REVERBERATION

When Paul tells us that Jesus died for our sins, when he says of our Lord in Colossians that in Him, we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, he’s not saying that we, as Christians, are off the hook for the pain and sorrow we’ve inflicted and will yet inflict on others. He’s saying that, as Christians, the debt we owe God has been assumed by God Incarnate.

When Jesus cries out from the cross “Father, forgive them!”, the forgiveness He is referencing is not for the behavior of the onlookers towards each other, but for their behavior towards Him, the Son, who is God Incarnate.

This cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Unless the concept of harm to others is allowed this dual consequence, the embrace of Christ’s sacrifice threatens to dissolve into libertinism. That is Paul’s great concern in Romans 6. The reconciliation that Christ achieved for us is a reconciliation with God, not with those we harm. That reconciliation remains our human responsibility.

Jesus tells us as much when He separates offerings at the alter from reconciliation with one’s neighbor, and says the former does not obviate the latter. He says it in another way when he instructs His disciples to let their light shine before men, and then immediately adds that He did not come to eliminate the requirements of the law. (Matthew 5: 16-17)

The way human obligation reaches into the spiritual realm does not eliminate its worldly meaning or even reduce it one jot. On the contrary, it is the divine reverberation of our sin that gives its worldly manifestation eternal weight and significance, that gives it more than human anchorage, that is a consequence and responsibility of our own – however undeveloped – divinity.

LOVE

When Jesus walked the earth, He was the only one who could forgive sins, who could absorb the burden of the debt owed to God by those who had done harm to others. But we must be careful about what that means.

The false way of thinking about God is that, in forgiving, He acts like a king, with a king’s power of granting amnesty. A king’s forgiveness causes no hardship for the king; it merely insists, legally, that the king’s subject who has been harmed must bear the cost of the harm, rather than requiring reparation from the transgressor. It is an exercise of the prideful awareness of power, not an exercise of love.

But Jesus teaches us that love works by absorbing suffering. That’s what love is, in Christ’s teaching: that which bears burdens, that which forgives.

And God is love.

OUR TRANSGRESSIONS

We’ve seen what forgiveness is in the purely worldly way of thinking. Our next order of business is to see what it is in heaven’s way of thinking. And thankfully, we have the instruction of the one who came down from heaven.

In this God-created world, everything that exists and happens gets at least part of its meaning from its relationship to God. That is nowhere more evident than in the harm we do to others.

Jesus makes it abundantly clear that harm done to another is equally harm done to God. In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, the whole point of the monumental parable of the sheep and the goats turns on the revelation that actions done to one another are done as well to God. When I harm you, I also harm God. In the terminology of forgiveness, I incur two debts, one to you, and the other to God, and in so doing, I create two possibilities for forgiveness, you may forgive me, and God may forgive me.

During His ministry, Jesus forgave many people for their sins. Those sins are not typically specified, but presumably many of them involved the infliction of harm on others.

But now remember what we’ve already said about forgiveness. It is the assumption of a burden, like my neighbor assuming the cost of car repair, or someone swallowing resentment and carrying on as if no harm had been done. That worldly element is something that no one except the person harmed can assume, that worldly harm is something no one except that person can forgive, not even God.

And yet Jesus forgave people. What then was He forgiving? What burden was He assuming?

When asked in that way, the answer is clear, isn’t it? Acting as the incarnate God, Jesus was assuming the debt owed to God resulting from our mistreatment of others.

In the worldly way of thinking, if I harm someone and that person truly forgives me, that’s the end of the matter. And if there were no God, that would indeed be the end of the matter. But the reality of God means, among many other things, that the harm I do to others has a counterpart harm done to God.

That’s a difficult thought to accept, but one analogy might be found even in the strictly worldly realm. When I harm someone’s child, that child’s parent often suffers as well. It is usually a qualitatively different sort of suffering from that inflicted on the child, but it is nonetheless real, sometimes even greater than the child’s own.

It would be the height of presumption to think we know the full reality of what God’s relationship to each of us is. But Jesus does give us warrant to say that, in some profoundly important way, we are all God’s children.

OUR REALITY

So far in thinking about forgiveness, we’ve seen both what it is – a cost or burden we determine to bear – and also how that burden must be borne if it is to be full and true forgiveness, that it must be borne with no indication that it is a burden at all.

Everything we’ve said so far is true of forgiveness in general, and would be true even if there were no God, or if Jesus had not revealed to us the nature of God and the workings of God’s dominion.

