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The Mystery of Forgiveness

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.


Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 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.
Luke 17:3-4

There is much confusion about forgiveness. Forgiveness is often presented as a religious obligation. Many have the notion that it is virtuous to overlook every offense, to treat it as if it did not exist or no longer mattered. We may have the idea that Jesus forgave everything, all the time, and so we should also. Universal forgiveness is considered a virtue on a par with unconditional love.

Such ideas of forgiveness lead to tremendous complications. People may feel asked to overlook crimes and abuses that have scarred them deeply or done irreparable harm to their loved ones. If they cannot forgive, they feel they have failed in their duty towards God, adding guilt to the pain they already suffer.

Popular psychology (and much theology too) has contributed to the confusion. It promotes the idea that you don’t really need to be concerned about the person you are forgiving because forgiveness is really all about you. In this view forgiveness means letting go of resentments that destroy your tranquility and getting on with your life. It has nothing to do with the other person, we are told. Its purpose is to give you peace of mind. “When you forgive you do it for you, not for the other” says one such web site.

Letting go of resentment is certainly good for the soul, a healthy practice that we should cultivate, but it is not forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot be just about the self. Forgiveness is not about you, or about making yourself feel better. True forgiveness is an act of love, and so must involve the other. Forgiveness is not a technique for self-improvement. When the Bible speaks about forgiveness, in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, it has nothing to do with the feelings of the person who has been hurt or who might still be holding a grudge. It is always about the person who did the hurting. It refers to the moral status of the sinner in the eyes of God. Using the term “forgiveness” in the sense of popular psychology causes confusion when we start looking at forgiveness in the Bible, because the two meanings do not coincide and may even conflict (see the example of Zacchaeus below). Letting go of resentment may be a good thing, but that’s what it should be called, “letting go,” and not “forgiveness.”


What Is Forgiveness?

It might help to start with a definition of forgiveness. To forgive means to release from a claim. To forgive a debt means to cancel it, to wipe the record clean, to say the other no longer owes anything. If one forgives, one drops any claim against the one who offended. If one holds onto any claim, one has not forgiven; one still considers the debt to be in force. The Spanish word for forgiveness is perdón. When one is forgiven one’s offenses have been pardoned; one’s account has been cleared.

Unfortunately, most sermons about forgiveness present it as a universal, unconditional duty. While browsing the web I found a sermon entitled “Must I Forgive?” by Rev. Richard D. Phillips (Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, August 13, 2000). The Reverend’s response to the question he poses is an absolute “Yes.” The examples he gives make this abundantly clear. He presents the case of a man who makes inappropriate sexual advances to a woman on a date. He says the woman must forgive. He continues:

“But what if he raped you? That’s a bit more difficult isn’t it? Let me say this: the principles here don’t change. But the process is a lot harder. You will need much grace; you will need close fellowship with the Savior of sinners; you will need a warm light to pierce the darkness. But to be free of that sin and its bondage, you still must forgive for the sake of Christ and with the love of God.”

It should go without saying that it is beyond arrogance for any man, who cannot truly imagine the horror of rape, to tell a woman she must forgive that crime. But that is far from the only problem with the preacher’s position.

Let us say the police catch the rapist. Should he be prosecuted, or should the woman ask that the charges be dropped? If she presses for prosecution, if she testifies at his trial, then she has not released the rapist from her moral claim. She has not forgiven. If she has nightmares thinking of this man still walking the streets, that is of little importance to the preachers of forgiveness, who tell her she must forgive.

Should society forgive the rapist? For now let us leave aside the question of whether anyone can forgive an offense committed against somebody else. If we forgive the rapist while he is unreformed and unrepentant, we release him back into society where he will inflict more injury and trauma on other women. It is hard to imagine even Jesus approving such lenience. If we imprison the rapist to prevent him from committing further crimes, we are taking away his freedom; we are punishing him. Thus in no meaningful way can we say we have forgiven him. By taking these steps to protect the innocent, are we violating Jesus’s commandment? Can we really believe that Jesus would approve of exposing vulnerable people to harm for the sake of total forgiveness?

Jesus, who taught us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies, is often portrayed as a sentimental softie, not standing up for himself and asking us not to stand up for ourselves. That is what being “Christlike” is supposed to mean. If that is true, then Christ himself wasn’t very Christlike. Jesus did teach those things, but he was also exceedingly tough on people who didn’t learn their lessons. For example there is the following incident:

Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” (Matthew 11:20-24)

And this one:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.... You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:23-26,33)

And this one:

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:12-13)

Jesus condemns the Pharisees and the money changers in the Temple, but a rape victim is supposed to forgive her rapist?

Just what is going on with forgiveness? Didn’t Jesus teach forgiveness? Why is it so complicated?


The Role of Repentance

Jesus did teach forgiveness, but he also specifically mentioned repentance. Some try to dismiss this, saying that Jesus did not always speak of forgiveness and repentance together. But he did so in our passage from Luke, and if repentance were not important, Jesus would have had no need to mention it. Jesus also says we need repentance to prepare for the Kingdom of God: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17). And finally, if any doubt remains about whether or not Jesus connected forgiveness to repentance, that doubt is dispelled by the first of the three passages just quoted, concerning the woes against Bethsaida and Chorazin: “Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent” (Matthew 11:20).

Why is repentance so important? It is important for the victims, who no less than the offender need to be relieved of the pain they have been carrying, by knowing that at the very least the offender experiences regret. But repentance is even more important for the offender. God is All and Absolute Goodness. Those who violate goodness violate God. There is a rift between the offender and God that needs to be healed. The victim cannot heal it. No one, not even the victim, can relieve the offender of that need. Healing the rift must be accomplished through a process of atonement, in which the offender becomes aware of the meaning of the offense and becomes inwardly transformed through sincere remorse. That is a matter between the offender and God.

No one can relieve others of their accumulated responsibilities. It is presumptuous to think that we can. Each one must work on that for oneself. Even if the rape victim wanted to forgive her rapist, if he remains unrepentant he is still in a state of sin and accountable to God. Absolute forgiveness is a power we simply do not have. And even if we did have it, it would not benefit the offender. Repentance is a spiritual need. Relieving the unrepentant of their atonement does not help them; it actually harms them spiritually. Repentance is the deep and painful regret we feel once we see the pain we have inflicted on others. If we cannot see that pain, we cannot be spiritually whole. We will lack the capacity for compassion, which means we cannot love as God loves, and so we cannot know God’s love. We need repentance in order to know God’s love. Telling people they can be forgiven without repentance actually separates them from God’s love.

In Hebrew, to “repent” means literally to “return” to God. As the Garden of Eden story tells us so powerfully, earthly life puts distance between ourselves and God. We all need to return. The return to God is between God and each individual. We cannot make others return, nor can we declare that they have returned. We do not have that kind of access to the hearts of others. Repentance, atonement, and forgiveness are the substance of our spiritual journey, and we need to experience all of it to come back to love. Declaring that another’s sins have been pardoned while heedless of the consequences to that person’s soul is irresponsible and ultimately not loving.

But, one might object, doesn’t the Lord’s Prayer, which is based on both Matthew and Luke, say “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us”? There is no mention of repentance. But there should not need to be. Asking forgiveness is meaningless without remorse. It is inconceivable that we should ask God to “forgive us our sins” while still unrepentant, with no desire or intention to change. Such would be an act of hypocrisy. When we ask God’s forgiveness, repentance is implied. And as we are repentant and seek forgiveness, so must we forgive those who are repentant and seek our forgiveness.


The Limits of Forgiveness

The New Testament takes forgiveness far more seriously than we do. Unlike love, forgiveness is not without limits. The Pharisees were right to object that no ordinary human being has the authority to forgive sins. The rich man who mistreated Lazarus (Luke 16:19-28) is not forgiven, even after he asks to be. First he must learn what it is like to be Lazarus, and for this he must pass through hell. His five brothers, whom he asks Abraham to warn, are not forgiven either. Even if Lazarus himself had forgiven that rich man (and the Bible does not tell us he did), the latter would still have had his lessons to learn, and no one, not even Lazarus, could have learned them for him.

