Forgiving the Unforgivable
By Audrey Stallsmith
The recent killing of Bin Laden got me thinking about how many of our fellow Christians have had to forgive him. After all, forgiveness is not an option but a requirement for us.
As C. S. Lewis puts it somewhat implacably in his "Essay on Forgiveness," "If you don't forgive you will not be forgiven. No exceptions to it. He [Christ] doesn't say that we are to forgive other people's sins, provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don't we shall be forgiven none of our own."
This is one of the most difficult parts of our faith, as it seems to violate everything we've ever been taught about fairness and justice. In my opinion, the word "forgiveness" is thrown around too lightly these days.
It has become so popular that people are already glibly bestowing it before they've even had time to process the offense committed against them. That is an impossibility. There are certain levels of hurt and anger that a person has to pass through before he/she can even approach forgiveness. And it won't make everything better.
In Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, Richard Foster notes realistically that "Forgiveness does not mean that we will cease to hurt. The wounds are deep, and we may hurt for a very long time. . .Forgiveness does not mean that we will forget. That would do violence to our rational facilities. . .Forgiveness is not pretending that the offense did not really matter. It did matter, and it does matter, and there is no use pretending otherwise. . .Forgiveness is not acting as if things were the same as before the offense. We must face the fact that things will never be the same. . ."
Many Jews have sworn that they will never forgive the Holocaust, and some relatives of 9-11 victims feel the same way. We can see their point. To them, "forgiving" may well imply "excusing," and there is no excuse for the wholesale slaughter of innocent people.
But true forgiveness is never about excusing. As G. K. Chesterton writes "forgiving means to pardon that which is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all."
He illustrates the point in one of his Father Brown stories, where some strangers magnanimously express themselves ready to pardon the man whom they see as the "good guy" in a long-ago duel. When they find out that the man who actually survived was in reality the "bad guy," who won by a trick, all their willingness to forgive abruptly vanishes!
Some may also assume that forgiving means giving up the push for justice, which also is not true. As Fulton Sheen points out in Life Is Worth Living, " Every act of injustice disturbs order. That disorder often has to be righted." Christianity has always held that we must give Caesar, the government, what is due it. As Bin Laden never denied--rather gloried in--his responsibility for the killings on 9-11, his death can be seen as a rightful execution. A somewhat irregular one, granted, but even forgiven people must pay their debts to society.
So we Christians can rejoice about the restoration of justice, but we should never rejoice about the death of an unrepentant soul. Fortunately, most of us will never have to forgive something as extreme as 9-11. However, having to pardon smaller offenses over and over again isn't easy either.
"The painful fact will show itself," George MacDonald writes, ". . .that it is more difficult to forgive small wrongs than great ones. Perhaps, however, the forgiveness of the great wrongs is not so true as it seems. For do we not think it a fine thing to forgive such wrongs and so do it rather for our own sakes than for the sake of the wrongdoer?"
In other words, we know that we will be thought very fine--very Christian--people, if we can contrive to forgive large offenses. But nobody notices when we have to forgive family, friends, coworkers, and fellow Christians their smaller offenses over and over again. And they are the people who are supposed to love us! As William Blake notes in Jerusalem, "It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend." After all, we expect the worst from our enemies--but not from our friends.
Irreverent as it may sound, we often have the most difficulty forgiving God. He's the one who is supposed to love us most, after all, so why does he allow so many unpleasant things to happen to us? We may say that "God knows best," but we often have a hard time believing it!
Christ can help us with this, since He too knows that feeling of being forsaken by God--and betrayed by everyone else. When we consider all that He had to forgive, the offenses against us pale in comparison. He quite literally had to shoulder the sins of the rest of the world. So we should be able to bear up under the far fewer injustices we have to endure, for His sake and that of our brothers.
"My brother's burden which I must bear," Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains in The Cost of Discipleship, "is not only his outward lot, his natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share. . .Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which is the Christian's duty to bear."
What may help with this is remembering how often our "brothers" and "sisters" have to forgive us as well. "It is easier often to forgive than to be forgiven," Charles Williams points out, "yet it is fatal to be willing to be forgiven by God and to be reluctant to be forgiven by men." He goes on to note that "Many promising reconciliations have broken down because while both parties come prepared to forgive, neither party come prepared to be forgiven."
Having to ask for or accept forgiveness, after all, is just plain humiliating. We all want to be the benefactor patronizingly bestowing such largess, rather than the poor supplicant who has to beg for it. Referring to the "forgive us our trespasses (or debts)" part of the Lord's Prayer in Beyond Words, Frederick Buechner writes that "What Jesus apparently is saying is that the pride that keeps us from forgiving is the same pride that keeps us from accepting forgiveness, and will God please help us to do something about it."
Harold Camping springs immediately to mind as someone whom many of his followers are going to have to forgive. If those followers had consulted Christ's teachings instead of Camping's, they would have read in Matthew 24:36 that no one knows the date and hour of Christ's return except God. So I'm afraid those followers are going to have to take some responsibility for their own disillusionment--and forgive themselves. Again, easier said than done.