In the world considered in itself, the existence of forgiveness is desirable mainly for what we might regard as social lubrication. As a human possibility, it lessens the destructive impact of feuds and grudges and hopeless obligations, offering a non-violent form of resolving conflict and a vehicle for magnanimity, itself often a useful social characteristic. It may even have an emotional benefit for those exercising it, by stimulating and nurturing qualities of kindness and generosity, themselves healthy to the individual and valuable to the social setting. A society in which forgiveness is practiced is almost certainly an improvement over one where it is not, if in nothing else, then at least in stress level!

But because we live in a world God created, in which everything that exists has its true reality in its relationship with God, forgiveness is much, much more.

As we shall see.

THE BALM OF GILEAD

The second great difficulty that our human nature and our worldly way of regarding things pose for the exercise of forgiveness is due to our vanity.

We’re all aware – aren’t we? – of the enormous effort and vigilance and determination it takes to do good anonymously. Doing good itself is relatively easy: every hour of every day offers abundant opportunity. There are many people – and God bless them – who fill their days with doing good things for others.

But what’s psychologically very difficult for most people is to do good in the complete absence of any recognition.

This is, of course, not limited to altruistic behavior. It is almost a part of the definition of what it is to be human that we live our lives in the constant sense that others are paying attention to us, and are admiring or forming a positive opinion of us, whether it be in athletics or art or politics or education or courting or just simple conversation. Even at the pathological extreme, the supposed audience doesn’t disappear, it is simply internalized and then projected.

Doing good for others does not escape this net. We’re all familiar with the phenomenon commonly called ‘humble bragging’ or ‘false modesty.’ Most of us are probably aware of it in ourselves. It amounts to presenting oneself to one’s audience with the point of winning their approval or admiration, while disguising that intention. It’s a variety of vanity, and in social terms, relatively harmless, often even humorous.

But in spiritual terms, it is deadly, because it is also a variety of hypocrisy, of feigned innocence. There is literally nothing against which Jesus warns us more strongly, even though, again, from the world’s view, it seems relatively benign.

When you fast, do it cheerfully. When you pray, do it secretly. These are ways of saying that, above all things, your own good deeds must not be corrupted by any element of self-publicity, of seeking the admiration of others. To the extent they are, the weight of their goodness, in heaven’s calculation, is diminished. Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…

Forgiveness tests the limit of our obedience to that instruction.  When someone has wrongly harmed you, even after you have mustered the determination to forgive that person, there remains a well-nigh irresistible human desire that someone recognize your determination, that someone applaud your magnanimity, first and foremost the person you have determined to forgive.

In our illustration, my neighbor, having forgiven me, immediately offers an invitation to come inside and have a muffin. What is she doing here? She is restoring our prior relationship as neighbors by deflecting all attention from the act of kindness she has just shown towards me. She is deflecting my attention away from my feelings of guilt and relief and gratitude. What she is doing in offering me a muffin is even greater than the act of generosity itself: having shouldered my burden, she is now healing me.

And just so as we move back into the spiritual realm. When forgiving someone for harm done to oneself, the very most important element is that it be accomplished, so to say, anonymously. In practical terms, that means behaving towards the person in question, in so far as possible, as if the harm had never occurred.

That, in fact, is what forgiveness is, spiritually speaking. It is shouldering the burden of the damage done, and inflicting no further damage. The damage and pain that result from spiritual wickedness and carelessness cannot be undone. They are eternal. Forgiveness does not remove them, nothing can do that. What forgiveness does is bring them to a conclusion, embalm them with love’s ointment, and leave them behind.

The world offers many ways of dealing with evil individuals, but forgiveness is God’s only method of dealing with the evil within them.

THE KEY

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.

THE NARROW WAY

Christianity, as a religion, is most often spread by forming a comfort zone, a tribe, and bringing outsiders into that comfort zone. In its more forceful historical applications, that often meant displacing people from their original tribes, and introducing them into its own. In its more pacific outreaches, it is an invitation, not a requirement. But the success in any case depends on the greater security offered by its tribal structure. That’s why Christianity falls back when it is confronted by a forceful and resistant tribal presence: Islam, for example, or authoritarian atheism.

As long as Christianity rests its case on its tribal appeal, it must necessarily fail in its spiritual responsibility, whatever its success in the world’s way of estimating. For the accomplishment of Christ’s intention, a church full of Christian sheep is but a small  improvement over a mosque full of Islamic sheep, or a stadium full of Communist sheep.

God did not enter humanity to establish a competitive, more beguiling tribe.

Jesus came to show the narrow way.