Was Peter forgiven without ever asking for forgiveness?

Q. Peter betrayed Jesus. He apparently was sorry for his sin, but I don’t understand how he asked for forgiveness from Jesus. Please explain. I also want to understand the way Jesus forgave him. Could this be a this a model for repentance and forgiving in today’s Christian and/or secular culture?

It is true that the gospels never specifically describe Peter asking Jesus for forgiveness for denying him. It is clear, as you say, that Peter was sorry for what he did. Both Matthew and Luke record that as soon as Peter realized he had denied Jesus, he wept bitterly. Peter also “brought forth fruits worthy of repentance,” to use John the Baptist’s phrase. Until Jesus restored him, Peter gave up his role as an apostle and returned to being a fisherman. Through this action, I believe, Peter was indicating that he did not consider himself worthy to be an apostle any longer.

We should consider the possibility, however, that Peter did have the opportunity to ask Jesus for forgiveness on an occasion that the Bible mentions but does not describe in detail. According to Luke, when the two disciples who met Jesus after his resurrection on the Emmaus Road returned to Jerusalem, the apostles there told them, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon” (that is, to Peter). Paul wrote similarly to the Corinthians that Jesus “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” and that he “appeared to Cephas [Peter] and then to the Twelve.” So it appears that Peter may have had the opportunity to speak privately with Jesus after his resurrection, and we can certainly imagine that Peter would have asked forgiveness at such a time.

Still, the Bible does not depict this, and so we are left with the picture of Jesus forgiving Peter without Peter asking for forgiveness. Perhaps, as you say, this may even be intended as something of a model for us. I think it’s important to understand, as I say in this post, that forgiveness takes one, while reconciliation takes two. Insofar as it depended on him, Jesus had already forgiven Peter on the cross, when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

So we are really talking about Peter recognizing his need for forgiveness, asking for it (whether verbally or non-verbally), and accepting it. Personally I think that Jesus recognized that Peter was ready to take all of these steps, and so Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to say three times that he loved him, as a way of taking back the three times he had denied him. Sometimes more time and work are required (and are well advised) before forgiveness extended and accepted can become reconciliation, that is, the restoration of a broken relationship. But I think Jesus knew that Peter was ready for that as well, and Jesus was too.

In terms of application to today’s world, I would say first of all that we ourselves can forgive others unilaterally and unconditionally, without waiting for them to ask. (In some cases that might be a long wait!) We forgive them because God has forgiven us. That sets us free from bondage to bitterness. But please read the post I have linked above for important considerations such as that forgiving someone does not mean giving them the chance to hurt you all over again.

Indeed, our task once we have forgiven is to see whether it is safe to pursue meeting with someone to extend our forgiveness to them in person. The model of Jesus suggests that we do not necessarily have to wait for them to ask for forgiveness before we do this. But the model of Jesus also suggests that we should have good reason to believe that the person is truly sorry before meeting with them. So there is a risk, but it might also be a risk that we have valid grounds to take. Whether forgiveness develops into reconciliation depends on how things go from there.

Did Jacob receiving the birthright have more advantages than disadvantages?

Q. Jacob receiving the birthright had more advantages than disadvantages. How far do you agree?

(This question is about the story of Jacob and Esau, which is found in Genesis 25–33.)

I think we feel there are disadvantages to Jacob receiving the birthright because of the way he obtained it, by cheating his brother Esau out of it and deceiving his father Isaac into giving him his blessing. It seems disadvantageous for God to allow someone who did such things to keep his ill-gotten gains.

In response, I would say that it was not necessary for Jacob to receive the birthright by these means. Rebekah, the mother of Esau and Jacob, could tell that Esau was a man of bad character, and she could have shared her concerns with their father Isaac and encouraged him directly to bless Jacob instead. Esau, for his part, does not seem to have been interested in the birthright, so Jacob didn’t necessarily have to take advantage of Esau’s venality and impulsiveness, bringing out the worst in him, to get it. Ideally, the two of them could also have spoken directly, with Jacob suggesting, “Look, I’m interested in this, while you’re interested in that, why don’t we both do what we’re interested in?”

