Friday, March 19, 2010

Cheap forgiveness & the real thing

“So and so did such and such and I just can’t forgive him!”

How many times have we said or heard this sort of statement, and struggled with the sense that we are in violation of the beautiful and dear to heart words: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Yet how often do we struggle with something which involves a person no longer living, or a person who has no appreciation for what they have done, or even a person who has acted in malice and has no intention of asking our forgiveness? It seems that often many are burdened with the sense that they are somehow in the wrong for not being willing to “forgive” unconditionally one who has not, can not, or will not ask for forgiveness.

This problem it would seem is uniquely Christian. The modern Jew has no overwhelming need to offer forgiveness to the perpetrators of the holocaust, as his religion does not bind himself to. Does Christianity ask us to throw a blanket of forgiveness over all those guilty parties? Or to get more personal, are you to offer an unconditional forgiveness to those who commit the most heinous acts against your own person, when the offender shows no sign of repentance?

I’d like to pause before answering to look at what our Lord has said in this regard. We of course can start with:

and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; [Mt 6:12, Lk 11:4]
Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. [Sir 28:2]

Then Peter approaching asked him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. [Mt. 18: 21-22]

This would seem to be a blanket call, but what else has our Lord said?

He said to his disciples, "Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, 'I am sorry,' you should forgive him." [Lk 17:1-4]

I think you can see here that the Lord has described in greater detail the reality that forgiveness is not just a judicial act we complete on our own, but a way to restore a relationship with another person, us with God, us with our neighbor.

Here’s how Jesus elaborates his command to Peter:

That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.' Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, 'Pay back what you owe.' Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?' Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart." [Mt 18:23ff]

This I think articulates the ingredient that is so often lacking; I opened this meditation with a consideration which we have all made. The characteristic deficiency of this sort of consideration is not at all the difficulty it examines, the deficiency is that it lacks any expression of the “other” in the relationship; it is a relation between our self and our injury. Jesus has asked us to transcend the injury, to place at the highest value the love we are to bear for our neighbor who is our enemy, because He loved us when we were His enemy. This is what needs to be restored, this is the desire of the heart, to restore that which was lost, which is not injured pride or injured body or lost property; but hearts divided.

We see in the parable of the prodigal son the willingness to forgive, but we see no exercise of it until we see the son’s repentance. This is key, I believe, because in it we see the restoration of relationship previously severed. God does not forgive those who do not ask for forgiveness; that is the sin against the Holy Spirit that can never be forgiven [Lk 12:10]. He has asked us to do what He does, He has not asked us to do what He will not.

This is not a prescription for holding anger in our hearts, hardly! Such is a sin against temperance and another matter altogether. There is difficulty in overcoming injury because we are human. However, the perspective is not the technicality of offense/grievance but that of charity; love for the one who is also loved by the Father. So back to scripture. What did St. Stephen do?

As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them"; and when he said this, he fell asleep. [Acts 7:59:60]

And on the Cross, our Lord Himself said:

"Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." [Lk 23:34]

I believe that the Lord’s admonition to forgiveness is met by those who ask for it. For those who do not, charity bids us pray for them, as these last two examples show so eloquently a charity that loves one’s enemies in this moment, that they may be one’s friends in eternity.

I am not a believer in cheap forgiveness, and I don't think that's what our Lord wants. I do believe in loving my neighbor as God loves him and hating sin as God hates sin. These are meditative thoughts, and as such ongoing.

Your comments are welcome.
cor ad cor loquitur

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