Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Sean Asks... About Forgiveness

As I mentioned in my Welcome post, this blog was born out of an ongoing relationship with a friend named Sean, who has asked me many insightful questions about the nature of God and Christian faith. His satisfaction with my answers led him to believe that those answers, and others that I might be able to provide, could benefit other people in similar situations of questioning or doubt. With this post, I'll be beginning a regular "series" revisiting the questions that Sean has asked me over the past year or so (at least as many as both of us can remember). It will be labelled in the sidebar as "Sean Asks..." I hope my answers might help you as much as they helped him.

Oh, and just a note about the Q&A forums--just because I put a new post up doesn't mean you can't still ask questions in them. To find them easily, click QnA in the sidebar.

Sean asked me once about the topic of forgiveness. Particularly, he was troubled by the fact that God seems to ask us to forgive other people no matter what--even if they never ask for it or do anything worthy of our forgiveness; but God Himself does not forgive us in a similar manner. Rather, He withholds forgiveness until we have suitably repented of our sins. To Sean, this seemed unjust--that God would demand something of us (indeed, hinge our own forgiveness on it--Matt 6:14-15) that He Himself is not willing to do.

In order to answer Sean's question, we have to look at what Forgiveness is, how God forgives us, and finally, how God requires us to forgive. For I think many of us have a somewhat skewed notion of these things.

Forgiveness, first of all, does not mean ignoring a problem with another person, pretending it didn't happen, or that it didn't really matter. We often hear that we are to "forgive and forget." However, it seems to me that one is a choice, while the other is not. Unless my wife sustains a severe head injury, she not likely to forget that a friend of mine gravely and unfairly insulted her. Now, my wife, full of grace and compassion, may choose to forgive my friend, whether my friend asks or not. But she will for ever after be rather wary around my friend, lest she should be hurt again.

Forgetting would, in all honesty, be rather naïve. Consider the example I gave to Sean: If his children were molested by a paedophile, by the sheer grace of God, Sean might one day come to forgive the offender. Despite that choice, Sean would be incredibly foolish to ever let his children be in the man's company again.

If forgiveness is not simply forgetting about our hurt, or pretending that it never happened, or that it didn't really matter, then what is it? What is Jesus commanding us to do, in telling us to forgive another's failings towards us, even if they don't ask for it or don't deserve it? I believe it is this: When we forgive, we let go of our right to punish or avenge the wrong done to us. This does not mean that the wrong never occurred, or that the harm has been diminished; it does not let the offender off the hook, so to speak. Rather, it keeps us from ending up on the same hook, ourselves. Forgiveness is humbly acknowledging that we don't know the whole story. Because of this, our judgement will never be fully just. Only God, who knows everything, knows exactly what the offender deserves. When we forgive, we are surrendering our bitterness, our hatred, however valid, to God. We make an act of trust in the goodness of God, that He will judge fairly, and that we will be vindicated.

That, as hard as it is, is actually the easy part of forgiveness. But there is one more aspect. When we forgive, we make a choice to be willing to reconcile with the offending party. That is, if the other person never repents or apologises to us, never tries to make amends, we nevertheless must hold out hope for that possibility. And more, should that opportunity arise, forgiveness means that we embrace it, and that we do, in fact, reconcile. As with pretty much everything else that God calls us to do, forgiveness and reconciliation can only be accomplished through God's grace at work in us. So don't be discouraged if you read this, and think, "I could never do that!" It's true--on your own, you certainly can't. I certainly can't! But as Scripture says, "There is nothing I cannot do in the One who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). The key is, though, we have to cooperate with that grace. We have to ask for it, and when God grants it, we have to act on it. Forgiveness is ultimately an act of surrender.

This leads to the second part of the answer to Sean's question: Is God's method of forgiveness contrary to what He asks of us? The short answer, I believe, is "no." We often speak of needing to repent in order to be forgiven by God, and in a sense, this is true. However, I believe that sense is best labelled "synechdoche". Synechdoche is one of those fun obscure literary terms that one learns about in high school English, in the poetry unit (I believe I first encountered it in Grade 10). It means to substitute a part for the whole, such as when we refer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus--we're not adoring only His heart, but all of Him, summed up by the symbol of His Heart, imaging His great love for us. Or, it's like when we tell someone to "take the wheel". We aren't saying that they should only use the steering wheel when driving our car. They "take" the pedals, the gear shift, the signal lever, and, quite frankly, the whole car.

Thus, I submit that when the Bible says "Repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of your sins" (cf. Acts 2:38), it is using "forgiveness" in a synechdochous fashion for the whole process of our reconciliation with God. It does not mean that God is unwilling to forgive us, or hasn't provided the way for our forgiveness, until that moment when we turn to Him. Rather, God has forgiven us in an analogous sense to that which He asks of us. Namely, He sent His Son into the world to die for us, to purchase our salvation, in order that the debt of our sins could be forgiven. He's made our forgiveness possible, and, as such, has "forgiven" us, just as we forgive our enemies by surrendering our bitterness to God and allowing Him to be the just judge, and not we ourselves.

But, just as our personal act of surrender, that act of forgiveness, is incomplete without participation from our enemy--that is, if the offender never apologises and makes reparation for his offences, there is no actual reconciliation between us--so too must we, the offenders of God's Law, turn to Him with contrition and apologise for our sins. We must do penance to demonstrate that we are indeed sorry and want to make it up to Him. Now, of course, just as with our attempt to forgive, our attempt to atone is fruitless unless it is empowered by God's grace. But the small acts of penance are our cooperation with that grace, and, empowered by grace, do actually merit that atonement, that reconciliation, for us.

So, we see that God has forgiven us before we repented--that is, as St. Paul says, "while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son" (Romans 5:10), or, as St. John tells us, "Love consists in this: it is not we who loved God, but God loved us and sent His Son to expiate our sins. My dear friends, if God loved us so much, we too should love one another" (1 John 4:10-11). However, in order to receive that forgiveness, we must indeed turn to Him with sorrow for our sins, and "produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Luke 3:8).

Through baptism, our sins up to that point are washed away. Our further sins are forgiven through their sorrowful confession, and the acts of penance, in the sacrament of Reconciliation. God has made this possible through Jesus Christ, who, ministering through the priest, absolves us and reconciles us to Him. But we don't benefit unless we participate.

So too, God calls us to forgive our enemies, as He has forgiven us already while we were still His enemies. Whether our enemies ever come to reconcile with us is ultimately between them and God. Through our forgiving, we have surrendered the need to judge them to Him, the rightful and just Judge. And, if by the grace of God, they do come to us repentant, then we are called to offer them the gift of reconciliation, just as God freely gives us that gift as often as we need it and seek it.

Now that you've read this, please remember that I said I'd do my best to give you the answer. I never said you'd like the answer I give you :) Jesus didn't say that following Him would involve dying to ourselves for nothing! But the emblem of our faith, the Crucifix, reminds us once more that God doesn't ask us to do anything that He wasn't willing to do for us already.

God bless

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