In a recent Will Smith movie, Seven Pounds, the main character is haunted by the deaths he caused in an auto accident. (Spoiler alert! I'm going to reveal the ending. So, if you haven't yet seen the movie, you may want to skip the next paragraph.)
Smith's character determines to make up for those deaths in the only way he can, by committing suicide in such a way that his organs can be used to save several other lives. Although he appears to be admirably sacrificial, his attitude can't be called a Christian one--because his pride is so great that he refuses to forgive himself. And because suicide is still a mortal sin, no matter how much a person may feel that it is justified.
It often is hardest for us to forgive ourselves, because we expect more of ourselves than we do of other people. An extremely egotistical notion, when we actually think about it! Once we are able to accept the fact that we are as weak and human as everybody else, we will have much more compassion for both ourselves and others.
Maybe we can forgive ourselves for a lack of success as well. We all tend to buy into the idea these days that, if we maintain enough positive thinking and determination, we can succeed in any field. But the truth is, of course, that there are only a limited number of spaces at the top. (Mountains, whether literal or metaphorical, narrow as they reach their peak.) So some people will never make it, despite much determination, self-discipline, and talent. And many who do attain the heights will be swiftly displaced by others.
Much depends also on why we want to reach the top. We recently watched an old movie, called The Mountain, in which two brothers climb together. The younger climbs because he wants to reach a plane wreck at the peak and loot its victims. The older goes because he is the better mountain climber, wants to keep his brother safe, and has never been able to get beyond an earlier mistake that cost a life.
As a Christian, he should have known that the person forgiven has to let the offense go as much as the forgiver does. Provided, of course, that the forgiver really does let go!
"If God forgave us the way we forgive those who trespass against us sometimes, we'd all be in big trouble, wouldn't we?" Elisabeth Elliot asks in Gateway to Joy. "Because we don't necessarily forgive those people completely, freely and forever. Sometimes we don't forgive them at all. . .Is that the way you expect God to forgive you?"
We obviously don't want God to forgive us as much as to exonerate us. After all, we seldom beat our breasts these days and say, "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!" We are more likely to say, "Lord, you know what I have to endure from that person every day. You can't really blame me if I have to lash back every now and then."
As C. S. Lewis notes, "I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, 'Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.' If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites."
We can excuse ourselves much more easily than we can excuse others, because we are aware of the aggravating factors in our own case. "I was having a bad day. Everything had gone wrong, and I was just so tired. I really didn't intend to snap at him (or her). It just came out that way."
I believe that we should extend the same understanding to other people as much as possible. There are small offenses that we should excuse, rather than feeling the necessity to forgive them. That person, too, may just have been having a bad day and really didn't intend any harm.
Also, although some people are deliberately malicious, others simply have no sense of tact. They trample all over everybody else's feelings, but don't realize they are doing so. As some of us are tone deaf musically, those people are tone deaf in other ways. And the one is really no more of a sin than the other.
When it comes to forgiving more deliberate offenses, however, Elisabeth Elliot has a few suggestions in Gateway to Joy. She, having had to forgive her husband's murderers, knows a great deal about the subject.
"The first thing that you have to do if you're going to forgive that person is to receive the grace of God. Until you receive grace from God and His forgiveness of you, you will not be in a position to forgive somebody else. The second thing? Acknowledge the wrong. Name it, whatever it was. Name it in the presence of Christ. Be straightforward with Him. Number three, lay down all your rights. Forgiveness is the unconditional laying down of the self. And now, number four? . . .If that person asks forgiveness, forgive. . . if he does not. . .forgive him anyway in a private transaction with God. . .ask for grace to treat that person as if nothing had ever happened. Stand with Christ for him."
That last is especially important, since we often forgive people just as a way of ridding our lives of them and the burden of resentment they cause us to carry. "What then is forgiveness?" Foster asks. "It is a miracle of grace by which the offense no longer separates. . .In forgiveness we are releasing our offenders so that they are no longer bound to us."
That distance may actually be necessary in some cases. To preserve their own safety and sanity, some abuse victims may have to stay well clear of their abusers.
But, in less drastic cases, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out in A Testament to Freedom, "We make things so easy for ourselves, when it comes to others. We. . .think that if we harbor no evil thoughts against people, then that is just the same as if we had forgiven them. And in so doing, we completely fail to see that we don't have any good thoughts about them. . .we don't support those others. . .indeed, we do not take them seriously at all. But it's precisely the supporting that counts. . ."
Although Bonhoeffer's own enemies ended up hanging him, he still advocates in The Cost of Discipleship that, “Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God. Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them. . .We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves.”
So forgiveness is not just the releasing of one burden. It is the voluntary taking up of another.
We are no longer bound to the forgiven person by resentment but, rather, now by love and concern. We have, in a way, moved him or her from one column to the other in our bookkeeping! Not only have we released something toxic from our lives, we have added to our capacity for love. So that, as Paul Boese writes, "Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future."