100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

#90: Is forgiveness always right?

One of the Christian virtues which I think people struggle with the most is forgiveness. Forgiving others is a command we are to obey; it is our duty to do it. When someone sins against us, and though we are hurt, we ought to forgive them. Let's first consider what this actually means. What does it mean to forgive someone?

What happens when someone sins against us is that the relationship between us and them is damaged. We no longer feel close to them. In fact, we usually feel like distancing ourselves from them. What forgiveness is really all about is restoring the broken relationship. We always want relationships restored because love, the essential nature of God, necessarily puts us in relationship with one another rather than separating us. To have the nature of God; that is, to truly be a loving person, we will not desire to be enemies with anybody. All people are equally worthy of being in relationship with. Forgiveness restores the relationship damaged by an offense. To forgive someone is to willingly suffer the "full force" of the offense, expecting no reparation from the offending party. We, in effect, provide the "reparation" ourselves. Whenever we're offended by someone, we always have this sense that there ought to be something done to make it up to us. When the restaurant gets our order wrong, we might expect free drinks, or when the neighbourhood kid breaks our window with a careless pitch, we expect his parents will help pay for it, or perhaps send their son over to do some gardening for us. When we forgive, that requirement for reparation doesn't actually go away. Rather, we suffer it ourselves.

What is "owed" for an offense depends on the magnitude of the offense. When someone murders a member of our family, we want the death penalty for them; and perhaps we feel even that isn't enough. But if someone drops a dinner plate of ours and it smashes, the recompense we expect is so small we are barely aware that there is a recompense that even ought to be paid for such an offense. But there is; we just find it so incredibly easy to absorb ourselves that when we forgive, it doesn't even feel like forgiveness has taken place. But we were able to forgive because absorbing that offense was very easy to do. It's when the penalty for an offense is beyond what we care to absorb that we have trouble forgiving.

There is, in any broken relationship, the offended and the offender. Forgiveness has to do with the offended party suffering the "full force" of the offense for the sake of the relationship. But even having done that, it takes two to mend a relationship. Offending someone else alienates me from the relationship as well as the person I offended. I may not be able to look that person in the eye again, knowing what I've done to them. Or worse, I might be pleased with what I've done to them. In other words I can either be repentant, or unrepentant. In both cases, the offended person can forgive. However, for the relationship to be restored, the offending party must also desire the forgiveness and the restoration of the relationship, being sorry for what they've done. When asking the question "Is forgiveness always right?" we might have it in mind that perhaps it is not right, or is not to be granted, to those who are unrepentant and don't want it. But I just want to help us to recognize, here, that forgiveness can be granted to those who don't want it. What they do with your forgiveness will either be good (they receive it) or bad (they reject it), but that is their choice.

Now if we consider God as the model for forgiveness, we see how God's forgiveness involved God, the offended party, suffering the full force of our offense Himself. Where breaking a plate requires little recompense, but murdering requires more than we can really pay; the recompense required for our offenses against God are infinitely beyond our ability to repay. Unless God, who is infinite, forgives us by suffering the reparation required Himself, there is no possibility for restoring the relationship between God and man. But suffer the full force of the offense is precisely what Christ did on the cross. Nevertheless, as we have seen, it takes two to mend a relationship, and this is why Christ calls us to repentance. Having been forgiven, we must still desire that relationship with God. This necessarily means repenting of our offense against Him, because unless we do, we essentially desire to perpetuate the brokenness of the relationship.

Understanding the degree to which Christ has forgiven us, and knowing that we ought to be imitators of Christ, we surely have an answer to the question "Is forgiveness always right?" It is always right, whether or not the offending party deserves it or wants it. Jesus told the following parable:

Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, 'Pay what you owe.' So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:21-35)

This parable helps to put into perspective how wrong it is when we choose not to forgive even the greatest offenses against us. In this parable the man owed ten thousand talents. It's worth noting that this amount is equivalent to several billion dollars. 100 denarii, on the other hand, which was the amount owed to the servant, is something like $1000. This is not a trivial amount; it does represent one of those offenses which we would find difficult to forgive. But even this amount, compared to the "billions" that Christ has forgiven us, ought to be forgiven. Unforgiveness is one of the most anti-Christian states of the heart one can have, because forgiveness is the chief purpose of Christ's work on the cross and the quintessential way in which He demonstrates His love.

Until tomorrow...

And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses." (Mark 11:25)

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