Forgiveness: Unjust and Illogical?
The idea of “forgiveness” has a bad reputation. Oppressors can twist the Christian faith’s insistence on forgiveness in order to argue that they are entitled to free absolution from their crimes. Sometimes, the expectation for people to extend forgiveness is used to manipulate victims into remaining in cycles of abuse. If systemically abused, it can erase the hope that any oppressor will ever receive their just desserts. Alexander Pope’s assertion that forgiveness is “divine” may look nice on paper, but, in reality, the practice of forgiveness often looks more like the antithesis of fairness.
The Bible is replete with statements of the beauty and blessing of forgiveness, but the Christian God is also supposed to be fundamentally just, upholding justice in the world and requiring us to do the same. How, then, do we address the seeming injustice in forgiveness? Is forgiveness inherently a legitimization of wrong?
Before we critique forgiveness, we must define the term. It is nicely encapsulated in the definition: “to overlook an offense; to treat an offender as not guilty.” In other words, forgiveness is a complete erasure of the social, criminal, and moral debt accrued by an offense. This sort of total forgiveness may be easy to extend when we are merely inconvenienced by the small or accidental faults of others. But what about deliberate offenses that wound us deeply? What about life-wrecking, historically-ingrained, or perpetual offenses? Surely it is naïve to think, or even expect, that anyone can just erase those debts from their minds. At best, such forgiveness is unrealistic. At worst, it is deeply unjust.
To be clear, the Bible fully affirms that it is unjust to simply turn a blind eye to any wrongdoing. This is true of both offenses committed against God and offenses committed against people, who are created in God’s image. Both types of offense, referred to as “sin”, incur an infinite debt against God himself. The Bible makes it clear that everyone’s debt must—and will—eventually be paid.
If I am honest with myself, I am not excused from this debt, either. It may be easy for me to say, “Look, I have never hurt someone in the way I have been hurt by others,” but upon examining myself before God, I see that that is simply untrue. All sin, at its heart, is a rejection of God, and since God’s nature is completely perfect, even my smallest evil thought against him is sinful. So are the offenses that I commit against humanity, which He created in His image. I choose to put myself above God and others almost continually, and therefore the debt I owe is infinite. In fact, Jesus likens my state to a servant who owes a debt that would take more than 150,000 years of wages to repay (Matthew 18:24). There’s no way that one person could work for that amount of time. How can I ever repay this debt on my own?
The good news is that someone else has repaid my debt for me: God came to earth as the man Jesus Christ, who committed no sin and lived the fully righteous life that I could not live. While on earth, He gave up His life to pay for every inch of my sin-debt, and to transform me completely, so that I can love both Him and other people properly. This bailout that is offered to all who would believe in Him cuts at the heart of forgiveness. The extravagant mercy God extends to us reveals that, yes, forgiveness is deeply unfair from our human lens. God’s forgiveness of us is premised on an innocent man dying in exchange for my death, and my being called righteous in exchange for His perfect righteousness. It is because God Himself first committed this beautiful unfairness in forgiving me undeservedly that I can pass it on to others, and forgive them undeservedly. If God has forgiven the lifetime’s worth of debt that I owe to Him, how can I not forgive the comparatively miniscule debt that others owe me?
It is because I am forgiven of so much through the death and resurrection of Christ that I can forgive others. I have been made free to model His grace, therefore I am able to do so joyfully to those who have hurt me.
Forgiven, I can also forgive without fear of justice going unmeted towards any offense committed against me. This is because Christians live in the hope that either Christ has fully paid for every crime on the offender’s behalf—just as He has for me—or that the unbelieving offender will eventually face due punishment for it at the hands of God Himself. Extending mercy does not mean that we have to act like genuinely painful events are magically forgettable. Minimizing a fault functionally denies the redeeming power of the cross because Christ, in His death, dealt with our sins according to their ugliest reality. As I forgive, God’s perfect mercy and justice ensure that not one crime remains forgotten. There is no injustice in that.
In the Bible one sees this fulfilled in Joseph. After being sold into slavery by his brothers, sexually harassed, maligned, and wrongfully imprisoned, he had to choose whether or not to forgive his family for their crimes. He forgave them, acknowledging that what they meant for evil, “God meant for good.” In forgiving his brothers, Joseph did not minimize their sin. Instead, he acknowledged their actions exactly as they were—evil. Even so, he trusted that God could work through those actions to accomplish good things, and he absolved his family completely.
Joseph’s attitude also reveals another important aspect of forgiveness: honesty. Healthy forgiveness requires loving confrontation. Jesus tells us to confront one another when faced with personal offense, first on an individual level and then in community. Silent suffering is not God’s design for His people; honesty in love is. Confrontation is not an end in itself, causing division for division’s sake. Instead, because of Christ’s sacrifice and His empowering us to forgive, confrontation is inherently loving, productive, and aimed at communal restoration and growth. Of course, on the other side of healthy forgiveness is active repentance. As much as we are called to extend forbearance to others, we are called to seek it out, too, and to make restitution if we have wronged someone.
Many times, the process of confrontation, forgiveness, and repentance is not easy. In fact, outside of Christ, I would argue that it is illogical, simply because it looks so antithetical to reciprocal justice. In Christ, however, forgiveness is never a legitimizing of wrong, but a restoration of right. It is a practice made both possible and indispensable for those who have been set free from their offenses towards God, in order to extend His mercy to others.
1 Matthew 6:14-15 (New American Standard Bible, and hereafter)
2 Isaiah 61:8
3 Matthew 22:39
4 Genesis 50:20
5 Matthew 17:15-17
Article written by Tori Campbell, MC ’16, English.Tags: Alexander Pope, beauty, forgiveness, grace, injustice, joy, justice, mercy, resurrection