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.”