By Marjorie J. Thompson
Spiritually speaking, forgiveness is a thing of incomparable beauty. But our difficulties with forgiveness—theologically, emotionally, and practically—are prickly matters that can cause discomfort if not significant pain.
Just what is forgiveness? Are we required to forgive everyone who harms us? Aren’t there some particularly dreadful acts that should never be forgiven? Does forgiveness depend on repentance? How does mercy fit with justice? How do we make real the ideal of forgiving others or ourselves? These questions are but a few of many that confront us when we begin to deal closely with this subject.
Before we try to define or clarify what forgiveness is, let us lay aside some of the things it is not. For example, to forgive does not mean to deny our hurt. Sometimes we think we are “keeping the peace” and showing a forgiving attitude when all we have done is suppress our pain. Forgiveness is possible only when we acknowledge the hurtful impact of a person’s actions on our lives, whether or not the offender intended harm.
Accepting inappropriate blame for our hurt is a close cousin of denying our hurt. A person with a weak sense of self or an inflated sense of responsibility easily takes the blame for others’ actions. “It’s my fault that I got hurt. I must have done something to invite this.” If we believe that we are the source of our own pain or that we deserve to be degraded and abused, we again have disguised the offense that needs forgiving by taking false responsibility for it. Resignation to the role of victim will prevent any genuine process of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not merely a feeling. It is a disposition of our whole person, a habit of the heart, intentional choices of action in relationship. It does not involve trying to manipulate ourselves or others into feeling forgiven or forgiving.
Neither is forgiveness a commodity we can purchase through fervent repentance. We cannot earn it simply by showing that we are thoroughly ashamed of ourselves. Creating melodramas around forgiveness can easily lead us into self-deception and false piety.
Writer Anthony Bloom has astutely pointed out that forgiveness does not mean “putting someone on probation.” We may think we have forgiven a person only to catch ourselves waiting impatiently for evidence that the person’s behavior merits our clemency. If the offender doesn’t measure up, the “gift” of mercy is withdrawn. “To grant forgiveness at a moment of softening of the heart, in an emotional crisis, is comparatively easy,” says Bloom. “Not to take it back is something that hardly anyone knows how to do.”1
Perhaps the most pernicious block to forgiveness comes in the erroneous idea that to forgive is to excuse. Our sense of fairness, our convictions about justice, our need to hold persons accountable for their behaviors all argue strongly against excusing harmful attitudes and actions. Evil ideologies and destructive behaviors are inherently inexcusable. Fraud, theft, violence, abuse, exploitation, denial of basic human rights—who would ever claim these are excusable? Excusing such behaviors condones them. Forgiving is not tolerating the intolerable. Yet we can forgive a person whose actions remain condemned. Distinguishing between the person and the act is crucial to the integrity of forgiveness.
Finally, forgiving is not necessarily forgetting. Perhaps for small indignities that prick our pride we can simply excuse and forget. But for major assaults that leave us gasping for breath, reeling with rejection, bowing under oppression, or aching with loss and grief we will find ourselves unable to forget. In some situations it is not desirable to forget. It would be further arrogance for people of European descent to ask Native or African Americans, under the guise of forgiveness, to forget the history of their shameful oppression in this country. Our Jewish friends rightly insist that we never forget the horrors of the Holocaust. Some things must be well remembered if we are to find our way to a life-giving future. Some things cannot, humanly speaking, be forgotten. However, the people involved may over time be forgiven.
If we now have a clearer sense of the “false coin” of forgiveness, what is the genuine article? Here are a few possible descriptions of this particular flowering of the Spirit:
Forgiveness is what happens when the victim of some hurtful action freely chooses to release the perpetrator of that action from the bondage of guilt, gives up his or her own feelings of ill will, and surrenders any attempt to hurt or damage the perpetrator in return, thus clearing the way for reconciliation and restoration of relationship.2 To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment might seem.3
Forgiveness is taking responsibility from my side to release the offender from the alienating effect of the offense on our relationship.4
No single definition or characterization of forgiveness seems quite adequate, for the flower of forgiveness has many petals and takes different shapes in different situations. Scholar Gregory Jones notes that “one of the most offensive things Christians all too often do is to proclaim a general and abstract forgiveness without any regard for the complexities of a specific situation or a particular person’s life.”5 Forgiveness might be quite differently expressed in a situation where someone hits another person once in a fit of anger as opposed to the case of someone who habitually strikes another.
Our limited understanding of forgiveness and our flawed practice of this blessing would encourage us to root ourselves in scripture and theology. “Forgiveness is the mind of God, the life of God.”6 We will more likely find our feet on solid ground if we begin with God’s forgiveness of us than if we start with our effort to forgive others.
To forgive others the sins they commit against us is not our first task. First we receive the forgiveness God offers for the sins we commit. Just as “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), so we can only forgive because we have first been forgiven. If we do not know what it means to be forgiven, how can we possibly extend the gift to others? Conversely, once we know from the heart what it is to be forgiven by God, how can we refuse to extend the gift to others? The totally gracious, unaccountably generous love of God is the only foundation in our faith for an exploration of human forgiveness.
Of course, in order to receive God’s forgiveness we must first be aware that we need it. We need to see sin for what it is—a breach of our relationship with God, a breaking of the trust God placed in us by making covenant love the center of our life together. Scripture makes it clear that sin against God is the root of all division, all alienation. Sin is the pervasively toxic condition of human life that we are born into, absorb, and pass on to others. It is our worldliness, our wounded pride and reactive anger, our compulsive desire to control and dominate, our greed for more than we need, our hardness of heart toward fellow human beings, our need to hide from truth, our willingness to distort reality for our own purposes.
