On Forgiveness

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

Just a heads up – this is a bit longer of a post than normal

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15)

These words of Jesus Christ are haunting ones. Here we learn that divine forgiveness is not unconditional. For me, as I read them, a sneaking anxiety compels me to look over my life – to inquire whether there are any grudges I am holding onto. Or perhaps I have forgotten to forgive someone, having moved on emotionally, and that unforgiveness sits deep under the sediment of my psyche like a long buried and forgotten city. Am I competent and diligent enough to dig through to these hidden places, secret to myself though always present to the Divine Eye before whom the entire work of my life stands bare? What even is forgiveness? Do I know how to forgive? How do I forgive those who have not asked for it? Who have no desire to be forgiven? Those who show no signs of remorse or repentance for what they’ve done to me?

These questions do not have their source in a pathological scrupulosity, like Luther’s neurotic, hours-long visits to the confessional. No, it’s the simple claim of the Messiah that our salvation, our forgiveness before God, is dependent upon our own forgiveness of others. Here the divine and the human acts intersect.

It’s not as if I don’t know anything about forgiveness. I’ve forgiven before, been forgiven, learned paradigms of forgiveness in university, been encouraged to forgive in sermons, and even preached on forgiveness once (it was an alright start at preaching but left much to be desired). But for a condition that stands as the crux of my own forgiveness by the All-Knowing Judge, I’ve never felt like I have had it figured out enough for comfort.

However, I was recently reading Oliver O’Donovan’s Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology, and he has a wonderful little section on forgiveness that allowed me to finally peer at its roots and come closer to understanding it for what it fundamentally is. His discussion is pretty dense, but I think this passage gets at it most pointedly:

“And when we are effective lords of creation no longer?…Then we can only ask God for the greater miracle of a new newness and an new oldness – a new possibility of initiative which restores and renews the relation to the past as well as the future. That is what is articulated in the prayer, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive’” (42).

Your past is that part of you that is written. In a significant way, to understand who you are up to this point is to look at your past actions. Although your relationship to your past self may be complicated, it is something you are inescapably chained to. You can’t unwrite your past, this you-thus-far.

But you are also not yet fully written, and everything you are so far may have its meaning completely changed in light of who you are to be. This is what Søren Kierkegaard meant when he said that “Life can only be understood by looking backward.” Current successes and ambitions may come to be seen as auspicious or tragic depending on where life ends up. A state of personal abject failure is capable of becoming a story of the power of redemption or a cautionary tale. Even though your past has been irreversibly carved into stone, its meaning can be changed for better or worse by who you yet come to be.

Your very human conundrum, however, is that in your understanding of yourself and of the people around you, you are bound to the past. The future is potential. The past is actual, and therefore only the past can be known. (Perhaps the present may be known as well but in its own way.) Though in a year’s time the homeless man spewing insanities on the curb may well have begun to turn his life around, he cannot yet be known as one who has turned his life around. He must be known as what he now is and has been.

Based on how we know someone to be, we make judgments about how to treat them. And often our judgments confirm them and bind them to who they have been so far. We treat those who have stolen as though they are liable to steal from us, we treat those who have lied as though they are likely to lie to us, we treat those who have been violent as though they are likely to violate us.

And perhaps those judgments are well and good as they are. Of course, we have to be able to know and judge the world as it is and has been in order to know how to live and act in it. The future must  follow out of the past. If we treated liars like honest people, or believed naively that thieves would respect our property, the world would fall apart.

But it’s all too easy to read people’s past and project their future for them, to bind them and hold them to their past. She hurt me, and therefore I should treat her as a person who will hurt me. He lied to me, and therefore I must treat him as a person who will lie to me. In a purely Newtonian world, where all we are concerned with is efficient causes and God has been bracketed out of the picture, maybe this is correct. An object set in motion will continue unabated until acted upon by another force. A liar will continue lying until an opposing force sets him in a different direction. And in a world of random, meaningless motion with no ultimate direction, one should perhaps be skeptical that the out of the grand fog of meaninglessness the right power will come along to change people for the better. (Although even the words “right” and “better” have little meaning in such a world.) Random chance may turn a liar into an honest person, but random chance is not something we should rely upon in our day-to-day calculations.

But for a person of faith, the world is not merely a world of random chance. Whatever the mathematical laws of motion may be, there is One behind, above, in, and through all things: this Father Jesus speaks about. He is Life and Love, and rather than creating a world of merely random, purposeless motion, he has created a world with an end goal and purpose in mind: to be fulfilled, glorified, and pervaded by him. And in light of our current failures and shortcomings, his means of getting us there is through redemption, which he desires and offers to all people.

What this means is that a person of faith cannot merely bind others to their past. If you have come to know the God Who is vibrant, overflowing Life, Whose Spirit breaks through into our lives, turns them upside down, and draws us in new directions, upwards into redemption, then you must learn to treat people as though their future is open to that possibility. In fact, you must do more than that. You must pray for it to happen to them, fervently desire it, trust that the Spirit is already at work in their lives and drawing them upwards.

And this is where forgiveness comes in. Forgiveness is at its root belief in the Spirit of God who delivers the work of Jesus Christ into the world. Subjectively, it is a posturing of yourself towards others in a way that does not bind them to their past but rather holds open to them the potential of this redeeming Spirit. It is to envisage and hope for God’s Spirit to fulfill the work of Jesus Christ in someone’s life, to give them “a new newness and a new oldness,” which means to lead them into a future of redemption that redefines and resignifies their past, making it part of a story of salvation that leads ever upwards into the heart and life of God himself. 

This is why our ability to forgive is directly connected with God’s forgiveness of ourselves. At best the lack of forgiveness is a lack of faith in God. It is a form of disbelief in the nature of the Messiah’s work and its continued actualization by the Messiah’s Spirit. At worst, it is the rebellion of a heart that desires to close off the world to the liberating work and presence of God. To put it bluntly, to fail to forgive others is to deny that God himself is the forgiving, redeeming God. And how can you receive forgiveness from God at the same time that you deny that he is just this forgiveness and redemption?

This then is why we must forgive in order to be forgiven. Forgiveness of others is faithful trust in the work of Jesus and the Divine Spirit that completes the Messiah’s work in the world. Of course, this Spirit is exceedingly patient. Just as you must come to believe that he is always already at work in the lives of others to help them see a future they cannot yet see, you can rest assured that he is at work in yourself, patiently, lovingly, drawing you somewhere new, into a new newness and new oldness where you truly can forgive, seeing yourself and everyone else, not by the flesh, but by faith in the blessed Divine Spirit. Yes, Jesus commands you to forgive, but in the very command is the most sure promise that his Spirit will bring you there, forgiving and being forgiven.

Author: Tyler F Nunley

My thoughts on God, the world, and the Bible

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: