I know I do it, but not as often as I ought. That might explain why I can’t figure out how to explain it to anyone else: how to forgive someone.
Clearly, though, forgiveness—the Christian sort—comes in different shades, because the reasons for its necessity are equally shaded. There is the sort of forgiveness extended in the circumstances of ordinary life, the little bruises we suffer from other people just for the fact of being human.
I’m speaking here of the idiot who just jumped my left turn; the put-out clerk who was snappish for no reason I could discern; the neighbor up the street whose two dogs invariably, seems to me, come only to my yard. Those random provocations are only that, random and quickly tempered equally by random acts of unspoken forgiveness. Dogs or not, I like the guy.
We negotiate our paths among these hindrances without much trouble. Encountering these sorts of “puppy sins”—as Martin Luther might have called them—it helps to remember we hardly behave any better. As ridiculous as it seems, I’ve been told I am sometimes as fully irritating as my many irritants. While I can hardly credit that, it does serve to infuse a little charity, though hardly ever enough, into my thinking.
But there are instances where forgiveness takes on a more ambiguous shade, and there we find matters that threaten to fracture one’s soul: betrayal; egregiously insulting slights that cannot be anything but deliberate; cruel judgments carried by gossip; the toxic father I thought I knew well, who beat up his fourteen-year-old daughter. These things I do not understand, even as they happen. When the cruelties are intentional and impossibly harsh, must we forgive, and for whose sake if we must?
For Christians, the answer is yes and for the sake—doesn’t this gall—of Christ’s love for the offender. Only that love would serve to make forgiveness plausible.
That is what makes forgiveness so radically unnerving for me. It is not for my benefit I am told to forgive, nor is it even altogether for the offender that I must. The responsibility rises instead solely from Christ’s commitment to forgive in love both me and my offender.
This is what marks Christian forgiveness out from what should be called “forgiveness therapy.” I am speaking of the psychologized commerce of self-affirming self-love and self-esteem. This is what forgiveness really is all about and as a recent Dear Abby column (written by Jean Phillips) made clear, it isn’t much good for anything else:
Forgiving someone isn’t doing something for someone else; it is a gift you give yourself that allows you to move forward with your life.
Put this way forgiveness is all about me. The advantages are tremendous, I read elsewhere. “The benefits of forgiving others . . . can lead to a reduction in stress and even better health,” and I might find my way to “self-forgiveness.” “This can be an integral part of the psychotherapy process.” In a culture increasingly unhooking from Christianity, therapy forges a new world “for me.”
Maybe I will feel better; I’m not disputing it, but I cannot see anywhere that my feelings matter in the least when confronted with Christ’s command to forgive. In fact, even if I cannot forgive wholly from the heart, I am expected to act as if I have, and pray thereafter the act will resolve into reality. When Christians speak of “dying to self,” forgiving another is surely a weapon of choice.
Forgiveness then becomes a Christian discipline, and like all disciplines it can be unusually strict. Language I recall from an old Lutheran liturgy describes worship as a “duty and delight,” even while knowing it will sometimes be less delight and more duty. Same thing with forgiveness, I figure, because it is a duty and a delight, a discipline, exactly on behalf of someone else out of Christ’s love for them. As disciplines go it will often be harder on you than the one you forgive.
How does one find the delight in the duty? I don’t know, not exactly, but Luther’s Small Catechism has always suggested a jumping off point to me. He has a positive take on the eighth commandment. In the commandment we are told not to bear false witness against a neighbor. But not only are we to refrain from that, Luther explains, we are to take steps “to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” There’s not one thing there that asks how I feel about it, only how I must act.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His book Speaking of the Dead is nearing completion. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.