If things had happened that way, I don’t think we would see many disadvantages in Jacob having the birthright. He was God’s choice to carry on the covenant line, and he ultimately proved to be a man of faith and character.

But as God works out his plan through the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents, things are rarely as neat as they could be if people always made the best choices and brought out the best in one another. I am not so much disturbed by the way Jacob receives the birthright despite his cheating and deception as I am amazed at the way God is able to carry his purposes forward even as people act in immature and sinful ways.

In the end, even though Esau swore he would kill Jacob for what he did, the two were reconciled and Jacob made restitution. I think it would still have been better if everyone in the family had acted consistently in a godly and mature way. But to see what God was able to do even as all of them needed to learn and grow has advantages of its own. It certainly gives the rest of us hope that despite the brokenness and frailty of which we are only too aware, God can still bring the stories of our lives to beautiful conclusions.

Why does God say in a couple of places in the Bible that He won’t forgive?

Q. Why did the Lord say, when he was instructing the Israelites about the angel he was sending ahead of them in the wilderness, that if they didn’t obey, the angel (acting on God’s authority) would not forgive them? And why did Jesus say, after teaching his disciples the Lord’s prayer, that if we don’t forgive, the Lord in heaven will not forgive our transgressions?

I can understand why you are puzzled about these passages, because the Bible teaches generally that God’s disposition towards us is always to forgive us and restore us when we confess our sins. So why would the Bible say in a couple of places that God will not forgive us? I think there’s actually something more than meets the eye going on in both passages.

To consider the case of the angel first, there’s a verb in Hebrew that means “to lift up and take away.” It might be used, for example, in a case where someone picks something up and carries it off. However, this verb is also used just to mean “lift up,” that is, to carry or bear; or just to mean “take away.” It’s often used in that second sense to refer to forgiven sin. For example, Nathan says to David after he confesses his wrong, “The Lord has taken away your sin.” That’s the NIV translation, and it brings out the literal sense of the word. Ten other versions, however, say what it signifies, for example, the NET: “The Lord has forgiven your sin.”

Many translations also see this second sense in the passage about the angel who will go ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness. For example, the NIV reads: “Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.” However, it seems to me that in the context, the first limited meaning, “carry or bear,” could well be intended instead. As the CEV (Contemporary English Version) puts it, “Carefully obey everything the angel says, because I am giving him complete authority, and he won’t tolerate rebellion.” So the meaning is not so much that sins won’t be forgiven, it’s that disobedience will be punished. And that’s what we see happen over and over again throughout the Israelites’ wilderness journey. Forgiveness of sin was still available through the sacrifices for sin that the law prescribed, but there were still consequences for sin. (Just as David’s sin was forgiven, but he nevertheless experienced consequences in his own life.)

As for what Jesus says, right after teaching the Lord’s Prayer, about God not forgiving us if we won’t forgive others, the rationale for this is explained well in the parable he later told about a servant who was forgiven a great debt by his own master, but who then went right out and insisted on repayment of a small debt by one of his fellow servants. When the other man couldn’t pay him, he had him thrown in prison. When the master heard  about this, he brought the first servant back in and demanded, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” And the master had the first servant thrown in prison.

So once again we understand the meaning from the context: The background is that we ourselves have first been forgiven all of our sins by God. In light of this, we should certainly forgive other people who wrong or offend us. But if we won’t do that, then what claim can we make on God’s mercy? We’re asking to be treated in a way we’re not prepared to treat others. And God simply says in response, “Have it your way.” So it’s not so much that we have to meet a certain condition to get God’s forgiveness, it’s that because we’ve already been forgiven, we should forgive others.

I hope these observations are helpful.


Why did Jesus have to die in such a torturous manner?

Q. One month before my 90-year-old aunt passed away, she asked me a question, “Why did Jesus have to die in such a torturous manner? The harshest way to die during his time was crucifixion. This has bothered me since I was a young girl.” I have the same question myself. Please share your thoughts, thank you.

