The realm in which forgiveness has application is the realm in which human activity inflicts harm. Unless you have done something to harm me – understanding harm in the very broadest sense – there is nothing for me to forgive: forgiveness doesn’t have any object for application. If I walk up to a total stranger and say, “I forgive you,” she would be completely correct to hurry by me with eyes averted.
The varieties of human harm are, of course, endless. Some are as gross as physical assault, others are so subtle that only novelists can do them justice. But what they all have in common, no matter how gross or subtle, no matter how large or small, is that each offers an opportunity for forgiveness.
But remember what forgiveness is, as we’ve already seen. If someone hurts you or wrongs you, full 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, full 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.
And now we begin to get a sense of the true enormity of what it is that Jesus was asking of us when He placed the necessity of forgiveness at the very heart of His teaching, when He made it the foundation of what it means to follow Him.
…love your enemies…
…turn the other cheek…
…be reconciled to your brother…
…forgive your debtors…
…love one another, as I have loved you…
Because the basic illustrations – and indeed the very words we use for forgiveness in the ancient languages – are found in financial transactions, there is a tendency to think of it in legalistic terms, as something akin to uttering a verbal formula, or perhaps signing a contractual release.
But in the life of Christ, it is much, much more than that. It is the willful acceptance of suffering on behalf of another.
It is the Way of the Cross, reenacted in our everyday life.
That’s why it’s the key to the kingdom.
The scope of forgiveness is as wide and deep and broad as the world of human activity, because every crevasse and corner of that world contains the possibility of causing harm to someone else.
We are, of course, enjoined by Christianity as well as most other religions and most other serious moral systems not to cause harm to others, unless there is some countervailing necessity. Harming others is posited as a fundamental negative, a factor that must be taken into account in any calculation of how to behave in a given situation. Spanking a child must be justified by other considerations, or it’s simply wrong. Embarrassing someone must have some counterbalancing moral benefit, or it’s simply wrong. Depriving someone of a possible good, unless creating a greater harm elsewhere, is simply wrong. All moral systems, in their various ways, are in this regard in agreement.
But Christianity is unique in that it gives an even deeper foundational primacy to the forgiveness of harm done to oneself than to avoidance of harm done to others. Failure to forgive others, in Christian thinking, is an even deeper failure to follow Christ than the horrendous failure of causing them harm.
And why? Because forgiveness is the conduit, the only conduit, for spreading God’s nature, God’s own spirit, into the world of flesh and blood.
Because forgiveness finds opportunity wherever there is harm, its field is everywhere. Because it is difficult and painful, many decline its requirement. Because it is urgent, it was Christ’s central concern:
The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.