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When Wouldn’t I Forgive You?

In my previous post I admiringly reflected upon my son’s instinctive willingness to forgive and wondered what the world might look like if more people adopted this strategy. One commenter justifiably inquired as to the limits of forgiveness—if it really ought to be as “reckless” as I was recommending. His challenge to me was as follows:

Given your extensive thinking/reading/writing on the fact that evil is prevalent, and given the fact that because we are all too human and therefore tend to abuse reckless forgiveness, please write a post that elaborates on what reckless forgiveness looks like without becoming irresponsible and self-destructive.

As is usually the case, the best place to start is clarifying the important terms of a given discussion. “Forgiveness,” as I understand it is a twofold process that involves both the wrongdoer and the one who was wronged. I have found the work of Miroslav Volf extremely helpful here, particularly his articulation of a radical willingness to love and forgive those who commit even the most grievous evil against us provided that the evil or wrong is identified and acknowledged for what it is. In order for true forgiveness to be extended, the party which caused the pain must be willing to admit their wrong and seek reconciliation. To use the terms of his most celebrated work, “exclusion” must precede “embrace.” Forgiveness and healing cannot take place without the acknowledgment of the wrong that was done.

This is serious business for Volf, and involves far more than some limp expression of regret that someone “felt” wronged (I suppose these have their place, in certain situations, but often they seem to be a rather transparent attempt to retain the moral upper hand and present oneself as above reproach). What is necessary is that wrongdoing be acknowledged as objectively wrong and that one’s moral culpability be squarely faced. Only then, can genuine forgiveness be offered or accepted.

In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus gives his disciples a rather harsh lesson on the importance of forgiveness for those who would call themselves children of God. Not seven times, but seventy times, he replies to Peter’s query about the extent of his obligation to forgive, and I think that we can safely assume Jesus was using symbolic language to commend an open-ended willingness to forgive. But to return to my friend’s question, what about the abuse that can take place when forgiveness is offered so freely in an evil world such as ours? Is such forgiveness not potentially irresponsible and self-destructive? Well, yes. And no.

First, I don’t think that our primary obligation is to be “responsible” in our deliberations about forgiveness. We are simply called to forgive our enemies, and those who do us wrong because this is the pattern of Christ. Having said that, we are not obligated to pretend that no wrong was done, or to blindly offer forgiveness where it is not appropriate to do so. My friend’s thesis deals with how Mennonites have historically understood and practiced pacifism/nonviolence and he has uncovered numerous cases where the ideal of “peace” has led to bizarre and, I think, biblically unwarranted acquiescence to evil. Jesus does not call us to passively accept evil and toss around a kind of vague “forgiveness” to all who hurt us. Embrace without exclusion is, as my friend has alluded to, highly irresponsible, self-destructive, and quite likely psychologically crippling.

But when forgiveness is genuinely requested—when the wrong done is squarely acknowledged and the consequences are accepted—I maintain that “why wouldn’t I forgive you?” is the proper Christian response to the evils and suffering that we face. To use the example in the previous post, my son would not have been obligated to forgive, or even justified in forgiving me had I not acknowledged that my response to him was wrong, and asked for his forgiveness. In a sense, “why wouldn’t I forgive you?” is a posture that is only appropriate once the conditions discussed above are satisfied.

In recommending “reckless” forgiveness, I was assuming quite a bit, in hindsight, but a commitment to forgive even once the appropriate “exclusion” has taken place is still, I think, highly countercultural and extremely difficult. We humans are capable of inflicting an extraordinary amount of pain on one another, after all, and it’s hard to let that go even when our offender acknowledges the nature of their offense and their responsibility in its perpetration. But as Christians our lives are to be patterned after a God who forgives his enemies. Every time we follow this pattern rather than the rival patterns on offer around us, we testify to the gospel truth that unmerited grace is the means by which the world is made new.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I think you have written a thoughtful analysis here that deals with the complexities of human relationships and with forgiveness, human and divine.

    Sometimes I think we believe God is too forgiving. I think Jonah realized this about God. He was afraid God would recklessly forgive Nineveh. Jonah was no fool – he knew Nineveh would not really repent.

    Mercy can be very hard for us.

    July 26, 2008
  2. Thanks Ken. I think you’ve hit on something when you say that mercy can be very hard for us. When we receive it, we suspect that it’s too good to be true, and feel certain that we’ve missed the fine print somewhere. And our reluctance to receive it makes us reluctant givers as well. Our experience with our fellow human beings is then transferred on to God – we assume that because grace comes with so many strings attached in our dealings with others that it must be the same with God. Maybe this is one of those areas when we could just appreciate the sheer magnitude of the ontological gap between God and as a source of comfort rather than something to be feared or lamented.

    July 26, 2008
  3. J #


    Thanks for this. I thought this was where you were at, but I didn’t want to make any assumptions. I think all too often Christians have made too many assumptions, and you know where that’s gotten us – it’s made an ass out of u and me (and horribly worse).

    I especially appreciated your comments about being quick to forgive when “forgiveness is genuinely requested – when the wrong done is squarely acknowledged and the consequences are accepted.” That is, I think, “responsible” forgiveness.

    I suspect that many (western?) Christians find this kind of “responsible forgiveness” particularly hard because to “withhold” forgiveness until a wrong has been acknowledged seems like it might be “violent.” It seems too unloving, uncaring, unmerciful, un-Christlike, and so on.

    Which leads me to think that another area we need to take a long, hard look at is what we understand love to be (and mercy, as Ken notes in the previous post). I think we have too often assumed that love is simply “accepting who are” and left it at that. It seems to me that the love of Jesus is a love that accepts us as we are, and then calls us to become more/better versions of ourselves. In other words, forgiveness and love are, it seems, calls to take a step further in a process of transformation.

    What do you think?

    July 28, 2008
  4. Thanks J. You probably know this, but I couldn’t agree more that the assumptions we make about concepts like “love,” “forgiveness,” “mercy,” etc. often get us into a lot of trouble. We end up with a kind of fuzzy, unarticulated, vague sense that we should have a generally nice disposition towards others and their actions and that to challenge these somehow represents a sub-Christian response. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth.

    I think you put it very well:

    I think we have too often assumed that love is simply “accepting who are” and left it at that. It seems to me that the love of Jesus is a love that accepts us as we are, and then calls us to become more/better versions of ourselves. In other words, forgiveness and love are, it seems, calls to take a step further in a process of transformation.

    Our understandings of the concepts above must somehow preserve this ability – indeed, obligation! – to call others (and ourselves) to become better human beings, to more fully reflect the image of God. Any kind of love or forgiveness that fails to make room for this is, in my view, radically truncated and inadequate.

    July 28, 2008

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