I can understand your aunt’s concern and yours. Crucifixion was not just the harshest way to die during the time of Jesus; it was one of the cruelest and most protracted and painful forms of execution ever invented. It was first introduced by the Persians and then developed in other cultures. The Romans had turned it into a process that could involve days of unspeakable suffering before death finally came.

I don’t feel that I can answer your question in terms of purpose, that is, why God would have wanted Jesus to die that way. I can’t imagine that this was something that God wanted, intended, or made happen, even though God did send Jesus into the world at a time when crucifixion was practiced, knowing that he would be “delivered into the hands of men.” From such questions I think we can only step back in mystery.

But I believe there is an answer to your question in terms of result. After Jesus had suffered some of the worst things human beings have ever conceived of doing to one another, he still said, “Father, forgive them.” Such a statement would certainly have been meaningful if he had said it just before being executed in a way that, while nevertheless horrible, did not involve protracted torture, such as by a firing squad. But it is deeply meaningful in the context of crucifixion. There can be no doubt about the love of God that came to earth in Christ Jesus if, after suffering on the cross to the point of death, Jesus still forgave and asked the Father to forgive. So while we may always wonder why Jesus had to die that way, we can worship and adore him as the Savior who endured such things and still never ceased to love the people of this world who had done those things to him.

Meditating on the sufferings of Jesus is a time-honored spiritual practice. Reflecting on all that he suffered for us, and the love that this demonstrated, increases our devotion to him and helps us forsake the sins for which he died. It ultimately enables us to rejoice, even as we empathize tearfully with his sufferings, at the greatness of our salvation and of our Savior.

The great hymn writers give us exemplary models of this practice. An unknown German writer offered us this reflection, which has been translated into English as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”:

What thou, my Lord, has suffered was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.

Another hymn by an unknown writer, translated into English as “The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done,” shares a similar reflection:

The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions has dispersed.
Let shouts of holy joy outburst.

I believe your aunt was meditating on the sufferings of Jesus in the last days of her life. While she may not have gotten an answer to her specific question, it seems she certainly got a deeper and deeper appreciation for all that Jesus had done for her on the cross. And not long after she shared her question with you, she met him face to face, risen from the dead and alive forever, and she saw in his eyes the same love for her that he had demonstrated in his death on earth.

I’m struggling to forgive

Q. I’ve been reading about forgiveness. My brother was set up to be murdered. I just can’t forgive one person who had a part in this who was close to him and should have helped and protected him. I know that forgiveness is not for the other person, it’s really more for myself in letting go of what this person has done. But how do you get past something like this? I struggle with this a lot and I don’t like the way I feel.

My sincere condolences to you on the loss of your brother. Many readers of this blog have also asked about forgiveness and I hope that the following reflections that I’ve shared with them will also be helpful to you. May the God of all comfort grant you peace.

How do I know whether I’ve really managed to forgive someone?

Can we truly love our enemies?

Couldn’t ‘turning the other cheek’ get someone seriously hurt?

How do I know whether I’ve really managed to forgive someone?

Q. The Bible repeatedly mentions forgiveness. I would like to know exactly what that is, because lately it’s been impossible for me to know whether I’ve really managed to forgive somebody. I’m still angry with them and feel bitter towards them. I think dark thoughts about them. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, the line “forgive us for our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us” really sticks out. I worry that God will not forgive me if I cannot let this go. So what qualifies as forgiveness?

Thank you for this excellent and heartfelt question. It’s one that I’m sure many other readers have as well. To respond to it, let me share some principles of forgiveness that many people I encountered in my years in pastoral ministry found helpful. I believe these principles reflect the Bible’s teaching.

• Forgiveness is an act of the will that must be completed by emotional work.

Forgiveness is something that we choose to do because we know God expects it of us. In other words, it’s fundamentally an act of obedience. It’s true that the Lord’s Prayer implies that we should forgive if we want to be forgiven. But Jesus also taught that we should forgive because we have been forgiven. He told the parable of the unforgiving debtor, for example, to illustrate that because God has freely and graciously forgiven us in His great mercy, we should similarly show mercy to others. So choosing to forgive, in obedience, as an act of the will, is what qualifies as forgiveness. Once we make this choice and stick with it, God is satisfied, no matter how we feel afterwards.

