Forgiven -- and Forgiving

Fall 2002
[original publication]

During the Second World War, Simon Wiesenthal, a Polish Jew imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, was suddenly brought to the bedside of a dying SS soldier. A year earlier, the soldier had participated in a massacre in which perhaps 200 Jews were herded into a three-story building along with some gasoline cans; then grenades were thrown into the building. As people fled or jumped from the burning building, this soldier and his comrades shot them. But now the soldier's actions—in particular his role in killing a mother, father, and small child—tormented him. He wanted to confess to a Jew in order that he could die in peace. As the soldier told the story, Wiesenthal recalled people he knew and loved whom the Nazis had exterminated. Although the man appeared to be truly repentant and asked for forgiveness, Wiesenthal left the room without offering a word: no word of forgiveness or understanding, no word that would let the murderer die in peace. Wiesenthal then asks whether his silence at the bedside of this dying, repentant Nazi was right or wrong. He reports that a fellow prisoner, a Christian, later argued that he should have offered the mercy of forgiveness. And he prods his reader to ask, "What would I have done?" (The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, rev. ed. [New York: Schocken, 1998]).

In the light of Wiesenthal's harrowing account, I want to raise two questions related to forgiveness. What moves Christians to forgive others? And what is the goal of forgiveness? I believe that, as those who have been forgiven by God, Christians face the formidable task of forgiving, and even being open to eventual reconciliation with, those who wrong them. I have come to this conclusion with real misgivings, knowing that many, like Wiesenthal, have been asked to forgive wrongs far more egregious than any I have forgiven.

Why Forgive?

Jesus' statements about forgiveness are some of the most challenging and difficult passages in the Bible. For example, he teaches his disciples to pray, "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matt. 6:12). If that is not strong enough, immediately afterwards he says, "if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matt. 6:15). And the Beatitudes teach that the merciful "will be shown mercy" (Matt. 5:7).

So Christians must forgive others, but what moves them to do so? What leads them down the painful, often lengthy path of forgiveness? Jesus' parable about the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:2335) suggests that, through their being forgiven by God, Christians become people who forgive. The parable involves a comparison between two situations, each of which involves a debt, a demand for payment, a plea for mercy, and a response to the plea. The key differences between the two situations are the size of the debt and the response by the creditor.

In the first situation, while settling accounts with his servants, a king called in one who owed an astonishing amount of money: 10,000 talents, or nearly 200,000 years' worth of wages. (For a full-time worker earning $25,000 per year, this would be close to $5 billion!) Jesus uses astronomically large numbers in order to make a spiritual point: we could never work our way out of our deep debt to God. Even now, when some corporate executives borrow millions of dollars from the companies under their care, imagining a wage earner who owes billions of dollars is shocking. According to the parable, the master ordered the man, his family, and his possessions to be sold to begin to repay the debt. But the debtor fell on his knees, pleaded for patience, and offered to pay back everything. Of course, a moment's reflection would reveal that no servant could ever repay nearly 200,000 years' worth of wages. Then, in the second amazing development in the parable, the servant got much more than he asked: not just patience and a repayment schedule, but complete forgiveness of the debt.

Jesus then describes a second situation in which the same servant found another servant who owed him 100 denarii, or about four months' worth of wages. In this scenario, as in the first, the creditor demanded payment and the debtor fell to his knees, asking for patience and offering to repay everything owed. Now this is not like meeting someone who owes us five dollars, to whom we can say, "Don't bother to repay me. Forget about it." If someone owed us the equivalent of four months' worth of income, we would notice. The point is not that forgiving someone costs us nothing; it costs more than we want it to. Yet despite the cost involved in forgiving someone else, we have been forgiven by God infinitely more than we are asked to forgive others.

Given the story up to this point, we expect the first servant to follow the example of the king and forgive the second servant's debt completely. Even a stingy response would set up a payment plan. But, in the third astonishing development in the parable, Jesus describes a response that would cause his audience to gasp. The first servant refused the request and had the debtor "thrown into prison until he could pay the debt." The other servants were so distressed by this turn of events that they reported it to the king, whose question to the first servant makes the crucial connection: "Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" In this parable, Jesus teaches that we should forgive others because God has forgiven us. And refusal to forgive others indicates ingratitude for—even a failure to have received—God's forgiveness. Even if others have hurt us deeply, their sin against us pales in comparison to our sin against God, which God has forgiven.

But how does this work in ordinary life? In a powerful passage exploring love and forgiveness in a troubled marriage, Stephen Carter's novel The Emperor of Ocean Park shows that seeing our need to be forgiven can move us to forgive another. Suspicious that his wife, Kimmer, is having an affair, the protagonist, Talcott Garland, seeks pastoral counseling, where he comes to see that both he and his wife have needed God's forgiveness and that her sins, no matter what they are, are different from his, but not necessarily worse (Stephen L. Carter, The Emperor of Ocean Park [New York: Knopf, 2002], ch. 25).

Through the wise intervention of his counselor, Talcott comes to see that God's forgiveness of him should move him to a loving, forgiving relationship with his wife.

Although God's forgiveness moves us to forgive, forgiving often comes slowly. When someone wrongs or hurts us, especially if the person was close or hurt us deeply, it usually takes time to overcome the anger and forgive the person. (On the flip side, when we hurt others, we need to realize that it probably will take time for them to forgive us.) But even though forgiveness may come slowly, those who have been forgiven by God will work toward forgiveness—if nothing else, praying that God will instill willingness to forgive. Rather than nursing grudges, they tell themselves that even this wrong needs to be forgiven. Although anger is an appropriate response to being wronged, eventually anger needs to be overcome by forgiveness.

The Goal of Forgiveness

The goal of forgiveness is reconciliation—with God and with the wrongdoer. First, forgiving a wrongdoer helps to heal the person who was wronged and to bring that person closer to God. When wronged, we respond to the injury with anger. If that anger is not washed away by forgiveness, it will turn to bitterness and eventually pull us away from God. When we refuse to forgive we become not only victims of the original wrong, but also spiritual victims of our own brooding anger and bitterness. Only forgiveness can heal and move us closer to God.

Second, forgiving someone involves committing ourselves, insofar as it is possible, to eventual reconciliation with the person who wronged us. Forgiving means willingness to enter a new, grace-filled relationship with the wrongdoer; it does not mean re-entering the same hurtful situation. It does not imply picking up where we were the day before things went wrong. So a victim of physical abuse who forgives, and is open to reconciliation with, her abuser may decide not to return to the dating or marriage relationship in which the abuse occurred. And sometimes, perhaps because the other person has died or continues to present a threat, the only realistic hope for reconciliation is on the other side of the grave.

When re-establishing a relationship with someone who has hurt us, much depends on whether the wrongdoer has repented. Although forgiving does not depend on repentance, reconciliation usually does. Someone who truly repents commits to being a new person, not the same old person who harmed us before. So, although re-entering a relationship with someone who has hurt us involves risk, we should expect that the person will behave differently this time around. In fact, one way to tell if someone has truly repented (instead of just saying some words) is to see whether his or her life has truly changed. When appropriate, we allow and then, especially if the person is also reconciled to God, hope for a relationship with that person that is as deep as—or perhaps even deeper than—the previous one. That is the goal of forgiveness.

In sum, just as persistent refusal to forgive others shows that we have not been forgiven by God, so too willingness to forgive—or at least to work toward forgiveness—is a good indication that God's forgiveness has taken root in us. Although forgiveness is never easy, Christians, as those who have been forgiven by God, forgive others and even hope for reconciliation, in Christ, with those who have harmed them. I laud those who have traveled the road of forgiveness and regard them as my teachers.

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