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franciscan - January 1999

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998

The Morality of Forgiveness

by John Macquarrie

Like so many of the words that we use in talking about the moral and spiritual life of human beings, ‘forgiveness’ is hard to define. In this short article, we are inquiring about the morality of forgiveness. Is it always right to forgive, or do we have to see forgiveness in relation to a whole range of related ideas, such as justice, guilt, mercy, love, punishment, all of them just as difficult to define as forgiveness itself? Instead of beginning with trying to frame abstract definitions, let us start from a concrete story of forgiveness, Jesus’ own parable of the prodigal son.

Here we see forgiveness stripped down to its essence. On the surface, at least, it all seems very simple. A young man obtains from his father his share of the family fortune and proceeds to squander it in irresponsible and self-indulgent living. Before long he is destitute, and acknowledges to himself the folly and even wickedness of his ways. What can he do now? He resolves to go back to his father. He rehearses a little speech he has made up: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.’ So he goes to his father. But even before he can complete his little speech, the father has seized the initiative, has run to meet his son, has kissed him and welcomed him home.

The father doesn’t ask any questions, he doesn’t make any conditions, he doesn’t make a speech showing how foolish the son had been, he doesn’t even say, ‘Don’t do anything like this again.’ Instead, he gives orders to the servants to prepare a welcome home party.

Now contrast the simplicity and straight-forwardness of our Lord’s parable with the complicated and even tortuous ‘doctrines of atonement’ thought up by eminent theologians. Anselm taught that if God’s honour had been violated, then there must be some act of reparation before God could forgive the sinner. Calvin felt that someone deserved to be punished, so if the sinner was to be let off, Christ must be punished in his place.

I think we can understand the motives that led theologians to invent such un-Biblical and, indeed, un-Christian doctrines. Forgiveness is not something that can be granted lightly, as if the whole affair were of little consequence. True forgiveness is always costly. Damage has been done. Someone has suffered an injury, it might be a physical injury, or just as likely an injury to the soul . . . ingratitude, the rejection or betrayal of love, angry words that rankle in the mind. The person who is determined to forgive has to swallow a bitter pill and remain steadfast in his love, even when it has been spurned. And what is perhaps a still greater demand is that he must bring himself to forgive many times when the offence is repeated . . . perhaps ‘seventy times seven.’

But something too is demanded of the person who is forgiven. The young man in the parable came to the point where he acknowledged his guilt, first to himself and then to his father. Forgiveness involves two parties, the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. What is required of the one who is forgiven is acknowledgement of the wrong that has been done and a genuine repentance. We say that God’s forgiveness is free, and so it is, for he runs to meet us before we have said a word. As Enda McDonagh well expressed it, the Bible is the history of a forgiving God in search of a repentant people. The initiative is always with God, but God treats us as responsible beings, never as things. He does not manipulate us, but treats us as free persons.

The place of penitence in forgiveness is given considerable prominence in The Book of Common Prayer. Wherever there is an offer of forgiveness or a prayer of absolution, the demand for penitence is brought in. ‘Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins . . . Draw near with faith’; ‘(God) hath given power and commandment unto his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins’; ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences.’

God’s forgiveness is, of course, unique and very different from ours. His very nature is love and his aim in creation, we venture to believe, is to bring into being a kingdom in which all the members will be united both to him and among themselves in a great community of love. Wherever a breach appears in the fabric, God is eager to repair it. But this does not mean that his forgiveness costs him nothing, or that it is merely automatic. A cynical German poet once wrote that God’s business is forgiving, suggesting that it is all a matter of course with him. But that is certainly not how the Bible represents it. There God, through his incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, paid the price in an incomparable act of self-giving. If we are tempted to think that forgiveness is easy for God, we deserve to hear the rebuke which Anselm gave: ‘ You have not yet considered the gravity of sin.’

But when we return to consider forgiveness on the human level, we have at once to recognize that though it is God’s nature to love and to forgive, that is not true of human nature. We know that even in family circles sins go unforgiven and grievances are nursed, sometimes for years. When we think of larger groups of people, the scene is even more depressing. When we think of Protestants and Catholics in Ireland or of Arabs and Israelis in Palestine or of blacks and whites in the United States, we wonder if there will ever be reconciliation. Individuals do from time to time speak words expressive of sorrow for past wrongs and of aspiration for better relations, but collective groups of the kind mentioned are very loath to change their ways.

Here we may ask a question. Is it easier to forgive, or to be forgiven? It is certainly not easy for human beings to forgive, and still less for them to forgive and forgive again, perhaps many times. Yet unless at some point a decisive step toward forgiveness is taken, the breach of love and trust that has taken place will fester on, becoming even worse as time passes. So when one party to the quarrel has the grace to offer forgiveness, a great onus is laid on the other party to respond. But it may be even more difficult to accept forgiveness than to offer it. For to accept forgiveness means to confess one’s guilt or share of guilt and to repent. We have to humble ourselves to be forgiven. That is why I say it may be easier to forgive than to be forgiven. The one who forgives may even feel a certain self-satisfaction that he or she is ‘doing the right thing’, though to have such a feeling must surely call in question the genuineness of the forgiveness. Forgiveness between human beings differs from God’s forgiveness of us in a very important way: in any breakdown in human relations, both sides have some share of blame, and each, though perhaps not to an equal extent, needs to give and to receive forgiveness.

At the present time, I think many people are aware of the need for forgiveness if there is ever to be an end to those intractable disputes that go on all over the globe. But there is much less awareness of the need for penitence as an essential element in any true act of forgiveness. We are indeed quick to blame people nowadays for anything that goes wrong, quick to take them to court and demand punishment or compensation for any damage we may think we have received, but we are slow indeed to admit that there is any guilt in ourselves. But without such admission, there can be no forgiveness, even where there is the will to forgive. §

 

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