what they do, but someone who knows exactly what they are doing and does it anyway.

  17. I have been struggling with forgiveness. My sister has wronged me and been difiantly unrepentent in my attempts to reconcile. I was reading in Luke 17:3 today. Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; AND IF HE REPENT, forgive him. I realized that I have been taught as a Christian we are to forgive unconditionally. GOD forgave me when I repented. GOD commands us to love unconditionally, not to forgive unconditionally.
    In Christian love

  18. I have found the book " How to Forgive... When You Don't Feel Like It" by June Hunt to be of help on this subject.

  19. I am going through the same situation with a very good friend who was a staunch Cathoic. Its not about me forgiving her for the things she did/does (forgiveness is from God). I continue to love her and pray for her, and try to put behind all the hurtful things she said when we argued. I don't even need to apologies but hope she will repent. The difficulty is that I see her almost everyday and I don't know how to act around her. It has come to a point that she ignores me when she sees me because she knows how I feel about her choice. She has even given me an ultimatum to accept her choice or end our friendship. Its very stressful.


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