That forgiveness must have limits should not surprise us. What actually should surprise and unnerve us is all this preaching that forgiveness is limitless, absolute, and a commandment we must fulfill at all times and in every situation. One often hears this rationalization: “to forgive does not mean to condone,” but this is truly an empty distinction. If we forgive everybody everything, tell them it doesn’t matter what they’ve done, their actions have been pardoned and their debts canceled, then saying we don’t condone what they’ve done is absurd, an insult to the offender and a cruel slap to the victims. It should be obvious that saying “No matter what you do you are excused, whether or not you are sorry for it” sends the message that it’s OK to do whatever you like, there are no consequences and there is no judgment; in fact, you will be received with open arms.

Another danger of limitless forgiveness, unfortunately frequently realized, is that it turns us into hypocrites. Last year an off-duty police officer driving drunk struck and killed the daughter of a Brooklyn pastor. The officer pleaded guilty and agreed to a reduced jail sentence. After the plea the pastor told the defendant, “I forgive you, we forgive you, my family forgives you.” Nevertheless, the family proceeded with a civil wrongful-death case. But, their lawyer assured the public, the civil case was unimportant. The truly significant thing was that this officer lose his job with no possibility of ever being reinstated. And in fact, the officer was fired. “That was important to them,” the lawyer said, “that he never be a police officer again.”

Without a doubt one can sympathize with this family’s pain. One could even have understood if they cried out for retribution. But to call for forgiveness while demanding someone’s professional execution is a hollow pretense of spirituality. That it comes from a pastor only makes it worse, because he sets an example for others. Preachers who demand limitless forgiveness while not practicing it themselves place a tremendous burden of guilt on those who also fail to live up to this exacting and not always appropriate standard. Such preachers bring to mind Jesus’s cautionary words: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4).

The demand for absolute forgiveness is contrary to love. It makes the victim of the offense responsible for the offender’s restoration, precisly at a time when support and not additional affliction is needed. And telling people who are likely to repeat their hurtful acts that they are forgiven only ensures that they will continue to victimize others - Why should they not? Where is our love for those people - for the next victim of that rapist whom we have forgiven without requiring him to change? There is no value higher than love, and if forgiveness actually opposes love, as it does in these cases, then either forgiveness must be discarded or it must be redefined.

If forgiveness were absolute we would have to open all our prisons and let everyone go, since it is senseless to say we have forgiven people while we are still punishing them. The need for prison reform notwithstanding, abolishing the prison system is an absurd idea and would hurt society. Absolute forgiveness is a burden impossible both for the individual and for society to bear, and thankfully it is something Jesus never taught.


When Forgiveness Works

Paradoxically, just as our own attempts to forgive may be powerless to assure forgiveness, so may our refusal to forgive be powerless to prevent it. The great example of this is the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19), a wonderful story because it explodes the myth of Jesus siding only with the poor against the rich, only with the disadvantaged against the advantaged. Jesus transcended all groups and categories and cannot be claimed by anyone.

Zacchaeus was rich. He was a tax collector. The term is misleading. As much as we may hate tax collectors today, in Jesus’s time they really were government-sanctioned thugs. They took what they could get from people, gave to Rome its share, and pocketed the rest. Thus they were universally despised.

Yet when Jesus sees Zacchaeus, he welcomes him! And this despite the fact that Zacchaeus’s victims have not forgiven him! “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,” they grumble. But Jesus sees something they don’t see. He sees a change of heart. Zacchaeus is fully penitent, vowing to serve the poor and to make restitution fourfold. It doesn’t matter that the people he extorted still want him punished. Even though they have kept their resentment, Zacchaeus is forgiven.

This is good for us to know as well, because anyone on the path towards God will know how it feels to be a broken-hearted sinner. Jesus’s treatment of Zacchaeus assures us that if there has been a true change in our hearts, and if we have done our best to make restitution, then we can rest assured we are forgiven in the eyes of heaven even if the ones we have hurt on earth may still bear ill will against us. (And even if the person whom we have hurt has disappeared, we can still make restitution by the way we treat others, avoiding our past mistake.)