I say that because as soon as we do choose to forgive, we often begin to struggle emotionally. For one thing, we need to deal with the hurt that another person has caused in our own lives. We may also have to come to terms with what feels like the unfairness of it all—”They’re getting away with everything, without so much as an apology!” But as we work through these emotions, choosing not to indulge in things like anger, bitterness, or dark thoughts, disciplining our minds, we can count on God’s grace to bring healing to our hearts and the recognition to our minds that by forgiving, we are being true “children of our Father in heaven, who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

That is, we will find this healing if the same old wounds don’t keep getting re-opened. Which brings me to the next principle:

• Forgiveness does not mean letting the other person hurt you all over again.

Forgiveness is a decision about a specific, one-time wrong or injury, to “let it go” and not seek revenge in any form (whether openly and actively, or in the form of indulged resentment, dark thoughts, etc.). When another person has established a pattern of hurting you, however, the process of forgiveness—which always takes time—will not be able to keep up with the repeated injuries, and you will feel defeated spiritually. What you need to do instead is break the pattern. That will likely mean, initially, putting some safe space between you and the other person, until the old pattern dies off and a new one can possibly be established, once it’s safe to re-engage. Put another way:

• Forgiveness is not a substitute for establishing personal boundaries.

We need to do both of these things in our lives. We can’t do one without the other. We won’t be able to establish healthy boundaries if “unfinished business” in the form of resentment is tying us to the old shape of the relationship. And we won’t be able to forgive if we keep allowing the other person to hurt us.

So when might it be safe to re-engage? This is my last point:

• Forgiveness takes one, reconciliation takes two.

Forgiveness is something you choose to do that sets you free on the inside. Reconciliation is something that two people have to agree to work on together. And before you try to reconcile with a person who has hurt you, before you let them back into your life where they might hurt you again, you need credible evidence that they have recognized their wrong, they are sorry for it, they will not repeat it, and they are committed to doing whatever they can to make things right with you. This is not something we can credibly believe about a person the first time they want to re-engage with us. Instead, we should identify safe confidence-building measures that we can try out a little at a time until we are assured that reconciliation can legitimately begin.

For example, it might be necessary for a while to have no direct contact with a person who has hurt you. Once you’ve had time for healing and strengthening by God’s grace, you might visit with them for a couple of hours in a coffee shop—not go and spend a weekend in their home! But things need to begin with the creation of some space and time for healing. It might not be possible to explain fully to the other person that you’re pursuing this, and why; if the relationship is already difficult, you may be blamed for being the problem, and this would only add to the hurt. But it should be possible to creatively and plausibly structure much more time away from the relationship, and if the other person seems to be catching on, you can simply say, “Yes, I feel as if I need some space right now.” You can’t predict how they’ll respond, but you shouldn’t worry about how they respond, either.

One qualifier: Everything I’ve said applies to relationships where you have some flexibility in how much time you spend with the other person. If it’s a toxic workplace relationship, however, and you have to be there many hours every week, you may actually need to find another job for the sake of your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. (Forgiveness doesn’t mean staying in an unhealthy situation that you are free to leave.) And if it’s a relationship with someone you live with—a spouse, parent, or child—and it’s much more than the regular wear and tear of people living under the same roof, it’s repeated serious hurts without any recognition of the harm being done, then I would strongly advise going for counseling about the dynamics in your immediate family, even if you have to start by going to a counselor alone. The issues at play in such a situation go far beyond a willingness to forgive. They require at least pastoral, and likely professional, counseling.

Can we truly love our enemies?

Q.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”  Forgiveness is one thing, but I think this is impossible.

