Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Forgiveness in Faith Today

In the September/October issue of Faith Today one of my profs wrote an article that questioned the concept of "unilateral forgiveness" and challenged people to think of forgiveness as something given only to people who repent. He made a pretty good case in the allotted page. As he suggested, this idea needs nuancing within a larger understanding of what reconciliation and love entail (because, for example, a person who might not forgive his unrepentant abuser can still do a great many other loving and peace-seeking things toward him), but by and large it was a good and thought-provoking article.

But what gets me is the letters to the editor that have been flooding in ever since. What troubles me is where their arguments lead. Here's a couple samples. One person argued:

"I am overjoyed that at the centre of the gospel is a love that is not triggered by anything I do, including my repentance."

My question: So why are we bothering to do anything? Is this "Faith Today" or "It'll All Work Out in the Wash Tomorrow"? If I hear this person out I think he is confusing love with forgiveness. My question is, if a man is hitting you and won't repent, will you love him by asking him to stop or just forgive him and let the "love" flow on? Its one thing for Stephen to ask God to forgive the people who are murdering him, it would be another thing entirely for him to decide not to let it bother him that someone just stole his car (Yes I realize Stephen did not have a car). The letter went on:

"When I read the parable of the Prodigal Son, I confront a story of an even more prodigal father whose forgiveness of, and his extravagance toward his wayward son came before his son's confession, not after."

My question: Does your version of the parable have the father finding the son before he's repented or after he's taken the road home? Here's more:

"Of course, this forgiveness may not lead to much reconciliation if there is no repentance. However God must sort that out, not me."

My thought: No wonder there are so many Christian jerks (including myself) flying around. We all just forgive each other and leave the mess to God to sort out in the end. In the meantime the guy that hit me isn't even gonna think twice about hitting the next guy. Do we love our freeing feeling of forgiveness so much we'll take it at the expense of a better life, reconciliation, etc. . .?

This escapist Christianity has got to stop. The magazine is called "Faith Today." God asks us to do stuff. I can't very well forgive someone who hasn't asked to make things right. I'm not doing either of us any favours in the kingdom of God. I'm not an ambassador of reconciliation, I'm a preacher of the "Easy Out".

Another letter made the poignant observation that "In this article the word 'love' was not used once." That's a decent observation, but not for the reason the person made it. The article also didn't use the word "ressurection", but that's pretty important as well. Nonetheless, the person is on to something. Love is an important word.

Can I forgive someone who sees nothing wrong with what they are doing to me? No. Apparently God doesn't even do that (1 John 1:9). Can I love someone even while I am unable to forgive them? Yes. In fact, in that case, my task is much harder. It is one thing to "forgive" someone so you can "love" them, but it sounds more like sweeping it under the carpet and surrendering truth for an easier day. It is another thing to love the person who is my enemy, while that person is still my enemy (or at least opposed to me in some way or by some action, large or small), all the while holding a posture of forgiveness that would love to make things right again.

Sometimes (perhaps often) for the sake of ongoing relationship we do let something go in the hope that truth and real love can someday prevail. But, to borrow from some of my prof's nuancing, that's called forbearance, not forgiveness.


jon said...

Yes I realize that I should just have written the editor. I do that kind of thing from time to time, but too busy/lazy this time. Anyway, that's why I left the names out. Their letters gave me something to say, that's all. No offence to them whoever they are.

erin said...

I'm not sure I agree with you on some of this...you mentioned that you can't very well forgive someone who hasn't asked to make things right. What about the case of an abused wife who, while taking action and leaving for safety, eventually needs to forgive to move on (whether or not her husband has repented)? Or what about Jesus on the cross asking God to forgive those who were mocking and crucifying him? I'm thinking they probably weren't there to reconcile!

jon said...

can't the woman decide to leave her husband to God, even wish the best for him, even ask God to forgive him, without actually forgiving him? i don't know. its a good question. i just wonder if there isn't a face-to-face aspect of forgiveness that can't be done unless the other person is in on it.

and as for Jesus, that was definitely a unique scenario. by asking God to forgive them he is asking God to forgive them, no doubt, but i'm not sure that right there he is actually forgiving them.

definitely worth thinking more about.

Colin Toffelmire said...

I think the problem here is that the word "forgiveness" is being given a meaning that is too narrow. There are degrees of forgiveness. There is a forgiveness in which the forgiver extends forgiveness to the offender. In this act the forgiver not only provides the opportunity to heal a broken relationship or to right a wrong, but he/she also creates a transformation within his/her own soul. That is the self-healing effect that I think Erin is talking about.

Forgiveness becomes tangibly different, however, when the offer of forgiveness is accepted. Then forgiveness becomes more real, more meaningful, more powerful. That is when forgiveness is more than just cathartic, it's actually healing.