Thursday 12 October 2006

Theology for beginners (19): Forgiveness

Summary: The freedom of the Christian life is above all the freedom of forgiveness: living in the forgiveness of God, we are set free to forgive the debts of others.

We have spoken of the freedom of the Christian community. And we must now focus on the most distinctive and most fundamental form of this freedom: the freedom of forgiveness.

Right from the start, the Christian life is constituted by the gift of forgiveness. At the beginning of the Christian life, the bath of baptism dramatically enacts the free and unconditional gift of forgiveness by which God receives human beings into the fellowship of his own triune life. In baptism, the past is washed away. All our guilt and shame is removed – it is drowned and left behind in the water. In this way, the power of the past is broken, so that a person emerges from the water into new life, into a life wholly open to the future of God’s coming kingdom.

Forgiveness is not, however, merely the start of the Christian life. Each day and at every moment, we continue to live by the power of forgiveness. Each day, the Christian community repeats the same prayer: “Forgive us our debts!” Each day, we continue to need and to ask for God’s forgiveness. Thus although we are baptised only once, throughout the whole Christian life we continue to share in the eucharistic meal – the meal of forgiveness. Just as we share together in the bread and wine, so we are reminded that God’s forgiving grace is our food and drink, our nourishment, our very life. To eat and drink forgiveness, to be sustained by forgiveness – this is the meaning of the Christian life.

And so our prayer each day is: “Forgive us our debts!” Forgiveness is the opposite of being treated as we deserve to be treated. It is the opposite of restitutive justice. It is the opposite of “karma,” of reaping what has been sowed. It is the opposite of every kind of moral legalism. So too, it is the opposite of making amends for the past. It is the opposite of conditions, negotiation, exchange.

Forgiveness is not restitution – it is unconditional pardon. It is cancellation of debt. Forgiveness therefore involves both a recognition of the debt that is owed, and an irreversible decision that the debt will be cancelled. It is thus not a matter of simply forgetting the past – it is a powerful annulment of the past, an act in which the chains of the past are broken. Through forgiveness, the past itself is thus transformed into something new, just as the future is suddenly opened in a new way. Liberated from the power of the past, I am now set in motion towards a future rich with hope and possibility. This, then, is the unique freedom of the Christian life: to stand forgiven before God, and thus truly to be free in relation to my own past and to the future of God’s kingdom.

But our daily prayer is not only “forgive us our debts.” In fact, our prayer is: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are in debt to us.” This prayer means: “Set me free from the past, just as I release others from the chains of their past. Cancel my debts today, just as today I release others from the debts they owe me. Do not demand restitution for guilt from me, just as I refuse to demand restitution from others. Set me free from the need to make amends, just as I excuse others from this need. Forgive me unconditionally, just as I forgive without negotiation or condition.”

To pray this way is to pray for something radical, something that shatters all our assumptions and expectations about the basic patterns of ordinary social life. In our world, you don’t get anything for nothing. If you want something, you must pay for it; you must make some kind of exchange. But forgiveness overturns the entire economy of exchange – in forgiveness, I give you something for nothing, without requiring payment or exchange, without demanding anything in return. In the economy of exchange, you are bound to me by various contracts and conditions – but in the economy of forgiveness, you are set free from all bondage to me, unconditionally liberated from all indebtedness to me.

Forgiveness is thus something shocking, something astonishing and unexpected. It lies outside the basic patterns and assumptions that underpin our entire culture. It is wholly undetermined and contingent. It is an event that can never be anticipated in advance. It is an irruption of the ordinary. Until we have been shocked and astonished – yes, frightened! – by the power of forgiveness, we have not yet even begun to understand what is involved here.

Forgiveness is shocking because it is a miracle. In and of myself, I lack the capacity to forgive – but as I receive the forgiving love of God in Jesus, I am empowered by the Spirit to become an agent of that same forgiveness. Because I have been forgiven, I can and must forgive. When I forgive a person who has wronged me, that person is truly forgiven – she is liberated from the chains of the past and set free to participate in the life of God’s coming kingdom. So too, when this person forgives me, I am truly forgiven – I am liberated from the past and welcomed into the life of the kingdom. Through the power of the Spirit, human society in all its forms can thus begin to glimpse and to participate in the life of the kingdom through this astounding miracle of reciprocal forgiveness.

To forgive, therefore, is not only a personal act – it is also a social and political act, an act pregnant with the promise of a new future for our world. In international relations and in domestic penal policy, it overturns the politics of vengeance. In social relationships, it overturns the demand for retribution and compensation – the violent demand to be “given one’s due” at any cost. Indeed, in the first century the early Christians interpreted Jesus’ entire ministry as a liberating act of debt-cancellation: in Jesus, the Year of Jubilee had arrived, a time in which all debts were written off, so that the poor could be released from their financial servitude. This, too, is what forgiveness means today. This is what we are asking for when we pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors!” The prayer for forgiveness is thus a revolutionary act, a radical contradiction of the whole economy that underlies the accepted patterns of thought and behaviour which drive our culture.

Indeed, the petition for forgiveness is identical with the petition for the coming of God’s kingdom: “Your kingdom come, your will be done; … and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors!” To live by forgiveness is already to participate in the life of God’s coming kingdom. To practise forgiveness in all our day-to-day social interactions is already to show the power and the life of God’s kingdom.

