Spiritual: October 2009 Archives

Signs of Forgiveness

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In a conversation this evening about the call to forgive in such passages as Matthew 5:21-26; 6:14-15; 18:21-35, one of the participants raised some good questions about what exactly forgiveness requires. My initial thought was to make a bunch of distinctions between things in the neighborhood of forgiveness that might be easily confused with it and then make it clear that not all of them are presumed under the command to forgive. See, for example, my post on the Bob Jones University policy changes on race for a fuller account of the distinctions between forgiving, excusing, justifying, showing mercy, finding mitigating factors, reconciling, showing moral deference, and explaining how an action came about. Some of these are less than forgiveness, and some go beyond it. Some are compatible with it and often go together with it but not required for forgiveness, while others are necessary for forgiveness, and others are quite distinct from forgiveness.

A number of things came out of the discussion, but one thing that I think was very helpful was along completely different lines. Instead of separating all these different concepts and figuring out which are required for forgiveness, someone suggested looking to other biblical commands that are in the neighborhood of forgiveness to see if those are present. It doesn't matter so much (a) which particular things we're going to call forgiveness as (b) whether we actually do those things. If I have not forgiven someone, I won't be likely to turn the other cheek or go the extra mile for the person. Philosophical distinctions can be important, and we do need to think wisely about different categories of action or states of mind, but the more important think is not to let someone's offense against me, however legitimate, to prevent me from seeking the other person's good. If this person is hungry, will I feed them, entirely at my own cost. If they need something, will I provide it? This is a radical lifestyle, but it's what Christian teaching requires.

So if we have a test like that, some of the questions that might arise can be answered pretty easily. Someone might have broken some promises to me. Have I forgiven them? It's not necessarily a good test of it to ask whether I believe they're going to do something they tell me they're going to do. They do have a track record of dishonesty in their promises, or at least unwillingness to follow through on what they said they'd do. But am I willing to take the loss by helping them out when they really need it? Even if I know the person is unlikely to return the money they ask for, the issue isn't whether I trust them to return it. It's whether I'm willing to seek the person's best, and that might (in a particular case) involve giving them the money they want to borrow. On the other hand, it might (in a different case) involve telling them that they can't take my money.

What it depends on is whether I can carefully conclude what's in their best interests and make my decision on those grounds, not on whether I can trust them to return the money and make my decision on those grounds. That's a test of whether genuine reconciliation has occurred, and even if we want to distinguish forgiveness and reconciliation as two separate states it's hard for me to see genuine forgiveness in a case where there's no attempt to reconcile and restore some kind of relationship, at least of the sort where the wronged person is willing to put aside the wrong to the degree required for wanting what's best for the other person rather than wanting what's bad for the person or even simply not caring what happens to the other person, even if not everything goes back to the way it was before.

I think the short way to think of this is that it's probably not Christian forgiveness if there are significant violations of other Christian commands about interacting with other people. Christians are called to love others with a self-sacrificial love, and if someone else's wrongdoing prevents you from doing that then you probably haven't forgiven them. Christians are expected to treat everyone according to a higher standard, including enemies. So if a fellow believer or friend doesn't even get that treatment, then surely something's wrong, and it's not just the original wrong that needs to be forgiven. It's also a wrong attitude on the part of the wronged party. It's easy to try to hide behind a component of forgiveness, perhaps a putting aside of some resentment or a somewhat more tolerant attitude toward the person, while not fully bringing yourself to a position where you're following the radical call of placing the other person's interests before your own.


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