Jesus would certainly be asking us to do something unreasonable, if not impossible, when he tells us to love our enemies–people who have hurt us, or violated our trust, or taken advantage of us, or who are out to get us–if love means a feeling, a warm and delighted attraction to another person that makes us want to be in a close relationship with them.  A person who’s been badly hurt by someone else simply can’t force themselves to feel those things towards that other person.  Our feelings and emotions aren’t under our control in that way.

But the kind of love for enemies that Jesus commands isn’t a feeling.  It’s a commitment.  It’s a decision of the will, which is under our control.  Specifically, love is the commitment to act consistently in the best interests of another person.

This is clear from the way Jesus immediately elaborates on his statement:  “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  He’s talking about actions, not feelings.

This is also how Jesus’ earliest followers understood his statement.  Paul writes in Romans, for example, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but . . . if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink . . . do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

The goal, in other words, beyond forgiving someone who has hurt us (which sets us free from bitterness and the hold that the other person’s action might otherwise have over us), is to choose to pursue their best interests in our actions towards them, so that good triumphs over evil.  This also makes own our character more godly, as Jesus goes on to explain:  “Love your enemies, do good, and . . . you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Doing loving actions as a commitment to another person’s good may mean, however, actually breaking off our relationship with them for a time, if they would only hurt us again if we stayed in relationship.  We aren’t called to enable other people’s destructive behavior.  There need to be positive signs of change on their part before it’s safe for us to pursue reconciliation, beyond forgiveness.  But we can still pray for them and hope for the best for their lives.

In other cases, we may be able to do something practical to help them, and when we do this, it might even enable them to recognize that they were acting wrongly and that they need to change.  But we need to be led carefully by God’s Spirit to do, in any given case, what is healthy and appropriate for us and the other person.

So, to sum up, the kind of love Jesus commands us to have for our enemies isn’t a feeling.  It’s a commitment to act consistently in the best interests of another person.  And I believe, God helping us, we can do that even for our enemies.

Couldn’t “turning the other cheek” get someone seriously hurt?

Q.  Jesus said we should “turn the other cheek” if someone hits us.  But couldn’t we be seriously hurt if we don’t defend ourselves against an attacker?

Jesus’ teaching about “turning the other cheek” comes at a point in the Sermon on the Mount where he’s contrasting later interpretations of the law of Moses with the true spirit of that law.

In this case, he’s talking about a law that specified that the community should mete out proportionate justice for offenses:  “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  This law was designed to prevent individuals from taking vengeance, and also to prevent disproportionate punishments (whether too lenient or too severe).

However, by the time of Jesus, people were taking the idea of “an eye for an eye” to mean that they should “keep score” personally.  Whatever someone does to you, you do back to them.  In other words, they were appealing to Scripture to justify grudges and feuds!

So Jesus basically tells them, “Don’t keep score.”  Let the other person get “one up on you,” without trying to even the score, in the interests of pursuing reconciliation and peace.

Jesus gives several examples of how not to keep score.  Lend or give money without expecting repayment.  If someone sues you, settle with them generously.  If one of the occupying Roman soldiers exercises his right to force you to carry his load for a mile, carry it an extra mile.  (As it has been observed, you go the first mile as a conscripted laborer, but you go the second mile as a potential friend.)

As for “turning the other cheek,” it’s important to recognize that Jesus says specifically to do this if someone slaps you, not if they punch or strike you.  (See this thread for a discussion of the translation.)  In the time of Jesus, slapping was intended as an insult, not to cause injury.  So the idea is that you don’t return insult for insult; instead, you say with your actions, “Insult me again if you want, but I’m still interested in reconciliation and friendship with you.”

Jesus’ early followers “got it” and they present the same idea in their writings.  Peter says, “Do not repay evil for evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.”  Paul says similarly, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

It must be emphasized that Jesus is not saying here that we should allow ourselves to be beaten up and injured without trying to defend ourselves or escape.  There’s no imperative for followers of Jesus to suffer bullying, domestic violence, and the like without protest or resistance.  If we really want to live out the spirit of this teaching and pursue what’s best for the other person, we need to take the necessary measures to stop them from being violent and help them understand how to relate to others in a proper and healthy way.