Sin takes a thousand forms, subtle and overt. In all kinds of ways we sin against God, others, and ourselves. Indeed, these three are virtually impossible to separate. When I fail to worship and praise God or to allow my efforts to depend on grace, I not only sin against the gracious, praiseworthy love of God but set myself up for controlling interactions with others. When I berate or dismiss another person, I injure the heart of Christ and diminish my own capacity for love. When I devalue myself, I insult the One who made me in the divine image and invite others to belittle me. When I elevate myself above others, I push God out of my way and feel free to use others wrongly. Every form of sin impacts all three relationships because we are designed to be in communion with one another.
We need to see our own culpability in the tangle of broken and disordered relationships from which we all suffer as well as participate in both wittingly and unwittingly. We need to become conscious of our guilt both for sins of commission and for sins of omission. None of us can escape this truth of our wounded and wounding human condition. We hurt others intentionally and unintentionally. We all have our own peculiar combination of ignorance, blindness, fear, and egotistic pride that shapes our thoughts, words, choices, and acts.
If we do not take personal sin seriously, forgiveness will have no real meaning. God takes our sin very seriously. Sin is an affront to divine goodness, justice, and holiness. Purity and truth constrain God to judge, restrain, and reeducate us. Certainly the Just One judges our sin. We have not well understood that God’s judgment is always in the service of love. Love yearns to restore our relationship to the communion God intended from the beginning.
Christians believe that the ultimate judgment of our sin comes in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). From the cross, where human sin is dreadfully and decisively judged, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Some have argued that Jesus does not directly forgive those who tortured and executed him, asking instead that God the Father do so. But Jesus makes it clear that he and the Father are one (see John 14:8-11) and that their wills are completely united in love (see Luke 22:42). In asking the Father to forgive, Jesus indicates his own willingness to forgive. So Christ is “the judge whose judgment does not condemn but brings salvation.”7
Divine judgment is a judgment of grace because God has a long view of the divine reign in mind. God desires not merely to mend the past but to create a new future through forgiveness. “People are mistaken if they think of Christian forgiveness primarily as absolution from guilt; the purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of communion, the reconciliation of brokenness.”8 In the person of Jesus Christ, this communion and reconciliation are already present and available. He is the “new creation,” and in him we too are made new!
The real question then is not whether God has indeed forgiven us, for in Christ the gift is extended to all. The question is whether or not we have received the gift. Have we really allowed ourselves to take in the freedom and release offered to us through God’s forgiveness in Christ? If so, the gift will make a visible, visceral difference in our lives and relationships. And if we cannot forgive ourselves for serious mistakes we have made, surely that signals our inability truly to accept God’s forgiveness. We hold out for higher standards than God’s, stuck in useless guilt. We could lift up many such stories.
What of the man who for years verbally belittled his wife in subtle ways disguised with snide humor? With the help of a friend, he finally recognized what he was doing and repented in the true sense of turning around and changing his habits. He received his wife’s forgiveness but still has not fully forgiven himself for his words and actions all those years. Whenever he recalls those behaviors he once indulged in with such ease, he sees an image of himself that he despises.
What of the woman who, not seeing her toddler behind the van when she backed out of the driveway, ran over her own child? Although she did not intend to harm her little boy, she cannot forgive herself for her role in this tragedy. If only she had looked more carefully, if only she had been sure that her child was safely out of the way before starting the car!
What of the war veteran who served in Vietnam and planned napalm attacks that burned hundreds of innocent villagers? Like many such veterans, he lives daily with a terrible weight of unresolved guilt, anguish, and depression. He can find no peace of soul.
Perhaps we too suffer from guilt and remorse that, like an infected sore, will not heal. In such cases, the only remedy is to confess our sin openly and honestly. In every circumstance we can confess to God. Where possible, it helps to confess to those we have harmed. Where this is not possible, we may find relief in confessing to a minister, priest, or mature spiritual friend. Simply saying the words aloud, divulging the deepest darkness of our hearts, has a stringent healing effect. It may feel very shameful, painful, or humiliating, but such confession serves as the beginning of our relief and salvation.
There is, however, a further step in taking hold of forgiveness. The Quaker writer Douglas Steere speaks to our difficulty in receiving grace with all its undercurrents of pride, anxiety, and control:
There is… a condition for receiving God’s gift of forgiveness. [We] must be willing to accept it. Absurd as this may seem, there are few who will believe in and accept the forgiveness of God so completely as to… leave their sin with God forever. They are always reopening the vault where they have deposited their sin,… forever asking to have it back in order to fondle it; reconstruct, query, or worry over it.… Thus their sin ties them to the past.9
When stuck in recurring guilt and self-condemnation, we become susceptible to one of two errors: judging others as harshly as ourselves or discounting ourselves and idealizing others. The Great Commandment speaks simply to this problem. It calls us to love our neighbor as ourself. If we do not love ourselves appropriately, our neighbor will not benefit much! As one wise writer puts it, “Embracing forgiveness turns out, strangely enough, to be an act of repentance, because it means giving up our own way of seeing the world and accepting in its place God’s rather more generous way.”10
When we seriously face the reality of our sin, the painful healing of confessing and repenting, and the humbling freedom of receiving God’s forgiveness, we are then in a good position to look at the challenge of forgiving others.
Excerpted from Companions in Christ: The Way of Forgiveness Participant’s Book by Marjorie J. Thompson. © 2002 Upper Room Books. Used with permission.
The RESILIENCE conference in 2021 was so uplifting and nourishing. It was wonderful to be with other Christians around the world at this retreat, who truly care about responding to trauma in a compassionate way by teaching spiritual practices to help with grounding and healing.”
Join us for the next RESILIENCE conference on September 29-30, 2023. Learn more at UpperRoom.org/resilience.