With the pardon of Zacchaeus, a former predator who exploited the poor and the weak, we approach the higher levels of forgiveness. Jesus does explicitly command us to forgive the repentant sinner - to be more precise, we might say Jesus commands us to recognize the forgiveness that the repentant sinner has already been granted. As previously noted, without repentance and atonement the offer of forgiveness would not only be meaningless, it would be harmful. The Bible does not preach reconciliation without repentance. The Prodigal Son (Luke 15) suffers the consequences of his actions and repents before he can return - in fact, the story of the Prodigal is introduced by two shorter parables that mention repentance explicitly. Those who preach forgiveness as an unqualified absolute are not being true to the New Testament message.

Nevertheless, can forgiveness sometimes go beyond even these inherent limitations? Is it possible to forgive even our enemies? What if there is no repentance – can forgiveness still play a role?


Forgiveness Without Repentance?

Jesus said that when there is repentance, we must forgive. Still, there are some situations where it seems forgiveness might be possible even when there is no repentance. This happens when the one who forgives is the sole owner of the claim. Years ago, a dear friend of mine tried to correct something unethical that her daughter had done. The daughter reacted with anger, cut off communication, and hasn’t spoken to her mother since. Still, the mother forgives, and has the right to forgive - not the daughter’s behavior towards others, but rather her mistreatment of her mother. We cannot forgive a wrong committed against a third party, and to try would only add to the original offense. However, if nobody else is involved we can relinquish the claim - if we choose to do so.

Even then there are limits. In this case the daughter harmed not only her mother, she also harmed herself. To repair that, she will need to atone. There are also situations where the offense itself, the violation of goodness, is so great that no human being can relieve another of the burden of confronting it. If a rape victim were able to forgive her rapist, even if she is his only victim, would that be enough to erase his debt? With no repentance on his part he would still be in a state of deep depravity. His connection to God, to Absolute Goodness, would still be broken. Even if it seems we are the only one hurt, if forgiving without repentance leaves no incentive for the offender to change, the process of forgiveness cannot be complete.

As we have seen, contrary to much popular belief, Jesus did link forgiveness to repentance. Therefore if someone who committed a serious offense has not truly repented, we cannot say with confidence that such a person is forgiven. “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” Jesus said, implying that a special authority is required, one based upon intimate connection to the Spirit of God, which alone knows the human heart. We do not know the heart of another well enough to say that someone is forgiven - we are only told that if the person repents, then we must forgive.

But, one may object, if we forgive even without repentance, are we not relieving the person who offended us of a great burden, making it possible for that person to approach us in love and gratitude and to feel whole again? An excellent question, but one we must understand carefully. What exactly is this “burden” from which we are releasing the offender? At the heart of repentance is remorse. Remorse is the terrible pain of a heart broken by the consciousness of having offended. If our forgiveness relieves the offender of this burden, then remorse was present and repentance was already taking place. In the deepest sense forgiveness and repentance cannot be separated.

On the other hand, forgiveness when there is no remorse can be destructive. The remorseless offender may believe there is no consequence to sin and may keep offending with the expectation of impunity. A remorseless offender may also see forgiveness as a sign of weakness and therefore an invitation to continue offending. This is not abstract speculation; it is the pattern in many cases of domestic abuse.

We therefore need to approach forgiveness carefully, with the awe and respect that it requires. We can risk forgiving someone whose repentance is not evident. We can become fortunate if true remorse was present and both parties are healed. Or we can perpetuate suffering and innocent people may continue to be hurt. This is truly a question of discernment.


Forgiveness and Love

Understanding love puts forgiveness in perspective. We said before that forgiveness is an act of love. Forgiveness is an expression of love, but the two are not identical. We get into trouble when we conflate forgiveness and love: as we have seen, while God’s love is universal and has no limits, forgiveness without limits is contrary to love. We need to keep in mind our definitions of both forgiveness and love to make the issues clear and avoid falling into a deep moral dilemma.

