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.

THE GOOD SHEPHERD

When Jesus looked out over the crowd, the image that came to His mind was sheep, that most herd dependent of animals. He was not judging, He was describing. What He was describing is the deepest need, both natural and spiritual, of human beings: their fear of being alone. That fear is what brings them together into company. Those companies are tribes. Tribalism is the state of being, both social and spiritual, that alleviates the awful anxiety of being alone.

The tribal mentality – once it displaces the self-centered – requires leadership, not simply of the individual, now immersed in the tribe, but of the tribe itself. Thus tribes invariably become hierarchical, with individual responsibility ceded upwards. The sheep require a shepherd, as our Lord also noted.

Human social history is the history of the emergence, evolution, conflict and destruction of tribes.

When Jesus noted that people are like sheep seeking a shepherd, he was not recommending that they be provided with shepherds, although that’s how Christianity responded, and continues to respond. He was indicating the difficulty: that people are like sheep. That’s the difficulty He came to redress.

Why does it need to be redressed? Because the security provided by its worldly remedy – tribalism, however manifested – is a false security, a house built on sand. What people fear the most – being alone, albeit with God – is in fact the heart of spiritual reality, and fleeing from it is fleeing from true reality. Eternal life is life that is at peace with that reality, and able to grow within it.

I am the good shepherd, He said. All earlier – and most subsequent – shepherds came to take advantage of the sheep-like submergence into the tribe.

Jesus offers to turn sheep into children of God.

STAGES

The life of faith is an evolving and maturing life, and it has stages. There’s a lot of room for variation, but the general direction is always the same. First comes the new birth from above, then newness in Christ, followed by an endless process of growth and maturation. It is an exact parallel to the natural life: every human being begins as a single cell; every majestic oak was once a simple acorn; the universe itself has grown from a simple point of energy.  And this is as it should be, since the natural life is merely a reflection of the divine.

Scripture teaches us that the rebirth is a gift of grace, given by God and delivered by the Holy Spirit, and that the newness in spirit is belief in the good news communicated to us by the Gospel writers, belief in the facts about Jesus Christ, about His birth, His ministry, His death and His resurrection,  belief in the indwelling of Christ’s own Holy Spirit.

There’s nothing complicated about this.  Christ’s Spirit needs a base of operation in the life of the potential follower, a beachhead, if you will, from which to expand, and that base of operation is conscious belief.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus was never hesitant to insist that, just as the first steps of a baby are the feeblest, so the first step towards a life of mature faith – the life that is the goal and destiny of every Christian – that the first step be taken by the feeblest of human faculties, the intellect.  He was never embarrassed that it might not seem “spiritual” enough.  Even in His first encounter with His disciples after the resurrection, He ate fish, and offered physical evidence for Thomas.  His miracles were always signs, that you might believe…

That’s why Jesus says, speaking of all future generations, speaking of you and me, that’s why Jesus says, Blessed are those who haven’t seen me, and yet believe.

The simple belief that Jesus is the living God is the necessary foundation for Christian growth. Whether, like the new birth, it is a gift of pure grace, or whether it is a reward that responds to one’s reception of that gift, is a mystery, at least to me. But it is most certainly the treasure hidden in the field for which the man sells everything he has; it is the pearl of great price which outweighs the value of everything else.

It is the first step of the life of faith, a step that must be taken, or there is no life at all.

THE OUTCASTS

Judaism, as an historical religion, is tribal. Its God is a tribal god; its doctrines are the regulations of a tribe; its functionaries are tribal representatives.

Self-identity within the tribe consists of location in the fabric of the tribe. There is no distinction between personal and tribal joy, loss, ambition, friendship, pride. The tribal god is concerned with that fabric, and with the individual only as an ingredient of the fabric.

The voices of the identifiable personalities of the Hebrew scriptures, even when in the first person, represent the voice of the collective, and the imagined voice of Yahweh is addressed to the national attention: I will make of you a great and numerous people is a sovereign promise to a nation, not to Abraham. The prophets do not speak to God out of their private personalities: there are no private personalities in the tribe.

The same is true of all successful religions.  That’s why the Way of Christ has never been and can never be a successful religion.

When Jesus tells His disciples they must hate their relatives to follow Him, He’s beckoning followers to come free of the tribe. He’s saying they must separate themselves from that which gave their lives meaning, security and direction.  And that’s why most of His followers abandoned Him near the end, as they finally came to understand the magnitude and the implication of what He was saying: that their continued relationship with Him is not an enhancement, but an exchange: their lives for His.

Because we are human, and humans are, in their spirit, fundamentally tribal, this is a terrible requirement. Even Paul failed to fulfill it, and instead offered ‘the body of Christ’ as the tribal substitute for the Jewish nation. (And out of that failure – that retreat from the final truth – arose Catholicism, a wildly successful religion.)

The summons is no less challenging today, because people are no less dependent for their identity on their tribe than they were then, although the tribes themselves have weakened, and most are godless. (Hence the existential distress of secular modernity.)

But the call of Christ is the same today as then, and just as unnatural, just as difficult, just as uncompromising: find your identity in your relationship with Me, and nowhere else. All the alternatives are deceptive and ultimately fruitless.

There are no tribes in Heaven.

THE TOOL

It’s a mistake to read the Bible with the expectation of finding perfect consistency, a transparent narrative of events or doctrine.  That’s what you might expect if the book were of strictly human inspiration, and if you found it, that’s also what you might suspect to be the case.  At the very least, your faith in the book would be compromised.

But our Bible is the living word of God.   That means that we do not approach it for the same reasons we approach other texts.  We read the Bible – and especially those portions of the Bible that tell us what Jesus said, and what His contemporaries said about Him and what He did – we read them, not in order to find out a set of facts or even to find the important moral or religious principles we should follow.  We can do those things, of course.  We can learn many interesting facts, and we can certainly acquire information about how we should live and the shape our lives should take.  We can profitably do all that, but that’s not the main reason we read the Bible, and that’s not why we call it the living word of God.

We read the Bible so that we can bring before Jesus and His Holy Spirit the true joys and the true and often sorrowful needs of our own spirits.  We read and reflect on what Jesus said and did, not first and foremost to acquire information, but first and foremost to acquire the spiritual help that is available nowhere else.   That’s why the Bible can offer different things to different readers, depending on their need, and different things to the same people at different times.

The Bible (like prayer) in its spiritual essence is a tool, not for our use, but for God’s.

WHEN YOU FAST

Fasting has many merits, some physical, some psychological. None is religious. When Jesus references fasting, it’s to make a point about ostentation, not about hunger.

Fasting was a practice of religious ritual in the particular time and place within which Jesus conducted his ministry, as the temple in Jerusalem was the seat of ecclesial authority, and Saturday a religiously sanctioned day of inactivity. Had God incarnate entered humanity at a different time in a different place, the messages would have been the same: do not advertise your piety; true worship is vagabond; acts of charity are most highly esteemed by God. All that would have changed are the illustrations.