A professor of world religions tells a story about one of her students, a young Muslim from Morocco, who worked part time as a waiter in a Boston hotel. Abdul, who went by ‘Mike’ to keep things simple, was an avid and attentive student, always bringing in news clippings and other tidbits related to the religions the class was studying. One day he came to class and reported on a nasty fight that had erupted among some of his coworkers at the hotel. Among other things, insults were uttered in which the integrity of mothers and sisters had been impugned. Afraid the tension would turn physical, Mike intervened. He sat his fuming coworkers down and informed them that they had a duty to forgive one another because they were Christians, and forgiveness was what Christianity was all about. “I know,” he said, “because I am taking a course.”
I don’t know whether Mike’s instruction had any impact on his Christian friends, but he was right about one thing: forgiveness is what Christianity is all about. It’s about other things too, of course. I expect that if pressed most people would name love as its distinctive practice, or perhaps justice; but love is not love in the full Christian sense, nor is justice, until it has confronted the hard and terrible imperative of forgiveness and met the challenge.
Although the other two Abrahamic traditions also enjoin forgiveness on their adherents, neither has posed the requirement to forgive in quite the same way as Christianity. The Christian practice extends from everyday making nice among intimates to the forbearance of enemies, the pardon of persecutors, and reconciliation among nations. It hopes for, expects, and demands repentance and reparation, but does not always condition itself on either, and is to be offered even in their absence. Thus it stands at the center of Christian faith as its glory and its stumbling block, a gracious miracle and an awful scandal. If Paul is right that when all is ended, love will be the last and greatest virtue standing, it will likely have the look of an enemy forgiven.
The commandment to forgive is baffling and even upsetting to many people who are not Christians. Most of my Jewish and Muslim friends are not fond of the parable of the prodigal son, for example. The pardon of the reckless son and the apparent neglect of his dutiful brother seem arbitrary and unjust. They find it hard to grasp why Christians think such a patently unfair story is so heartening. The truth is that many Christians find this story hard to fathom as well. At the same time that we secretly hope God will receive and pardon us just as the father embraces the prodigal, our hackles are raised by how easy it all seems. The kid has gotten away with murder—no questions asked, no groveling required, no penance imposed. And the elder boy gets our immediate sympathy: he deserves better.
There is no doubt that the Christian understanding of forgiveness is a touchy and complicated matter. On the interpersonal level, it is complicated especially by the assumptions of the age in which we live, a time when the human psyche is center-stage and the knowledge derived from its exploration informs much of the church’s pastoral practice. This is, of course, a good thing. I could list a thousand ways in which it is so, but suffice it to say that anything that affords insight into, instills compassion for, and contributes to the healing of a human being, mind and body, is unmistakably of God. I do not want to be misunderstood, then, when I say that in the case of the Christian practice of forgiveness, our therapeutic reflex may be helping disciples miss the mystery and the point.
It has become commonplace in the therapist’s office and from the pulpit of our churches to note that forgiveness has the power to heal the one who forgives. We often hear it said that to withhold forgiveness is to harm ourselves, that forgiveness relieves us of the burden of anger and hate, and that it is therefore as much, if not more, a gift for us as it is for the person forgiven. A well-circulated Facebook meme sums it up: “Forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.” Forgiveness from this standpoint is about the well-being of the forgiver.
This sounds right to our psychologically-attuned ears. And in an important way it is. Psychological studies and personal experience teach that forgiveness can and does make us feel better, and that the long, fraught process of forgiving someone yields immense benefits for the one who engages it with purpose. Holding onto hate and hurt, allowing blame and anger to fester, corrodes the psyche and has an adverse impact on both body and soul. Again, this is indisputable, and anything we can do to lessen this pain and relieve this burden is too little. However, to posit personal peace as the reason we need to learn to forgive, or even as the implied goal of forgiveness, is to miss the transforming power of the particularly Christian practice of pardon.
We do not forgive because we deserve peace; we forgive because Jesus told us to forgive. We do not forgive because forgiving will heal us; we forgive because it is what Christians do. Our practice of forgiveness is before all else a practice of obedience. In other words, it is a mark of discipleship, a characteristic of the sequela Christi. If they know we are Christians by our love, they will know it unmistakably by the patient, responsive, and obedient practice of the kind of love that ideally pardons even the unpardonable, that seeks the good of the enemy, the healing and well-being of the all who sin against us. And because pardoning, especially pardoning enemies and persecutors, does not come naturally to us, we need to learn it by being obedient to a commandment that compels us to do what we would never do left to our own devices.
