Sunday, February 21, 2010

Christian Forgiveness

Recently, in an online discussion about Christian forgiveness as it relates to the Tiger Woods situation, one of my good friends, who is a pastor, made the following statement:
In my experience there is no such thing as forgive and forget – that lets people off the hook. And forgiveness is not condoning either. Forgiveness is being able to let go and move on.
I think this perspective on Christian forgiveness is a pretty common one. I also think it’s probably common in general among people whether they are Christians or not.

I agree that forgiveness does not (and should not) equate to condoning a behavior. Obviously if someone wrongs me, and I forgive them, that doesn’t mean I approve of whatever wrong they committed. Similarly, if I wrong someone, and they forgive me, I wouldn’t read that forgiveness as a suggestion that my behavior was okay after all.

The point, of course, is that receiving forgiveness is not a license for continuing hurtful behavior.

On the remaining points, I would like to write in a sort of “dialogue” with my friend about forgiveness because my perspective is somewhat different.

First, my friend notes that the idea of forgive and forget “lets people off the hook.” My view diverges here. I guess you could say that I am “big believer” in “forgive and forget.” I have always had a forgiving spirit. I don’t know if that is because of the Christian background I was raised in, or if it is simply part of my personal nature. I suspect it’s probably a little of both, but probably more nature than anything else. I simply don’t tend to hold grudges. When someone wrongs me, it is not difficult for me to forgive them if they sincerely ask for forgiveness. I’m not a robot, of course. I have certainly had experiences in my life that I had trouble letting go of – experiences where I had trouble forgiving the person who I felt had wronged me. But in many (if not most) of those cases, the person in question never actually showed any remorse or gave any kind of sincere apology.

Be that as it may, those incidents are few and far between. Throughout most of my life experiences, I have not struggled with forgiveness. To put it in the words of the apostle Paul, forgiveness is perhaps one of my “spiritual gifts.”

I recognize, however, that forgiveness does not come so easily for many Christians. This doesn’t mean they are bad people. It just means that forgiveness is not one of their spiritual gifts; it is something they frequently struggle with. They’re only human, after all. But whether one struggles or does not struggle with forgiveness, I can’t identify with the argument that forgiveness, at its core, is not about “forgive and forget.” In my opinion, that is exactly what forgiveness is about.

In the New Testament, the word used for “forgive” is aphiemi. This Greek word has many possible usages, but in general it means to “leave,” “send away,” “disregard,” or “let go.” The most frequent Biblical usage is “leave,” but it is also the word the writers of the New Testament used for “forgive.”

In the same way that our word “forgiveness” is a form of the word “forgive,” so too in the Greek. Aphesis means quite literally to release someone from captivity (such as a prisoner). It is translated as “forgiveness” in most English language Bibles.

Thus, in the Biblical sense, forgiving someone means letting go or disregarding the wrong they have done you. It means releasing them from the debt they owe you. The idea of sin being like a debt is one that is deeply entrenched in the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament. For the ancient Hebrews, sin was equated with breaking God’s commandments handed down in the Torah – the law of Moses. When one of these laws was broken, obtaining forgiveness for the sin was not just a simple matter of asking God to forgive you. Your sin was like a debt you owed to God, and that debt could not just be “released” or forgiven. In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul makes this Jewish sentiment quite explicit: “The wages of sin is death.”

For the ancient Hebrews, the way to erase this debt was to offer blood sacrifices. The slaughtered animal atoned for the debt you owed God. God accepted the sacrificed animal in your place. The sin wasn’t actually forgiven – “forgive,” remember, means to “let go” or “release.” Atonement, on the other hand, refers to accepting one thing in payment for something else. If I run my car into your living room, you can forgive me – release me from the debt – and I will go my merry way. Or, I can atone for the “sin” and pay to have your living room fixed. For the ancient Jews, there was no forgiveness for breaking the law of Moses. Only atonement. For those of us living in the modern world, this may seem like insufferable hair-splitting, but for the ancient Jews, it was most definitely not.

Consider the story of David and Bathsheba from 2 Samuel. David commits adultery with Bathsheba, a married woman. She gets pregnant. David tries to cover it up by calling her husband – Uriah – back from his military campaign so that he will sleep with his wife and never know that her child was not actually his own. When this ruse fails to work, David arranges for Uriah’s death by ordering him to the front lines of the battle. When that deed is accomplished, David takes Bathsheba as his wife. Thus, David has broken three of the Big Ones from the Ten Commandments – he has committed adultery, lied about it, then orchestrated the death of his lover’s husband. The story ends with one of the more humorous moments of understatement in the Bible: “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.” You can say that again.

