July 17, 2012

What does it mean to forgive another person?

A word about forgiveness, which is the grace to start over. We are sinners and the consequences of our sinning spread like blood in the water. Inevitably we experience its painful effects in our relationships. Whenever we hurt someone else we try to rationalize our actions and make excuses for what happened. When others hurt us we want revenge and if we give into that desire for revenge a vicious cycle of violence develops. Perhaps you have watched one of these movies like the Godfather where Mafia families destroy each other this way. We know there are tribes in different parts of the world that have annihilated themselves in this way, but it really goes beyond the Mafia and certain tribal cultures. It is actually the story of us all.

And this is where forgiveness, the response Jesus modeled, must enter the picture. Forgiveness releases the guilty person, releases the culprit, in such a way that the cycle can stop. It is the blessed grace of a new relational start. It provides an opportunity to put a negative series of events into reverse, to back up and start over again in the right direction. We have been taught to pray—Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. Forgive, Jesus urges, just as I have forgiven you. We have to keep in mind that forgiveness is not something easily or instantly achieved, it is a slow and painful process that must be sustained with great discipline and determination over long periods of time. Jesus Christ made our willingness to forgive others a prerequisite to experiencing his forgiving grace in our own lives. Surely, he considers acceptable anyone’s sincere intent and desire to fully forgive even though a long journey may lie still between them and complete victory.

Yet despite how central forgiveness is in the Christian faith, there is a lot of confusion about what it really means to forgive another person. Today two definitions compete. Let’s call the first one the therapeutic one. It recognizes the healing benefits to a victim of forgiving the perpetrator, or the wrong doing person, in the sense of finally letting it go. Therapeutic forgiving involves relinquishing all claims to future pay back or compensation. The essential thing is that the victim finally be freed to get on with their lives and to move on.

Now the other understanding is restorative forgiveness and this, I think, comes closest to the Christian ideal. It aims beyond the healing of a victim to the rebuilding of relational harmony between the estranged parties. Certain conditions must be met, of course, before this goal can be fully realized and no party can just by themselves create all these necessary conditions. As a result of all this full restoration of relationship is not always possible. Still it remains the ideal toward which the initial act of forgiveness aims. Its hope is that the conditions for full trust can somehow be restored. No one can come to God and remain detached from other Christians. The New Testament is very clear on this. We were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body says 1 Corinthians 12:13. Spirit baptism initiates us into both the saving work of Christ and the community of faith. There is only one baptism and this is how it works. It is an initiation into both vertical and horizontal relational realities.