Let’s begin with a simple illustration of forgiveness. Suppose I am driving home one dark and snowy night, and in a moment of distraction I turn into my neighbor’s driveway instead of my own. Realizing my mistake, I hit the brakes, but the driveway is slick with snow and I skid forward and run into the back of her parked car.
Mortified, I climb out of my car just as my neighbor, having heard the noise, comes out her front door to see what happened. Together we survey the damage. Fortunately it isn’t very serious. Her rear and my front bumper have matching dents, but the cost of the repairs will almost certainly not even rise above the level of our insurance deductibles: maybe a few hundred dollars each.
But now suppose that my neighbor realizes that at this particular moment in time, my circumstances are so financially strained that even the few hundred dollars it will take to repair her bumper would impose a very difficult burden on me. And being the exceptionally decent person she is, she turns to me and says something along the following lines:
“Hey, listen. I know this is about the last thing you need right now, so let’s just pretend this didn’t happen. Don’t worry about my bumper. Come on inside and have a cranberry muffin, hot out of the oven!”
Wouldn’t we all wish for neighbors like that!
Here we have a simple and straightforward illustration of forgiveness, in this case, forgiveness of a financial obligation. Before she uttered her kind words, my clumsy driving had created an obligation for me, had created a debt which I was morally and legally obliged to repay. But after she had spoken, my obligation is removed. Figuratively speaking, when I ran into her car, I created an IOU, and her reaction amounted to tearing up the IOU and tossing it in the air, to blow away into the snowy night. My debt is forgiven.
But here’s the important point. Although the debt is forgiven, the cost remains. Somebody – in this case my generous neighbor – will still have to pay the cost of repairing her bumper. What my neighbor has done is not to eliminate the cost of my misadventure into her driveway. What she has done is to shoulder the cost herself.
And what’s true of this simple illustration is true in general of all forgiveness of financial obligation. If I borrow a thousand dollars from you and am unable to repay you, and if you forgive me my debt, what you are doing is bearing the loss of the thousand dollars yourself. The point is that a debt doesn’t simply disappear when forgiven, like scraps of an IOU blowing off into the night. The weight of the debt is simply shifted from one person to another.
In fact, thinking of debts as weights makes this very easy to visualize. When I borrow money, I may be thought of as accepting a weight or a burden, which is only reduced or removed to the degree I repay the money. If I don’t repay the money, I continue to carry the burden.
Someone forgiving me is taking the burden off of my shoulders, not to toss it away to the side of the road, but to carry it on her own shoulders. Forgiving someone’s debt is assuming that person’s burden.
This is easy to understand when it comes to financial forgiveness like the illustration in our story, and that’s important, because the principle it illustrates remains the same in all forms of spiritual forgiveness as well.
Let’s see how.
If someone hurts you or wrongs you, forgiveness consists in you accepting all the pain of that mistreatment, and not retaliating, not demanding that the person who wronged you ‘balance the books.’ It means you balance them yourself, you write it off. Just as my neighbor did not require that I compensate her for her loss, in exactly the same way forgiveness of mistreatment means that you don’t require compensation of any kind for the harm you have suffered.
And just as my neighbor’s forgiveness, although it cancels my debt, doesn’t cancel the cost of repairing her car, just so your forgiveness of the one who harmed you does not erase the harm: it means you absorb it yourself.
But you say, “Wait just one minute here! They deserve to pay for what they did to me! Why should I be the only one to suffer? They were in the wrong, after all! I’m the innocent party here. How can I act like it never happened? They should pay some kind of price for what they did to me, shouldn’t they? That’s only right! Simply forgiving them…that’s just too hard!”
Well, yes, yes it is hard. Just like it was hard for my neighbor to pay for the damage I did to her car. It cost her something. But that’s exactly the point. Forgiveness – true forgiveness – always has a cost, and the cost is always borne by the one who forgives.
And once we arrive at this realization, we find ourselves face-to-face with two of the great difficulties in forgiving.
The first is that it runs counter to what most people would consider the most fundamental principle of both social and personal morality, the principle of justice.
When I ran into my neighbor’s car, I think we would all agree that it’s right that I be held accountable, that the cost of repairing her car should be my responsibility. Certainly if she had filed a police report and taken me to court, that would have been the court’s finding. But beyond that, it just seems right, doesn’t it? We may debate how the recognition of fairness becomes so ingrained in the human way of regarding things, but it is indisputably there. Even hardened criminals and sociopaths acknowledge it, as witness their indignation when they believe themselves to have been treated unfairly.
And yet is is precisely that element of fairness that forgiveness requires us to override. When someone wrongs you and thereby causes you harm, our most fundamental instinctive moral conviction is to require something from that individual, something that costs. Our language is replete with ways of expressing that moral estimation:
He deserves what’s coming to him! Fair’s fair! He shouldn’t get away with that. A taste of his own medicine! An eye for an eye!
And so on and so on.
But to forgive someone is to forfeit all demand, whether legal or moral, for the other to compensate or in some other way make up for the pain I have suffered. As such, it runs counter to what is probably our most deeply felt natural instinct and our most deeply held moral conviction. By human reckoning, it is both deeply unnatural and deeply wrong.
That’s why it’s hard to forgive, maybe the hardest thing of all do in the spiritual life. But as we shall see, that’s also why it’s the most important thing, why it’s fundamental to everything else.
That’s why it’s the key to the Kingdom of Heaven.