Forgiveness has been my official theme for almost three weeks, now: looking over resentments I’ve held onto or wrongs I’ve felt were done to me that have gone unaddressed. These are things that I need to turn over to God’s justice rather than my own to be handled in the way He sees fit.
Forgiveness is important to those of us trying to be more like Jesus. He forgave sins, asked God to forgive the people executing him, and talked several times about the importance of forgiveness in those who would be faithful, going so far as to say that God would not forgive the sins of those who were unwilling to forgive others. In fact, this theology is right in the middle of the Lords Prayer.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
It is a prayer that God’s forgiveness would be like our forgiveness, which is kind of a lot of pressure. Given our frailties and the frailties of Jesus’ followers at the time, it is doubtful this is meant to be a theological equation in the sense that, if you do not perfectly forgive, God will withhold forgiveness from you. However, the relationship is not incidental. Jesus says more than once in more than one way that God forgives the sins of people who forgive those who sin against them, and if you are unwilling to do this, you should not expect that God will forgive your trespasses, either.
This is a hard teaching and hard to do in wise ways, sometimes. We might, for instance, forgive someone who is very dangerous for us to be around. Forgiveness may mean coming to a place where we give up our personal rights of retribution, but it may not mean moving back in with them. Some sins cross into abuse and criminal behavior and there is just nothing easy about figuring out how forgiveness works in those scenarios, even as we acknowledge that a follower of Christ must figure them out when they arise. Just deciding not to forgive is not an option.
In my case, however, the tricky issues of forgiveness are rarely about how to deal with the “trespasser” going forward. I think it is possible to forgive someone and make wise decisions about what your relationship is going to look like in the future in a way that is best for both parties. For me, the tricky issues of forgiveness have to do with the benefits I get from not forgiving.
You see, if someone else is in the wrong, it makes me feel as though I am in the right. The sharper among you may point out that it is quite possible for two people to both be in the wrong, but that’s for rational people thinking about the situation rationally.
If I have something to hold over you that you have done wrong, it makes me feel better about my own behaviors while at the same time justifying them. As long as I have the “right” to demand retribution, I can feel whatever I want to feel and do whatever it seems right to me to do, and I can feel justified in doing so.
The combination of resentment and self-righteousness is more powerful, numbing, addictive, and rationality-destroying than most drugs.
While I might think it is hard to forgive because I was really, really wronged and the other person does not seem very sorry, the reality for me is that it’s hard to forgive because I’m giving up leverage and self-justification. If I don’t have something to hold against you, then I have to face my own feelings and behaviors unmitigated by “what you did.” They have to stand on their own merits and, when that happens, I find they are unacceptable. I find that I have built idols out of my wounds that I turn to for solace and encouragement, and like every other idol, they have to go.
Maybe that’s peanuts for you, but honestly, I find it kind of terrifying. What will I look like when I am no longer evaluating myself against harms, real or perceived, done to me? When you take those justifications away, what is left? When I no longer have the right to treat you like crap, well, now I’m just treating you like crap, aren’t I? When I can no longer explain my behavior in terms of what someone else did to me, now it’s just stuff that I do.
Forgiveness isn’t just giving up overt retribution for an offense; it’s giving up the host of negative responses I have crafted because of your offense, or the things I engage in because of the way what you did makes me feel, or the pride I feel in being the wronged party. Basically, anything about myself that I have propped up with “what you did” has to go.
That doesn’t mean you get to escape the consequences of what you did. That doesn’t mean that I have to work to make a close friendship out of our relationship. It does mean that whatever destructive characteristics or behaviors I have that are “justified” by the fact that I have been wronged have to go, and I do not get to label them as righteous because I have suffered an injustice. That’s part of forgiving, at least the way I see it.
And perhaps this is why Jesus cannot envision his followers not forgiving one another. If you are the image of God in the world, you do not get to harbor resentments, or cart someone’s past offenses out as ammunition for something else, or indulge in baser character flaws because you now have the right to do it. If the world is going to look the way God wants it, we have to be a people who can forgive as well as be forgiven – both things change us.
And both things direct our trust and hope toward God. It is only by trusting God that we could ever turn our retributive rights over to him and find our solace there instead of taking our comfort into our own hands.