The Two Parts of Forgiveness
What makes forgiveness an ethical issue? The Lord’s Prayer asserts the connection when we ask God to forgive us “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In this prayer, Jesus claims God’s forgiveness of us is somehow connected with our forgiveness of others: “. . . as we forgive . . .” So forgiveness is to make a change in our behavior, in our human practices. But this assertion in the Lord’s Prayer does not explain the connection. What are the ethics of forgiveness?
Let’s start with a distinction that Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral theology at Oxford, has made in various contexts. A complete act of forgiveness, Biggar says, has two aspects: compassion and absolution.
Forgiveness starts with compassion toward the person who has sinned against us. Recognizing that the person who has harmed us is a fellow human being, we remember that none of us is perfect and we ponder that there may be things in the life of the person who has harmed me that I don’t know about and that have played into her action . . . and so forth. It is, as we say, a willingness to cut others some slack.
I remember reading in a story by Tolstoy (the rest of the story I have long forgotten) the protestation of a character that, although everyone thought he was a good person, there was no evil deed beyond his doing. He had never murdered nor robbed nor committed adultery, but he knew, given the right circumstances, he could have done any of them. Biggar says similarly that each of us can realize we are “no stranger to the psychic powers that drive human beings to abuse each other; that some individuals . . . are less well equipped than others to resist common pressures; and that some are fated to find themselves trapped in situations where only an extraordinary moral heroism could save them from doing terrible evil” (from his book In Defence of War, p. 63).
To have compassion is emphatically not to deny that a wrong has been committed. Compassion does not sweep wrong-doing under the proverbial rug. Indeed, if the sin is a crime, compassion does not foreclose facing legal consequences. You can have compassion on people at the same time as you believe they need to face the law.
Nonetheless, compassion precedes all consequences. It is one-sided. It is entirely within the hands of those who have suffered harm at the hands of others. We can have compassion for, and offer compassion to, anyone who has sinned against us—the offender does not need to be sorry or repentant or anything else. Compassion thus is a “letting-go” from our side, a certain humility that decides not keep score and will not allow this sin to be determinative of our own future.
This first step of forgiveness, compassion, is our willingness to be reconciled, should that turn out to be possible.
The second half of forgiveness is absolution. Unlike compassion, absolution requires that sinners repent and be willing to atone for the sin that has been done. When the sinner does repent and is willing to repair, then the victim is able, and should not withhold, absolution. This, Biggar writes, is “the moment when . . . the victim addresses the perpetrator and says, ‘I forgive you. The trust that was broken is now restored. Our future will no longer be haunted by our past’ ” (p. 66).
Real absolution is contingent on the offender’s sorrowful recognition. There are three parts to this. First, the offender must own that it was a fault that was committed, not just a mistake, not just “I’m sorry it bothered you, what I did.” No: there must be acknowledgment that what has happened was truly wrong.
Second, ownership: the offender must see that the wrong is something for which the offender is responsible. It will not do to say, “Yes, that was wrong, but it wasn’t my fault.”
And third, there must be sorrow. One might say, “I know it was wrong, and I know I’m responsible, but I don’t care.” That’s not enough.
But when an offender (1) acknowledges that a fault has been committed, and (2) takes responsibility for it, and (3) has sorrow, that is enough. Now absolution can occur. And it is the moral responsibility of the victim to move forward and grant it, to complete the process of forgiveness.
Forgiveness, one sees, is a complex matter that requires discernment, a certain openness, a steadiness in truthful naming, a process over time, and more. It truly is a matter of ethics, of moral growth and virtue. This complexity, I have found, is pastorally helpful.
I have known parishioners who felt guilty because, they said, they could not forgive someone who had abused them. But when I inquired I would find out that the wrong-doer never asked for forgiveness, never repented. In such a case, complete forgiveness is not humanly possible: absolution requires repentance. They needn’t feel guilt, I would say, although the situation is certainly one of sorrow.
Sometimes they are surprised to hear this. “I thought Christians were supposed to forgive everyone.” Then we can explore the two parts of forgiveness, the distinction between compassion and absolution. Even though absolution is impossible in this case, it is possible to work on one’s compassion?
I know a priest who takes this further. Given the brokenness of our world and the egregiousness of the sin that was done to you (he might say), you don’t have to offer forgiveness. What if your offender came to you with full repentance? Would you be able to forgive him? Maybe not, he would say, and maybe in this broken world you don’t have to. “But in that case,” this priest asks, “would it be okay with you . . . if God forgave him?”
Such are the realities that show the moral task of forgiveness in this life. When the kingdom comes, all offences are overcome: acknowledged and forgiven in full, not only by God but by the fellowship of compassionate former sinners who are that kingdom’s citizens, people who used to pray from their heart (but no longer need to) that their sins would be forgiven even as they forgave the sins of others.
Out & About & on the Web.
Sunday, March 21, I am to preach at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas at the traditional services, 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m. The last of the three will also be on F-book live.
My lecture from last Sunday, “The Long Game of Friendship,” is on-line: https://www.facebook.com/IncarnationDFW/videos/1113757979103582
Friendship: The Heart of Being Human, is a finalist for the Foreword Indie book award in religion: https://www.forewordreviews.com/awards/books/friendship-9781540960849/