After David has committed these sins, God sends the prophet Nathan to condemn him. David admits to his sins. God accepts this repentance, but does not simply offer forgiveness. Instead, David’s “atonement” for the sin is that the child carried by Bathsheba will die. The sins are not forgiven; they are made up for – atoned for – by the blood of David’s child. In modern language, we might call this a “punishment,” but punishment is, in fact, “atonement” for a wrongdoing. You do something wrong, you have to pay the price. If the price is paid (in the case of David, the price was the blood of his son), then forgiveness becomes a moot point, because the wrong has already been made right through atonement.

In the Jewish scriptures, atonement and forgiveness are most definitely two different things.

The New Testament brought a new perspective to this old Jewish idea. Since Jesus’ death, in the Christian view, had functioned as the ultimate blood sacrifice – the ultimate atonement for sin – Christians were no longer in “debt” to God because of their sin. Instead, forgiveness was theirs for the asking. No longer did God require a burnt offering or a blood sacrifice. The sin had been atoned for by Jesus, so Christians had only to believe in his death and resurrection and accept the gift of salvation.

But how does all this relate to the question of “forgive and forget”? Going with the Biblical model, it is clear that “forgiveness” means just that – to forgive and forget. If my bank forgives my debt, that means I don’t have to pay it anymore. It has been “forgiven and forgotten.” “Forgive and forget,” in that sense, is a redundancy. To forgive means to forget. To release. To let go. If I forgive someone in the Biblical sense, I have let it go. I have freed my “debtor” from their debt. I have made it as if it never existed. Atonement, on the other hand, does not imply forgetting. Atonement, in fact, implies that the debt is not forgiven and must be repaid in some form or fashion. Thus, if I forgive someone, I am not requiring atonement for the debt, and therefore I have forgotten it – I have made it so that it doesn’t exist.

This is why I disagree that “forgiveness” is not about “forgive and forget.” In the Biblical model – the model Christians follow – forgiveness is forgetting. It is making it as if the sin never happened. Of course we are not robots. The event may remain in your memory. But if you have truly forgiven someone, the event remains just that – a memory. If the event continues to hold a special place in your heart – if you hold a grudge, as it were – then you have not actually engaged in forgiveness.

For that reason, I believe Christian forgiveness involves completely releasing someone. In his comment, my friend said that forgiveness is about “being able to let go and move on.” I agree with that to some extent, but I disagree with the general implication that forgiveness is primarily about the person doing the forgiving. Forgiveness, in the Biblical model, is about the person receiving forgiveness, not the person giving it. Yes, it’s about letting go. But it’s primarily about letting go for the sake of the person being released. When you truly forgive someone, it is a selfless act of love done for the sake of the person being forgiven, not necessarily a self-centered act of moving on with life so you don’t have to fret over it anymore. That’s part of it too, but that should be the result of releasing the other person, not the motivation for releasing the other person.

In the Lord’s Prayer, which is given to us in Matthew and Luke – meaning it comes from the now lost document scholars call the Q source – Jesus tells us to ask God to “forgive our debts” in the same way that we have forgiven our debtors. We are told to release others just as God releases us. In Luke’s version, in fact, we are told to ask forgiveness (release) from God for our sins because we also forgive (release) those indebted to us. In other words, in Luke’s version, forgiveness for sin comes from God if and only when we also release others from their sins against us.

If we aren’t forgiving (which means releasing and thus “forgetting”) other people’s sins against us, how can we expect God to do the same for us for our sins against him?

This may sound nice, some readers may think, but what about situations in which a person continually wrongs us? I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of people, Christian or otherwise, would agree that forgiveness only goes so far. If someone engages in hurtful behavior, apologizes, receives forgiveness, then continues to do the same thing over and over, surely there comes a time when forgiveness is no longer an option?

As hard as it is to swallow, Jesus seems to suggest otherwise in Luke chapter 17. There, he says: “And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive.”

This material also comes from Q, and Matthew gives a slightly different version of it, one that is even more radical than Luke’s (and seems, in fact, to contradict Luke’s version):
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Jesus’ vision of forgiveness is far more radical than what most people practice (especially in the Gospel of Matthew!). His entire message, of course, was far more radical than what most people practice. This is what makes his message so appealing but also so difficult to follow. This is also why Jesus constantly talked about the dichotomy between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of “this world.” “This world” says that forgiveness only goes so far. Jesus says that forgiveness never goes far enough.

I believe that fostering a forgiving spirit is vital to the Christian lifestyle. It is one of the very core philosophies of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels. For those who like numbers, Jesus uses some form of the word “forgive” no fewer than 36 times in the four Gospels of the New Testament. By way of comparison, he uses the word “hell” about 12 times (and he never uses it in the Gospel of John).

In the Biblical model, forgiveness is about releasing someone from their debts, which is the same as making it so that the debt no longer exists. Forgiving and forgetting are one and the same.

Also in the Biblical model, forgiveness is a selfless act of love which results in an ability for the forgiver to not only receive divine forgiveness themselves, but also to move on with a life of purity.

Despite that “give and take” nature of forgiveness, it is foremost and primarily an act done for the sake of others, just as God forgives us for our sakes and not for his own.


Anonymous said...

If you are so forgiving, why haven't you ever forgiven me for breaking your Transformers watch?

Oh, I KNOW! Because I didn't! And you framed me for it anyway! I have failed to forget! :)

BTW, just so's you know, when I read this post in my Google Reader there was an advert for a MATURE SINGLES dating service at the end. WTF?


Scott said...

That's funny. It's because I love MILF's.

That's funny about the transformer's watch. I think that's my apology to you, not the other way around :)

Now, as for sins I haven't forgiven you for, breaking my back across the footboard comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but you read my diary, you little shit!

the Rev'd C. Allen Colwell said...

"Despite the familiar cliche, 'forgive and forget,' most of us find forgetting nearly impossible. Forgiveness does not involve a literal forgetting. Forgiveness involves remembering graciously. The forgiver remembers the true though painful parts, but without the embellishment of angry adjectives and adverbs that stir up contempt"(Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, PhD).

First of all, I am humbled, but I turn to experience in pastoral care where I've come to find that it is freeing for a person to forgive without forgetting, in this sense that we instead work towards "remembering graciously" instead. Take a woman I've cared for who wanted to forgive her husband for cheating on her, but couldn't forget it. So we decided not to, and try to approach it as remembering it without dwelling on the hurt and anger. And I think once we started approaching it that way, she actually got closer to forgiving.

Indeed the Bible tells us to forgive as God forgives, but balancing that with what modern psychology teaches us, though it's ideal, maybe it's not always realistic, because after all ... we're not God.

Again, thanks for the blog. I'm humbled.

Scott said...

Thanks for continuing the dialogue, Allen.

I totally agree with your points about forgetting. As I said in the essay, we're human beings, not robots. Obviously when someone wrongs us (particularly a significant "wronging"), the memory will likely remain. I remember, for instance, a lot of hurtful things people said to me in high school. But the difference, as you allude to, is the emotional state attached to the memory. Forgiveness doesn't necessarily mean forgetting in a literal sense, but "forgetting" in the sense of no longer hanging on to it like a grudge.

I also like your point that by "remembering graciously," we can come to not just give complete forgiveness to the person who wronged us, but learn to appreciate the difficulty of the situation as an avenue of personal growth. In that sense, the literal memory can become a healing experience rather than a grudge. This speaks to the "synergy" of forgiveness I mentioned near the end of the essay - it's a give and take. Give forgiveness, take peace. But, as I argued, the "give" comes first.

And of course, as you noted, the Biblical model is just that - a model for us. Since we're humans and not robots (or gods), it stands to reason that we won't always achieve the standard Jesus suggested. Jesus, I believe, recognized this as well as anyone. His standard is the kingdom of heaven. Our challenge is to make his vision of the kingdom of heaven a reality on earth.

Anonymous said...

I'm just doing a little test. Don't mind me.

Scott said...

Well, whatever it was, it worked.

Fred said...

I have general comment not necessarily pertaining to this post. I just wanted to say that I appreciate your musings, especially those related to Christianity. I think I am coming from a similar position so I find your writing thoughtful and refreshing. It is always nice to think that there is someone else with similar attitudes to myself.

Scott said...

Fred: Thanks for the kind remarks. As C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know we are not alone."

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