We practice forgiveness because it is the way to share in the very life of God.
David Brooks, a columnist for the “New York Times,” recently wrote:
“James McNulty had a paper in the Journal of Family Psychology last year suggesting that forgiveness has a down side. It may increase the chances that those who are forgiven will offend again. McNulty studied family diaries and found that newlywed partners were more likely to report misbehavior on days after they were forgiven for something else. It should be added that forgiveness is still a good thing to do. The downside probably doesn’t outweigh the positive effects.”
I have enormous respect for David Brooks. I just finished reading his most recent book, “The Social Animal,” and found it compelling. But I find in what he wrote above a paltry understanding of forgiveness, at least as we have it incarnated for us in Jesus. I agree that an immature reaction to being forgiven may give a person apparent license to misbehave again. Human beings do silly, immature things (I know, like you: I am one of us).
But I would argue that the person who weighs forgiveness in advance does not fully comprehend love or the depths of what forgiveness means. Forgiveness, as it is lived in Christian discipleship, becomes unintelligible if we first weigh its “downside” or “upside” before forgiving. If we stop to calculate its “positive” or “negative” effects, then we miss the whole point of why Jesus makes it plain that forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel (“And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”). We do not forgive because it “works” or because it has a greater “upside” than “downside.” We practice it, quite simply, because it is the way God has given us to share in the very life of God.
And another thing: whether or not the other person is remorseful is equally beside the point. That can be a hope we hold, but it is not a necessary condition for forgiveness. Practicing forgiveness is about us, and our relationship with God, not about the transgressor. And it is not an optional add-on to discipleship. Yes, other people can hurt us deeply. And yes, that hurt can be so painful it lasts for years. And yet, Jesus takes all the subjectivity out of it when he very clearly commands us to forgive one another.
I’m not making light of the pain we suffer as a result of another person’s sin against us. Sometimes it seems bone-shattering. And I’m certainly not suggesting that forgiveness is easy or quickly accomplished. Often it is a process that takes a very long time. Still, it is central to our identity as disciples of Jesus and to our practice of the Christian faith. As St Paul wrote to the Romans: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” God did not take a poll ahead of time to see if we would be remorseful or thankful if Jesus died for us. God just did it. Forgiveness is God’s nature. It’s who God is in Jesus Christ, without qualification or condition. And it is who we are commanded to be in Jesus as well.
Scott Benhase is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia.