Forgiveness: How Far is Too Far?

I recently found myself wrestling with God over something:  how to forgive someone who wasn’t sorry.

As soon as I figured out what it was that I was having trouble doing – letting go of my anger and resentment over what was not understood or not repented of or at any rate not apologized for by the other party, I remembered that as a Christian, doing this was not supposed to be a problem.  After all, we are all about forgiveness, right?  For an “experienced” Christian, shouldn’t forgiveness be trivial – from a theoretical standpoint at least?  Unfortunately, no one ever attained salvation by looking at the spiritual life from a “theoretical standpoint.”

The way that I usually define forgiveness is this:  willingness to reenter relationship of love and communion with someone who you feel has wronged you.  It is possible, therefore, to forgive someone even when they hate your guts and refuse to reenter the relationship.  Not only that, but you get to pat yourself on the back for being a good Christian whereas that other deadbeat, poor stuck-up fool that he is, is the reason why the two of you can’t be friends.  Clearly, we are in very dangerous territory when this kind of mentality arises!

The problem is that even though we tried our best to forgive that other person, the other person let us down – right?  It’s the other guy’s fault!  I did my best!  I forgave him and he threw it back in my face!

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall 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.”

Mt 18:21-22

So Jesus says, Tough luck.  Jesus says, as usual, stop being self-righteous.

But we have to draw the line somewhere, right?  What about that 491st time?  Or what about even the first time, when the other person doesn’t even acknowledge the wrong?

We tend to strive for “justice tempered with mercy” – or if we are extra good people, “mercy tempered with justice” so we get a little bit more mercy thrown in there from our generous hearts.  Only it doesn’t work like that.  “Oh, I really deep down want to forgive you, but I do have my standards.  I have to temper mercy with justice.  Hey, I don’t make the rules; I just enforce ’em.”  Wrong!  Mercy doesn’t get tempered by anything – it just is, or it isn’t.

Now here is the tricky thing.  The goal of forgiveness is not to pat ourselves on the back (which almost always turns out to mean “being a hypocrite” – see above); the goal is love and communion, as we said before.  But sometimes the other person doesn’t want communion, or – to be more precise – doesn’t want the kind of communion we are prepared to offer, or refuses to meet the terms under which we choose to offer it.

Raggedy Ann & AndyWhen I was a little kid, my mom used to read to me all the time.  One of our picture books featured Raggedy Andy, an immature yet strangely identifiable and fun-loving toy who spent most of the book gaily terrorizing the other toys with a series of ingenious (read: “annoying”) practical jokes.  His Pandora’s box of tricks left all of the other toys feeling very upset with him indeed, and they finally had to stage something like an intervention.  If memory serves, they got a little bit of playful revenge on poor Andy, who then sheepishly admitted, “It’s not so much fun when the joke’s on me.”  The other toys helped him to use this as a learning experience from which to gain an understanding of empathy, and for a moment Andy was racked with guilt over the way he had been traumatizing the other toys in the attic.  On the last page, the Camel (who bears a striking resemblance to Eeyore) says, “We forgive you, Andy, but on one condition…”  To which Andy says, “I know, I know – no more practical jokes!”  THE END.

At which point my mom – the Christian Censorship Review Board – would come in with her PG (Parental Guidance) and say, “But that’s not really how we forgive people, right?”  What do you mean, mom?  “God wants us to forgive our neighbor even if they are mean to us again later.  It doesn’t mean we put conditions on our forgiveness; it just means we might have to forgive them again.”

My mom is a shrewd lady.

It’s funny how the things you learn when you’re six have a way of coming back to you further down the road.  When I was six, I was pretty sure that my mom was an impeccable moral theologian and could not deny the Gospel logic of her bedtime story appendices; yet it wasn’t until I was sitting in Church this week arguing with God over Peter’s question – how far is too far to go in forgiving someone – that I realized how applicable that lesson still was to me as an adult.  I realized suddenly that I put conditions on my forgiveness all the time.  Or perhaps more precisely, I attach conditions to my forgiveness:  “I want to have a relationship with you if you can admit you were wrong.”  “I’ll talk to you when you apologize and can act like a regular, friendly human being.”  It’s not like I’m holding a grudge; I’m just being consistent by holding this person to the ground rules that I have for all my relationships.

Only, sometimes I am holding a grudge.

Only, Jesus doesn’t want me to have ground-rules for relationships – at least, not when the decision to love is at stake.  Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean staying in a chronically abusive relationship; we need to take care of ourselves, because God loves us and doesn’t want us needlessly throwing ourselves into harm’s way.  It does mean, though, that we need to take full advantage of the freedom which comes from humility – that crucial and elusive virtue – to love others even when self-interest says that we shouldn’t.  While we should always take care to provide ourselves with a reasonable amount of physical, emotional, and spiritual safety, at the end of the day our primary concern must be not our own good, but the good of others.  In terms of forgiveness, that means forgiving others – and actually reentering relationship with them – even if our terms have not been met.  “No more practical jokes” might be a great idea, but it should not be the condition on which the camel forgives Raggedy Andy.  That forgiveness has to come first, without knowledge of whether trust will be broken again.

Does forgiving someone mean you have to then trust that person?  Maybe this question is at the heart of our tendency to want to attach rules and stipulations to our forgiveness.  It’s a good question.  Clearly, it is hard to develop much of a relationship with someone unless there is trust involved, and we have defined forgiveness in terms of rebuilding a relationship.  I think the answer is that trust requires time to develop, just as an injured relationship requires time to heal, but that forgiveness paves the way for both to grow.

But to sum up what we have discussed in an image, it seems that true forgiveness means not only paving the way for – building a road toward – mutual love, but actually setting out on it.  It takes two to tango, but one person has to lead.  It does no good to say, “home is this way; after you!”  No, if we are acting in good faith by forgiving the other person then we must be the one to step beyond our comfort zone – knowing full well that yes, we are likely to get injured again – and trust that God, not our own rules or rationales, will sustain us.  At the end of the day, the question is usually not so much whether we are ready to trust the other person, as whether we are ready to trust God.  We are not the ones who ultimately provide for our well-being; he is.  Unfortunately, even with the best intentions on both sides, any relationship between two people is going to include as much heartache as it has true intimacy; we can try our best and still find ways to hurt each other.  But that’s why love is a decision – not a feeling – and not one that we make alone.  We love, because God loves us first. (1 Jn 4)  Frankly, it is supposed to hurt; it is not supposed to be safe.  But when we do trust in God enough to show his love to a person in need, we have brought Christ into the world and have made the life of another person a bit more good, a bit more beautiful.  The kingdom of God is made of soldiers, and we have to be brave.  Love, not safety – greatness, not comfort, is our goal.

The next time you want to know how far is too far in forgiveness, look at a crucifix.  Meditate on Christ’s passion, and ask him – how far was too far, to forgive me?

Christ Crucified, Diego Velazquez

Christ Crucified, Diego Velazquez, ca. 1631

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