For the kingdom of God – the kingdom that Jesus announced, the kingdom that is now approaching all history like a fast train from the future – is a kingdom of forgiveness, a kingdom whose fundamental economy is one of unconditional, liberating love. To live in the power of this liberating love is the meaning of Christian freedom.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), pp. 430-50.
  • Govier, Trudy. Forgiveness and Revenge (London: Routledge, 2002).
  • McFadyen, Alistair and Marcel Sarot (eds.). Forgiveness and Truth (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001).
  • Milbank, John. Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 44-60.
  • Müller-Fahrenholz, Geiko. God’s Spirit: Transforming a World in Crisis (New York: Continuum, 1995), pp. 124-41.
  • Shults, F. LeRon and Steven J. Sandage. The Faces of Forgiveness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).
  • Tanner, Kathryn. The Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
  • Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).


Anonymous said...

A gold star! Thanks, Ben.

PS: I shall be forwarding a copy to my bank manager.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

To your bibliography, I'd add the following:
Donald W. Shriver, Jr., An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics Oxford Univ. Press, 1995.

Desmond Tutu,No Future Without Forgiveness(Image Books, 2000).

Anonymous said...

Hey Ben,

As I ponder this excellent post, I think: What is the difference between vengeance and justice? Is it that in personal relationships, I should not seek vengeance, but when crimes are committed, do we seek justice from the authorities God has placed over us?

I mean, what does pardon mean? Imagine the situation, since we love to argue ad hitlerum, that Hitler was actually caught before he committed suicide. Should the courts, supposing they consisted of biblical, Spirit-filled Christians, have given justice or pardon if Hitler was repentant? (this is another question, I know, of whether pardon is given regardless of repentance).

This question isn't new, I bet, but just something I'm wondering. If you'd rather make a book recommendation(s), I'm cool with that too.

Keep up the fantastic blogging!

byron smith said...

Thanks for this great post. I was about to ask a similar question to Rob - how does forgiveness affect the way we think about present justice? Oliver O'Donovan says that it is this insight about forgiveness that has led to the distinction between criminal law and tort in Western societies - to remove the burden from the individual (who might forgive!) to seek justice. This is why it is the state/crown who prosecutes criminal cases. Thoughts?

Forgiveness is the opposite of being treated as we deserve to be treated. It is the opposite of restitutive justice. It is the opposite of “karma,” of reaping what has been sowed. It is the opposite of every kind of moral legalism. So too, it is the opposite of making amends for the past. It is the opposite of conditions, negotiation, exchange
I really appreciated this paragraph, and thought you could add that it is the opposite of being excused. The extent to which there are reasons that excuse one's behaviour is the extent to which the need for forgiveness is minimised. C. S. Lewis has an excellent little piece of this (On Forgiveness).

Anonymous said...

Amen and Amen.

David W. Congdon said...

Simply beautiful, Ben. I would heartily replace my 10 theses on forgiveness with the statement: read Ben's post!

Ben Myers said...

Hi Thomisticguy: thanks, I appreciate your thoughtful criticisms and suggestions, and I can see where you're coming from.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Hitler cancelled all debts, such as mortgage debts, or debts the country owed to the WWI vitors. Should we call for the cancellation of all debts?

Unknown said...

First I agree with Benn 100%. Secondly, I see where Thomistic Guy is coming from as well. It is a concept harder to wrap our brains around than we think. It is easy to break apart any argument and find dirt in the crevises. Why would we be looking to break apart the argument of forgiveness? Why find dirt in this concept of debt cancellation rather than punishment. I believe the two different perspectives are based in part on the diferent ideas of who God really is and what God is about? I feel as though there is a battle of wits such as the one in The princess Bride where all of the divining of scripture and gleening of wisdom and exposing of illogic ends in God trumping us all and doing it His way despite what we think or believe. On one hand is God the wrath giver of punishments for our sin? Many scriptures can be used to support that idea. Is God a forgiver of out debts? Many scriptures can be used to support that idea as well. So the battle of wits begins and ends when you decide which goblet the poison is in and we both drink. Forgiveness is opposed to much of our logical concepts and structures of legal justice so I can clearly not choose the goblet in front of me. Yet it is clear that we should not expect that forgiveness from the State or governements so I can not choose the goblet in front of you. Forgiveness is at the core of the mission of christ and crucial to His purpose so I cannot choose the goblet in front of me. Yet if God were so forgiving there would be no reason for Christ to be sarificed and I cannot choose the goblet in front of you. As a Christian I must forgive my neighbor for the sins he has done to me in order to maintain the forgiveness my Lord has shown unto me so I cannot choose the goblet in front of me. As a member of society and user of common sense to forgive criminals and release the captives to sin again is insane and I cannot choose the goblet in front of me. As we battle with our wits it is clear that uor human wisdom is not of the same stuff that is God's wisdom. God does not expect us to discern His wisdom, but merely to shut up and have faith in His. As a human I cannot choose the goblet in front of either side because they are both filled with poison that can be used to destroy or faith and our enthusiasms for following Christ. If we try hard enough I am sure we can logically find many reasons ans cripturally based facts why God should not save any of us, and we may well come down on the side that says if that guy is able to be saved after committing such atrocities then send me to hell because I do not wish to be in the same room with that guy, much less heaven. It is musch better and easiser to use scipture to find discriminating reasons and logical order to say we are saved and you are not. We are the chosen because of this, that and the other, and you are condemned because you did, did not, and won't. The third idea is that somehow we are all saved despite logic that claims differently. We are all saved despite our sins, because if he goes to hell because of his sins then I surely go as well for my own sins are enough to build a stairway to heaven I could never climb. What to do? How are we saved? We could battle our wits to their ends and never know for sure.

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