May 14, 2007

To Forgive, Divine

Over at another blog I rarely visit, in response to a comment I made that we should be more ready to forgive than to judge, another priest articulated the contrary view in no uncertain terms, saying that without repentance forgiveness is impossible.

I find this a difficult doctrine, one not in keeping with the single greatest act of forgiveness the world has ever known. On the cross, Jesus asked his Father to forgive those who crucified him. Not only had they not repented of this act, they didn't even think they needed to: They knew not what they did.

It is blessed to forgive our brothers and sisters when they repent for the wrong they do -- though the apostles found that difficult enough, especially when told they had to do it again and again, seventy times seven. Hard enough, indeed; how much harder to forgive, as God in Christ did, when no repentance is shown.

If we will only be forgiven to the extent we forgive, then I think we must emulate this divine example: for surely we are all guilty of many things we don't imagine are sins and offenses, and may even imagine we are just and right to do them, even as those who crucified Christ, and persecuted the church. So let us forgive others even when they do not repent; lest God hold us to a standard by which we cannot help but fall.

Tobias Haller BSG

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Those who hold that "God forgives only those who repent of their sins" seem to base it on their reading of the story of Jesus and the woman who committed adultery, Jesus finally absolving her with the admonition: "Sin no more." Sadly, those referring to the story foget that most early manuscripts of St. John's Gospel omit the story, thus casting doubt on its very canonicity.

John Henry

Allen said...

Tobias,
You are do right. God's forgiveness, like God's grace, is unearned. And we are called to exhibit both forgiveness and grace towards others, without reservation.
You have been on a roll this past week.

Allen Mellen

Grandmère Mimi said...

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us....

Nothing there about forgiving only those who repent of their trespasses against us. As I read the Gospel, forgiveness is not optional.

Yes, this is hard. Yes, it turns the way of the world upside down, but forgiveness is a command from Our Lord. I don't see a way around it or a way to qualify it.

Nicholas not the Wonderworker said...

I think that it is harder to forgive others than it is to love them. Love only requires that I will another's good, and may not require any overt action on my part at all.

Forgiveness seems to me to require that I abandon a claim that I (perhaps rightfully) hold against another because of harm they have done to me or another. It is an attack on my love of self.

Praying that we should be forgiven in the measure that we forgive is only slightly behind "Your Kingdom come" in the list of things that we might not really like so much if our prayers were granted.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

i'm with you (as you know). this is one bit of a corner of disturbing evangelicalism that i have never understood.

it is, in fact, exactly what Martin Luther thought was wrong with catholicism: that it required you to know what you had done wrong and repent of it in order to be able to receive forgiveness. (of course, Luther got this wrong, alas: but his objection to it was right on target!)

Anne Kennedy said...

Tobias+,

I think perhaps we might want to make a distinction here. I agree with you in one context and disagree in another. Individual believers must always forgive with or without the offender's amendment.

However, when you broaden the context to the entire body, there are certain sins which can, as Paul says, spread like gangrene, that are harmful to the whole. These communion breaking-sins (and we see an example in 1 Cor 5 or 2nd John 11) certainly seem to require repentance before reconciliation.

This is not for any lack of charity on the part of the offended party, but for charity's sake...both the loving protection of the body and the loving confrontation and conviction of the one caught up in such a sin.

Example: say a husband is committing adultery, publicly taking a mistress. The wife remains in the parish and the next Sunday the husband brings the mistress and sits with her, while his wife and family sit elsewhere.

How do you handle this? Do you do nothing? Do you "forgive" without any redress and tell the wife to get over it. What does that say to the wife? What does that say to the congregation? What does that tell people who might be thinking of the same sort of behavior. Wouldn't letting this go simply introduce a horrible festering wound into the body?

Doesn't something like this call for discipline? While on the personal level, the wife and family may be counselled to forgive prior to repentance, can the church continue to commune this man prior to his repentance?

On one level, the personal, your position seems to be quite consistent with the NT, on the other, the public, it seems somewhat disastrous.

Matt

bruno said...

Tobias,
Thank you for this post.
I think this points to a position of placement. Master vs Servant. The master leads and sets the bar as it were, the master decides who is in or out, clean unclean, who is invited in, The servant on the other hand is just called to serve all who enter the masters domaine. The servant takes care of and protects the children of the master, regardles of their condition, without demanding aknowledgment of wrong doings or misdeeds. The servants reward comes from the master, not the guests of the master.

Allen said...

First "do right" should be "so right," but perhaps that's obvious.

Matt said "On one level, the personal, your position seems to be quite consistent with the NT, on the other, the public, it seems somewhat disastrous."

It seems to me that statements like Matt's show a conflation of two different things -- forgiveness on the one hand and discipline on the other.

I note that there was much the same conflation over at Jake's over the question of reconciliation.

Allen Mellen

Nicholas not the Wonderworker said...

Matt presents a very real problem whose solution may be found in a better understanding of what it means to forgive.

Most of what I have to say is cribbed from Miroslav Volf's book Free of Charge where he performs a close examination of the nature of forgiveness. Any clarity is certainly his, any incoherence is probably mine.

First, to forgive is not to ignore the offense or to act as if it never happened. Indeed, forgiveness requires first of all that we acknowledge and condemn the wrong that was done. As Volf says, "The heart of forgiveness is the generous release of a genuine debt." If we recognize no wrong, there is no need of forgiveness. The characteristic note of forgiveness is that we forgo the demand for retribution to which justice would entitle us.

It is easier to see the importance of this when we remember that forgiveness occurs in a relationship, it is both offered and received. It is in the reception of forgiveness by the one forgiven that repentance should occur.

Volf goes on to say: "Discipline for the sake of a wrongdoer's reform and the protection of the public is compatible with forgiveness. Discipline even for the sake of upholding the moral good assaulted by the offense is compatible with forgiveness. Retribution is not. Those who forgive will have a system of discipline, but retribution will not be a part of it. They ought to forgive rather than punish because God in Christ forgave. Christ is the end of retribution."

In the case that Matt cites, it seems to me that justice would allow the community to exile the adulterer, to cut him off from its life and to punish his behavior by refusing to have anything more to do with him. Instead, because the community forgives him, they can continue to deal with him (Matt's "loving confrontation") while making clear that he has offended his family and the entire community.

For the adulterer to accept forgiveness will require that he acknowledge and repent of his sin, an action which may ultimately lead through the community's discipline to reconciliation and acceptance of him as a full member of the community once more.

toujoursdan said...

Those who hold that "God forgives only those who repent of their sins" seem to base it on their reading of the story of Jesus and the woman who committed adultery, Jesus finally absolving her with the admonition: "Sin no more." Sadly, those referring to the story foget that most early manuscripts of St. John's Gospel omit the story, thus casting doubt on its very canonicity.


There is no evidence that the woman in the story was repentant or confessed anything. She is a completely silent player in the story. Jesus absolution was made without any confession on her part.

Anonymous said...

Good point, Toujoursdan!

John Henry

Nina said...

Forgiveness is necessary; we are called to it. We are also called to do justice. I have seen forgiveness urged as an alternative to justice, especially in cases when a predator was loose and still doing damage. This did not seem right to me.

Forgiveness and justice may not be linked in the way that your commenter described, but forgiveness should not be a cop-out used to avoid the work of justice.