When people forgive their offenders soon after the offense, as in the memorable case of the Amish parents of murdered schoolchildren, we often recoil. It feels too soon. But such folk are not forgiving once and for all. They are instead starting someplace. They are obediently saying the words of forgiveness nowing that by saying them, they are beginning a practice that, they trust, will eventually help them feel and live what they say. We forgive our way into forgiving–this is the nature of practice, and it is the nature of obedience.
–Rubens, Return of the Prodigal
Now, if forgiving were a commandment only that enjoins us to obey, we might rightly chafe under it; but it is more than a commandment—it is a person, “it is the Lord”—the same Lord who taught (ah, the parables of Luke!) that God’s joy increases when the lost are found and sinners are restored; the same Lord who embodied his teaching in his person and practice, a practice of mercy that included us. And because we love him gratefully for the mercy we have known, it is to this Lord we respond in obedience when we set out on the path of pardon to benefit our enemies, as he did his, and to seek their good.
We forgive because Jesus, whom we love, commanded it. We forgive as he did also because we know from our own experience of being forgiven that it is good to be forgiven. We want offenders and enemies and persecutors to know what we have known. To love someone who does not love us or who has caused us harm and grief is something we do for that other, not for ourselves. It’s her peace we are after, not our own.
I am not saying that this is easy, pleasant, straightforward, or quick. I am saying that it is the kenotic pattern we have been given, the pattern faith tells us will save. We love and are children of a God who does not shrink from humiliation. We follow a self-emptying Christ. Our practice is meant to conform to this divine impulse: it was to heal and restore that God’s life was poured out in other-directed and sacrificial compassion. It is hard to imagine that Jesus ever considered what was in it for him to pardon the tormentors who nailed him to the cross.
This is not to say that his practice on the cross did not affect him in any way. For all we know, it made him even more human, even more complete, even more lovely and whole than he was before he extended that amazing grace. The point is not that forgiveness doesn’t benefit us who forgive; it’s not even that we should not hope it will benefit us, or be grateful when it does, or help others see that pardoning is a process that does good to the one who pardons. The point is that a disciple is content to forgive because Jesus did, because we were the objects of that largesse, and because he told us to go and do likewise. That is enough. That there are side effects and consequences for us—things that are rich and good and human and welcome—is grace upon grace, but never the motivation, never the goal.
The idea that we forgive as much or more for ourselves than for the one forgiven is not a Christian idea. It has merit and therapeutic value, and that value cannot be discounted in the large discussion of forgiveness as a human process, difficult and prolonged, rewarding and needed. I am not aiming to drive an artificial wedge between Christian faith and human experience, only to affirm that for disciples, because we are in the image of the self-emptying Christ, the goal of pardoning cannot be expressly or primarily self-seeking, even as it is true that our practice of pardoning delivers blessings of wholeness and peace to us that are in themselves desirable and good.
In the end, of course, the Christian wisdom is that the offender deserves forgiveness every bit as much as the offended against deserves healing, unburdening, and peace—which is to say not at all. No one deserves anything in Christ’s economy of grace. We simply and unaccountably receive; we get to share in every good that Christ has to offer because God is like that—generous, compassionate, merciful, and good. We forgive and accept forgiveness (a practice every bit as difficult and demanding and, without grace, impossible as forgiving is) because as partakers of the kingdom’s largesse we move in a gracious universe. In this resurrection cosmos, deserving drops away as a frame of reference. What takes its place is the kind of solidarity that makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish hurt from hurt. Our enemy, we discover to our own pain, is also a sufferer: someone has harmed, hated, and feared him too. And we who forgive also need forgiving for our countless offenses against the other.
There is no innocence in the kingdom, only mercy; and a revolutionary vision, available to anyone who desires it, by which—after a lifetime of hard and painful practice, our hearts fixed on Christ’s compassion–we may come to see at last the profound common suffering of our common human condition, the breathtaking truth that the sinner and the sinned against share one flesh, one damaged human heart.