Questions on Forgiveness

I saw Nissi’s post at Plantain Periodicals the other week, where she raised questions about forgiveness after reading TD Jakes’s novel.  After reading the  book, she says one the central questions it raised was, how do we know that the change we see is forever and genuine?

However I do know in my own small way how it feels to strongly dislike someone who has massively hurt and offended me. Although I have managed to forgive (in most cases – praying that in 2012 I will see the full closure of all), I have doubted their claims that they have changed. Several times I have believed that they have not changed…and have been proved right. However I do not see it as a score board – I am right vs you are wrong: No. Instead I am now questioning if my presumptions have contributed to their seeming inability to be able to change?

How would you answer that?  Have you ever doubted whether you’ve forgiven a person?  No need to comment–I know you won’t anyway!  Read Nissi’s post, if you’re interested, by clicking here.

What Forgiveness Is and Isn’t

I am not trying to provide a strict definition of forgiveness.  That’s been done in solid ways that I won’t attempt in 1000 words!  I can tell you that the work of people like Stanley Hauerwas and Miroslav Volf have been really helpful for me in my thinking about Jesus’s words on the subject.  On to it then.

What forgiveness isn’t…

It isn’t everything.  Forgiveness isn’t everything.  Neither is punishment.  There is a kind of gap in a person’s heart when they’ve been wronged.  When people have been wronged, neither punishment nor forgiveness completes the need in them.  In my mind that indicates the need for us to forgive, yes, and maybe it indicates a need for punishment or retribution or justice whatever you mean by it.  And maybe it stretches us even further and points us to something else.  Maybe it reminds us that punishment and forgiveness are only parts of what bring us together after wounds.

It isn’t forgetting the impact of an offense.  This is probably the worst assumption about forgiveness, that it requires us to forget an offense.  Further, the assumption is that we stuff our feelings about what happened.  It doesn’t.  We can no more remove from our hearts and heads yesterday’s pain than we can dismiss the last argument we had with someone we love.  Those things stay with us.  Forgiveness, though, is about how something stays with you, not whether it stays.  It is about how we live from an event, not whether we deny that it was.

It isn’t erasing what wrong was done.  Forgiveness doesn’t ask us to act like nothing happened.  The opposite is actually true.  It is a way of remembering, and it is always a strong pull toward truth.  Forgiveness means that we search for what really happened.  And when we forgive, we don’t take some psychological eraser and wipe away our histories.  That’s called denial or repression.  We look clearly at events (e.g., like September 11, 2001) and we prevent forgetfulness because we act in a particular way.

It isn’t permitting an offender to continue offending.  It’s probably helpful to say something in the positive to make this point.  Forgiveness doesn’t depend on the offender.  It stands inside the giver, not the offending person.  What the offender does or doesn’t do is not the point when it comes to forgiveness, particularly in the Christian Tradition.  I was telling a friend how much of a pastoral art it is to walk with someone through the work of forgiving another.  You don’t dispense the “forgive your enemy” carelessly.  You do so carefully and in a way that acknowledges the importance of safety and distance from harm.  That’s because you just can’t hear those commands to forgive until you are emotionally or physically safe enough to respond to those heavy words.

What forgiveness is…

It is a Christian act.  That’s not to say that other religions don’t forgive.  But it is to say that the rock of this faith is about this behavior.  This is so true that when the New Testament discusses forgiveness, it says things like “God won’t forgive you unless you forgive others.”  Jesus preaches about the sad hypocrisy of people being forgiven and moments later being unable to forgive.  It is distinctly Christian to not only forgive enemies, but, following Jesus, to die for them.

It is naming the wrong for what it is.  Forgiveness makes us give language to evil.  It requires us to state, in a way that is clear and pointed, what wrong was done.  What grace does with that very clear sin or offense or wrong is pardon it.  This is why Miroslav Volf says, “Whatever the reasons, when forgiveness happens it is always a miracle of grace.  The obstacles in its way are immense” (Against the Tide, 171).