We have already defined forgiveness. In Judeochristianity love is defined as the awareness of the other’s individuality. One’s “individuality” is one’s essence, the core of one’s being, which makes one unique and different from every other creature. We may even call it the soul. To be aware of another’s true individuality, not just one’s surface characteristics, naturally elicits a loving response. In fact, the individuality of another cannot be known except through love. This kind of awareness is seeing others as God sees them, knowing them as God knows them. Of course our own knowledge will be far from perfect, but it is an approximation to the vision of God. Of this much we are capable.

With this understanding of love, the commandment to love our enemies becomes comprehensible. We are called upon to see our enemy, to become aware of the enemy’s individuality. Although it is difficult, it is something we can do. This calling does not demand we feel affection for our enemy in the popular sense of love, although as a result of this level of awareness our feelings are likely to change. Loving our enemies, becoming aware of their individuality in the same way we love anyone through this awareness, is a love both rational and spiritual. It transforms both how we see and how we feel about the person we thought of as our enemy.

Sometimes we speak of forgiveness when we really mean love. Forgiveness understood this way simply means the expression of love toward someone who has wronged us. It is the ability to see the other as an individual, and therefore with compassion. It might be acceptable to speak of forgiveness this way as long as we recognize its limits: that we still lack the power to erase both the offense and the offender’s responsibility for it. Nevertheless, it would still be clearer and better to speak of forgiveness when we mean forgiveness and of love when we mean love. In this way we avoid turning love into a burden incapable of human fulfillment. Forgiveness has limits. Love does not.

The great example of limitless love was Jesus on the cross, and we can learn much from it. Jesus practiced this love even towards those who tormented and killed him. He said as he was dying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This short phrase is pregnant with meaning. Let’s unravel the layers.

“They do not know what they are doing”: Yes, of course they knew they were inflicting pain on another human being. But they did not have the awareness that love requires. They could not see Jesus as an individual; they could not see his pain as he must have felt it, and they could not see his love. No one who has the awareness of the other upon which love depends can inflict cruelty willfully. This is why Jesus says “they do not know.” They had not learned how to love, and because of that Jesus saw them with compassion.

“Father, forgive them”: Jesus knew the limitations of forgiveness. He knew that even he could not free his killers from the results of their actions. They had violated goodness deeply and were still accountable. And so even Jesus could not forgive them; he had to ask God to do it. To love the unrepentant means to desire their forgiveness: we release them from nothing for we cannot, but we pray to God for their return. And God will forgive them as their needs require, and those requirements will involve judgment and atonement. Judgment is not necessarily a bad thing. It can even be an instrument of love. We all require and should even welcome judgment to cleanse us of our impurities and to bring us to compassion - such was the judgment that the rich man who mistreated Lazarus experienced in hell, and we can hope that judgment led to his atonement and eventual redemption. Asking God to forgive others because “they do not know what they are doing” means asking God to bring them to the awareness that will make them whole. That is just another way of saying that we ask God to bring these people the gift of repentance - for surely Jesus did not intend for his executioners to remain bloodthristy killers after God forgave them.

We have carefully considered the disadvantages of limitless forgiveness. These do not affect or diminish love, the awareness of the individuality of the other, which is the one unconditional and limitless good we can know on the human plane. So we can love, and we can even love our enemies, but we leave the rest to God. Because it is based on such love, desiring and praying for the return and even the acceptance of the one who hurt us can be so powerful that it may even bring the offender to repentance. As a shorthand for this we may say that we forgive, and hope that the other will be moved. But we must be clear about what we mean. We cannot do in the sinner’s soul what only God can do. Nevertheless, a sinner whose heart has any open space at all may be taken by surprise and totally disarmed by an unexpected offer of “forgiveness,” which, strictly speaking, is really love touching the remorseful heart that has already silently cried out for it.

Therefore when we use “forgiveness” in this manner we are really speaking about love - and so we should. “I forgive you” can sound condescending, because it puts us above others and on the level of God. But a sincere “I love you” is never inappropriate. We may express love using words of forgiveness, as long as when offering forgiveness we do so with humility, knowing, as St. Paul rightly said (2 Corinthians 4:7-8), that “the power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

April 2009