Who Trespass Against Us
How do we forgive others? I have learned from Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral theology at Oxford, to recognize that forgiveness has two parts.
The first is compassion toward the person who has sinned against us. What is this compassion? It involves a recognition of fellow-humanity, that none of us is perfect, 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’s a willingness to cut others some slack.
Biggar says we can realize that we ourselves 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).
Compassion is not a denial that a wrong has been committed against us. It is not sweeping wrong-doing under a rug. And (if the sin is a crime) it is most decidedly not an avoidance of facing the legal consequences of the action.
It is important to see that compassion is one-sided. We can have compassion for, and offer compassion to, anyone who has sinned against us—they do not need to be sorry or repentant or anything else. Compassion is entirely within our control. It is a “letting-go” from our side, a certain humility that does not keep score and is not going to allow this sin to be determinative of our own future. It’s a willingness to be reconciled, should that turn out to be possible.
But compassion is only half of forgiveness. The other half is absolution. Unlike compassion, absolution requires that the sinner repent and be willing to atone for her sin. It is, Biggar writes, “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).
To be real, absolution must not be given unconditionally; real absolution is contingent on the offender’s sorrowful recognition. There are three parts to this. The first is the owning up to the fact that it was a fault that was committed, not just a mistake, not just something for which one might say “I’m sorry it bothered you, what I did.” No: there must be acknowledgment that what has happened was truly wrong.
Second, there must be 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.
When someone who offends us is truly repentant, can we withhold absolution? Not and be a follower of Jesus. There may be cautions we need to take—if we see the other person’s past thievery came from an ingrained compulsiveness, for instance, we will rightly lock up the silver before he visits. But we cannot withhold forgiveness, when it is truly sought.
And we can never withhold the first part of forgiveness, the compassion that is always at hand in our recognition of fellow fallen-humanity.
Or: if we do withhold, we need to pray the Lord’s prayer again, because that very withholding is itself a trespass.
Out & About. I am to preach at All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City on Sunday, Nov. 3 (at 8 and 10 a.m.), and to teach classes on Ruth and “Christian anthropology” over the ensuing three days. The Ruth classes will be at noon, the “What’s the Good of Humanity?” talks will be at 6 p.m., and each one will last one hour. If you’re in Oklahoma City, it would be good to see you.
The next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will be on The Warden by Anthony Trollope, the first of his Barchester chronicles. Trollope is a delight and funny and sometimes painfully sharp. In Dallas, at Church of the Incarnation, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17. If you read the book you’re welcome to the conversation.