Can You Forgive Someone Without an Apology?
Updated: May 27
A few years ago, an old book came into my possession – a book with a back story so intriguing, I barely slept for two days for thinking about it.
I was researching an historical novel set in Australia and thought it would be useful to have one of those medical books people used to keep on their shelves before Google was a thing. If you had an ailment, you’d look up the book to see what treatment to administer – butter on burns, grated potato for a stye, that sort of thing. I searched online and found a copy of The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser for $25. Two weeks later, it arrived from the US.
Imagine my surprise when I flipped it open and saw a ragged hole in the middle. Upon further inspection, I discovered a bullet lodged in the spine. My mind was racing. How did it get there? When? Who shot it and why? I felt as if I’d tumbled head first into an Agatha Christie novel: The Case of the Bullet in the Book.
I contacted the bookseller who, swept up in the intrigue, did some research of her own. It seems the book came from the library of a monastery situated three hours out of Chicago. In the 1920’s and 30’s, a local Mafia figure set up an antiques store next door which served as a front for gun-running and alcohol distribution. Could the shot have been fired by them? Or perhaps one of the monks had taken matters into his own hands? I guess we’ll never know if there was a shoot out between them, but I like to think there might have been.
Last week, as I was contemplating my sermon on forgiveness, the story of the bullet in the book came back to me. It occurred to me that it was the perfect metaphor for how you feel when someone hurts you – like a bullet’s been shot at you from out of nowhere. And that bullet – that harm – can remain inside you doing damage for years even if it remains unseen from the outside.
But you are not the terrible thing that happened to you
So often people are described in terms of what has happened to them: assault victim, deserted wife, victim of this, victim of that. Over time, it can feel as if the thing that happened to you is you.
But it isn’t.
The bullet and the book are separate. You and the other person’s behaviour are separate. And since the bullet is not you, it follows that it can be removed. This seems simple enough and yet removing the bullet – forgiving someone – can often feel daunting, undesirable or even impossible.
They haven’t said sorry
One of the most common blocks to forgiveness is the belief that we can’t forgive someone until they admit what they did was wrong. If we forgive them without an apology, we feel as if we’re somehow letting them off the hook, and it's an affront to our sense of justice.
Unfortunately, by continuing to hold onto what happened to us, we’re forever bound to the perpetrator – an invisible chain linking the two parties forever.
When the wound is deep, there are times we simply can’t forgive on our own. This is where Luke 23:34 provides a way forward. When Jesus is on the cross, he begins his well known prayer with, ‘Father forgive them’ (Luke 23:34). Notice how he asks God to do the forgiving for him. We too can follow this approach and ask God to do the forgiving for us. We do this by surrendering the bullet – the act of harm – to God and asking God to deal with the perpetrator. It’s God’s business what happens to them after that. Once the bond between us and the perpetrator is broken, we can finally be set free.
I’m having trouble forgiving this person and I can’t seem to let go of what they did. As I hand over this person to you to deal with, I thank you for releasing the chains that bind us.