Atonement: Must you repent & forgive first?

Atonement: Must you repent & forgive first?

Photo of hand touching water from the movie AtonementRepentance. Forgiveness. Atonement. Sounds like a chain of cause and effect. And maybe sometimes it is. If you repent, then I’ll forgive, and then God will grant atonement.

But sometimes there’s no chain. Just three different kinds of inner work. Three challenges for three different actors. It’s helpful sometimes to remember. And to focus on our task.

When I was 16, a stranger broke into my bedroom in the middle of the night. It was 2 am, but I was up writing in the dark. I heard footsteps, saw the screen slide. I screamed. My father, half-asleep, ran into my room, waving a baseball bat. The intruder fled. But he left a new blue silk stocking. We all understood its meaning.  A popular tool of violence against women in movies of the time.

My mother called the police station. They laughed at her. Said the stocking must have fallen off a clothesline.

A week later I wrote a short story. A man breaks into a house hoping to assault a woman. But he is sloppy. He breaks the window, cuts his hand, and bleeds to death.

My mother called it a symbolic revenge. But I wasn’t sure she was right. My creative writing didn’t change the attacker’s life in any way.

Did the man ever repent? Was he arrested for another similar crime? Did he serve jail time? And then look back on his youth with regret? Wish he could even remember his victims so he could apologize to them? Become a women’s rights advocate? I have no idea.

Repentance is his challenge.

Have I forgiven him? Well, I’m less afraid than I was. I can sleep through the night now. As long as I’m not alone at street level. And I’m less angry. In my imagination, he’s young, out of work, stoned on a dangerous drug. But none of that makes sexual assault okay. And what’s the police officers’ excuse? Nothing justifies their laughter. I have no generous understanding of the assailant or the police. What would change my mind? An apology? Proof they have turned around?  I don’t know.

Forgiving is my challenge.

Did God grant the intruder atonement? Absolution? What if he did nothing to earn it? Would that be fair? Probably not. But that’s between him and God. A matter of the soul. It changes nothing for me, either way.

Atonement is God’s challenge.

The intruder can repent without my forgiveness. I can forgive without his repentance. And God can grant atonement without either.

But. But, you may say. Of course everyone in this story must work separately. Because no one even knows anyone else’s identity.

But what if you are in touch with a person who harmed you? What if you are safe but angry? Can you forgive if they don’t apologize or change? Should you ask God not to grant atonement?

And what if you caused harm? But you did the work, and you changed. Should you then expect to be forgiven?

I don’t know your situation. Each one is different. But I do invite you think about what is right for you. Do you need to be part of an “if…then” chain? Or are you working on your own challenge?

One Comment
  1. I dont believe in forgiveness without asking to be. I believe you should forgive if it is asked for with true repentance and change. You should be ready to forgive and pray for the transgressor to repent. If then you dont forgive u r guilty of holding a grudge. As a victem I have made the mistake of thinking it was my sin, must be my fault. Now that I am more confident of who I am and what I stand for I realise it wasnt my fault at all. I was put to shamed, hurt, humiliated. Remember, the two sided face of LOVE, kindness and severity. Sometimes love is stern and seems severe indeed, but its goal is true shalom between parties. Fight the good fight. Don’t play soft with sin. Demand change. Do it for the world. Shanah Tovah.

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