Friday, September 14, 2007

The Travesty of Blanket Forgiveness

For all that can be said about the importance of forgiveness, not only for the Christian Church but for society as a whole, the concept needs to be better understood lest it become absolutely meaningless. Too often we think of forgiveness as this blanket of absolution that gets put over everything and everybody so that we can experience the warmth of acceptance and community.

Someone does something wrong and we say: "That's okay." We all walk into church and take part in a song of very non-specific confession of our humanness and are then offered the assurance of forgiveness so we can go our merry way. Don't get me wrong: This assurance of forgiveness from Christ, which comes totally by grace and is not earned, is an essential and powerful message.

But it was never meant as God's way of saying: "That's okay. Don't worry about it. I love you anyway." Forgiveness may be unearned and unconditional, but it is intrinsically tied to judgment and repentance. Logically speaking, if you are forgiven for something it means you did something wrong or at least are a culpable part of something that is deeply flawed. You need forgiving. And the implication is that you need to change. And if you don't change, then your relationship with whomever you hurt by your actions will perpetually be supported on the basis of the mercy of the forgiving one and will not have much opportunity for depth, wholeness, health, love, and the joy of mutual participation in caring community.

In other words, forgivenss may be unconditionally offered, but if there is nothing but blanket forgiveness going on, then forgiveness is all you get. If there is no confession or repentance going on you don't get fellowship restored. You don't get healing. You don't get any better.

This may seem insignificant when you think of things like forgiving someone for taking the last parking spot or bumping you in the hallway or making a careless and offensive remark, but what about the kid who comes to church with his emotionally abusive father? What is that kid supposed to think of the Christian faith that absolves his father of wrongdoing with a blanket forgiveness void of any sort of corporate confession or accountability? He might find it a comforting refuge for absolution of his own sins, but he might also find it to be an accomplice to his own oppression.

Blanket forgiveness does not deal adequatelly with sin. Blanket forgiveness is unbiblical. It sweeps it under the rug rather than dealing with it. It covers the negative but does nothing positive.

The books I've been reading lately have been reminding me that forgiveness is an invitation to wholeness and restoration that is freely offered but must be humbly and contritely taken and applied before it is really going to have its most profound and useful effect.

Forgiveness that denies or excuses wrongdoing, suffering, weakness, and sin is not really doing anyone a whole lot of good. It is a placebo or a coping mechanism to get the forgiven free of their nagging guilt, but it is superficial and temporary. Forgiveness that leads a person through confession and into repentance and submission to the Spirit is a powerful force for good. If the abused kid had a church which confronted his father with the warm and truth-filled embrace of that kind of forgiveness, the cycles of violence and oppression might have a hope of stopping with him rather than perpetuating and festering and rotting with maggots in the composting bin of a community thriving on blanket forgiveness.

Furthermore, I should add that forgiveness without justice is meaningless. Consider Cain and Abel. Cain might have been forgiven, and this is a powerful truth of the grace of God. But what good does it do for Abel? And what good does it do Cain to know that, though his life was mercifully spared, he must always live with the legacy of the brother he killed that he might have learned to love? Forgiven or not, Abel's blood cries out from the ground for justice. If there is to be forgiveness and restoration in this world of a positive force, there must be a blood that cries louder than Abels.


Tony Tanti said...

Great insight Jon. I assume you're speaking here about believers forgiving and being forgiven by other believers in the context of the body of Christ. If so I agree completely though the line between accountability and holding a grudge is a thin one and I suspect it is the reason most churches don't meet this head on.

What about the forgiveness by a believer of those who aren't? I've always believed, and still do, that I need to forgive others regardless of whether they deserve or if they've even asked for it. This for the simple reason that I don't deserve the forgiveness I've received.

jon or angie said...

Yes, but does forgiveness just pretend it never happened or does it actually confront wrongdoing?

Tony Tanti said...

Confront it once and if no apology is forthcoming, still forgive.

jon or angie said...

yes, but do you keep putting yourself in harm's way? And what if the wrongdoing is hurting others? What do you say? I can offer them God's forgivness and I can decide not to judge them or pretend to be an greater, but what about justice? Blanket forgiveness for anyone who wants it doesn't deal honestly enough with the cry for justice.

jon or angie said...

I strongly recommend checking out the latest issue of Faith Today in which one of my profs has an article entitled "Should We Forgive Those Who Show No Repentance?" It is apparently garnering considerable mail. I suppose because there is something very important we want to preserve about being a "forgiving" (and unjudgmental) people, even while we seek a more complex understanding of what that forgiveness is. Fair enough, but the blanket forgiveness thing has caused a world of hurt and needs to be refined. So I applaud the discussion.

Beth said...

Thank you for your article.
I feel like I have had this 'forgiveness thing' crammed down my throat forever. I have spent years trying to forgive. When a child is abused, it can cause PTSD, depression, difficulty in relationships, and etc. These conditions can and will affect their relationships and their own feelings of self worth. I know that as a child in church, I was not concerned about my abusers forgiveness, I was wondering what I did wrong to deserve so much pain and suffering. I felt unworthy of God's love, because I was unworthy of my mother's love.
What bother's me so is that I am made to look like the 'bad' person if I don't choose to forgive. There was no repentance or asking for forgiveness and now my mom is dead. What if I don't choose to forgive? I don't know that God demands that of me.

Tricia Johnson said...

Thank you for writing this. Blanket forgiveness, as well as the demand for it, is certainly a travesty.