It is stepping toward wholeness.  We act when we forgive.  It is an act of generosity, and when we offer forgiveness, we move toward wholeness.  Wholeness inherently means a different life, a life after harm and wrong.  It doesn’t overlook wrong.  If anything it honors and memorializes the harm, taking it into us and our stories in a redemptive way.  We just ended the season of Easter.  When Jesus rose from the dead, his body still carried the marks of his execution.  He maintained those pictures of previous wounds even though the sting and power of them were gone.  He took those afflictions in and defeated death.  His resurrection tells us, among other things, that the worst that life brings is undone by his power.  His rising tells us that we can follow him toward wholeness, toward life that has pictures of wounds in our wrists even when those wounds no longer hurt.  The public event of his rising is the starting point for us who, by his help, begin the work or life that is forgiveness.

It is a cultural critique.  The Church, with Jesus, claims that we are a community of forgiveness.  This is probably the best and the worst parts of our faith.  When we’re the offender, it’s easier to claim that the Church is a forgiving community.  We want and long for hope when the light of that message reaches us.  But when we are the wronged, it’s harder.  Jesus sets an entirely different cultural expectation.  He teaches, preaches, and expects people to follow him in practicing this: everyone in the community of forgiveness is both offender and offended.  He believes that there is no difference in the sin of one or another.  That’s hard to swallow, isn’t it?  And yet it’s at the ground of Jesus’s ministry.

I’ll end with a passage that explicates my point further.  It’s from Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry where the authors are dealing with brokenness.

Following a sermon on forgiving one’s enemies, a longtime member of the church lingered around the narthex.  When others had left, she approached the pastor and asked in a calm but firm voice, “Do you really think I should forgive John?”  John not only had left this woman who had been his wife, but he had maintained little contact with their children, and there was growing evidence that he had hidden a number of financial assets that should have been shared.

Sensing the personal pain and unease of his friend and parishioner, the pastor tried carefully to shape his answer.  “I know it’s hard.  I know it doesn’t sound fair.  But hopefully you will be able, with God’s help, to move toward forgiveness.”  He braced himself for what was sure to be legitimate rage at the idea.

“Good,” she said without hesitation.  “No one else among my family or friends believes that.  I just need to know there is still one place that does.”

Why Christians Shouldn’t Celebrate Bin Laden’s Death

I am open to your comments.  Even if you want only to comment on the title of this post.  I hope you’ll think with me, though, about something that is fundamental, basic, and at the ground of the Christian faith.  It’s a long and hard word–forgiveness.

Two quotes are guiding my thought, two quotes and all the words behind and around them.  One is from Jesus Christ when he was teaching about what life is like in the kingdom of heaven, scripture’s language for the realm where God controls things.  The other is from Miroslav Volf, reflecting on the words and teachings of Jesus.

You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.  But I say, love your enemies!  Pray for those who persecute you.  In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven… (from Matthew 5:43-45a)

Now, Miroslav Volf.

Because Christ died for all, we are called to forgive everyone who offends us, without distinctions and without conditions.  That hard work of indiscriminate forgiveness is what those who’ve been made in the likeness of the forgiving God should do (from Free of Charge, pg. 180).

Christians love enemies.  We don’t celebrate at their deaths.  If anything, we mourn their deaths because we mourn the deaths of those we love.  At the heart or the bottom or the ground or the starting point (whatever you choose) of Christianity is the person of Jesus who told his disciples to live in this way.  He told us to forgive.  Indeed, he told us that being part of his kingdom meant, among other things, the sustained and hilarious and long practice of forgiveness.  There are other things which come from Jesus about his Father’s kingdom.  There are doctrines that the Church throughout the centuries has developed in response to those teachings.  Forgiveness is first.

It is first because the event of Jesus’s coming was an event embodying God’s decision to forgive.  God forgave the world and all that was in it when Jesus came.  And not only then but before then.  The biblical story is a story that begins before the incarnation, the thick word signifying Jesus’s birth.  Throughout history God has been pulling creation back to God.  Throughout history God has been forgiving, practicing what life is like where God controls things.

God doesn’t celebrate our collective or our individual destruction.  God does something else–forgives us, hopes for us, invites us, and works for us.  As people of God, Christians should not celebrate Osama bin Laden’s death.  Just as we should not have celebrated the deaths of the people he was responsible for murdering.  We were horrified then.  We mourned then.  We complained then.  We pressed our political and military leaders then.  But we did not celebrate.  The hard truth about Jesus and what he teaches is that there is no difference between the life of an enemy, like Osama bin Laden, and the life of the people we love.  Indeed to Jesus we love the family member we lost to a murder and we love the murderer.

Tomorrow’s post is about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t.  And the post after that will be about what Christians should be celebrating, namely justice.