THE WILL

Forgiveness is not the name of an emotion or a feeling or a condition of the person. It is the name of an activity, and it consists of the willful assumption of the harm done to one by another, and the willful refusal to require reparation for that harm.

This is important to note, because many if not most discussions of forgiveness focus on the potential benefits to the one who forgives in terms of a sense of peace, or a wash of well-being that follows in the wake of the departure of resentment, or the experienced liberation of no longer sitting in a judgment seat, or other emotional and spiritual rewards. Forgiveness in this way of thinking is regarded as a sort of therapeutic technique, engaged in to accomplish personal evolution of one sort or another.

But while it is certainly true that the act of forgiveness may result in experiences of that sort, just as they may result from acts of kindness or acts of patriotic self-sacrifice or acts of loyalty, it is also true that they may not. Forgiveness is available to – and in Christian thinking, required of – the hardhearted as well as the softhearted. It is an objective of one’s will, and the only certain result – for a Christian – of its full accomplishment is to relieve someone else of his burden of spiritual responsibility, both to oneself and to God.

And if we understand it as such, perhaps it begins to become clear why forgiveness lies at the very foundation of the Christian life. The human will, free to choose and utterly responsible for its own activity, is God’s fundamental gift to each of us. It is the gift represented by the image of God breathing His own life into us. It is the bedrock upon which the Christian life must be constructed, the seed out of which divine maturity must grow.

True forgiveness, with its sacrifice of pride, of self-concern, with nothing mattering more than it – not even “seventy times seven” – is the appropriate first step of the will on the Way of Christ, the first step that must be taken if there is to be any journey at all.

LOVE’S DOMINION

So far we’ve learned two things: that harm done to others is equally harm done to God, and that forgiveness comes at a cost to the one who forgives. A straight-forward implication of those two realities is that God’s forgiveness of us comes at a cost to God.

When Jesus, during His earthly ministry, forgave sins, it was not simply a matter of saying the words I forgive you or Your sins are forgiven. He was not simply, so to say, waving a heavenly wand and making the cost disappear. Acting with the authority of God, He was assuming the cost of the harm done, not to the human victim, but to God Himself.

Although we will return to this later, we can say now that Jesus, in forgiving sins for individuals during His earthly ministry, was doing what later He would do on the cross for all humankind, for all eternity.  But before we venture into the regions of that great revelation and mystery, we’ll look first at the ways in which forgiveness lies at the very heart of what it is follow the way of Christ, to lead a Christian life.

There are two such ways. One is connected with the responsibilities of the Christians life, and the second with the blessings of the Christian life.

We begin with the responsibilities of  Christian living.

It’s very important to realize that being a Christian in the full bodied-sense means assuming responsibility as well as receiving benefits.  In one way, this seems noncontroversial, doesn’t it? It would be hard to find professing Christians who won’t at least give lip service to the responsibilities we have of being merciful, generous, helpful and kind, to refrain from certain kinds of activities, to contribute to the promulgation of the faith, to represent Christ as faithfully as we can among those who constitute our neighbors.

And that’s all well and good. But lying much deeper than these, lying in fact at the root of our faith, is the responsibility to forgive.

And why is that? Why does it lie at the root, at the foundation of our faith?

Because it is God’s chosen, and only, means of spreading the dominion of His love.

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.