Last Thursday Russell Saltzman took on “Forgiveness Therapy.” This therapeutic approach represents a self-centered vulgarization of forgiveness that Saltzman rightly criticizes, even as he wrestles with what motivates Christian forgiveness of others.
I recall some years ago being knocked down flat when I finally read—I mean really read—the short passage in Mark in which Jesus says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone.” The words were emphatic. Whenever. Anything. Anyone. Implementing Christ’s command, even as imperfectly as I do, marked a profound change in my relationship with God and with others.
First, I question whether “forgiveness therapy” could arise in anything but a Judeo-Christian (or post-Judeo-Christian) context. The polar opposite of forgiving for the sake of Christ is not forgiving for the sake of myself; it is not forgiving at all. The opposite is seeking to pay back the full measure of the hurt to the other person—and then a bit more for good measure.
Even today, I’ll have something against someone, and there’s a part of me that resists forgiving that person; a part of me that prefers to cling to the grudge, preferring the squalid comfort of resentment and self-pity to the life and light of God. It is dark, and it is ugly.
It is only reluctantly that I forgive. While it is true that, ironically, I’m often the one who feels liberated after forgiving somebody else, the motivation and the struggle is more complicated than that.
I class forgiveness along with all the other mind-turning teachings in the Bible. Is it “more blessed to give than to receive”? Do we get rich by giving money away? Are we blessed when we wash other people’s feet or when we suffer for the sake of righteousness? A part of me assents to these teachings. Another part of me, with the world, denies them all: I get rich clinging to my money rather than by giving it away, I am blessed when other people serve me and when I have it easy. It is obviously better to receive than to give. It is a struggle over what I understand to be good, and that in turn depends on what I understand to be my telos.
While I certainly stand with Saltzman in opposing the vulgarization represented by “forgiveness therapy,” I nonetheless also wonder whether it’s pitched this way because we have permission to use therapeutic language in a culture that resists, or cannot understand, overtly Christian categories. While I oppose anything that waters down Christ, I can’t help but wonder whether “forgiveness therapy” is a post-Christian nod to the spiritual reality of a loving God who forgives in Christ.
A second question is whether forgiving someone does the forgiven person any good. I don’t know. But I suspect that it turns up the spiritual heat, as it were, on that person, and may do them good; forgiving a person, releasing that spiritual debt, is an act of charity towards that person. It seems to be part of what Paul describes in his letter to the Romans: “‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This initially reads as something like, “If you really want to get back at your enemy, do them good, and then they’ll really suffer.” Yet Paul tells us that this is the means by which we overcome evil by good. There’s something else going on here.
Paul quotes from Proverbs 20. The “burning coals” draw on imagery of the altar in the temple. Indeed, in the heavenly temple, burning coals are lit by the very breath of God. In the New Testament, consider the disciples on the road to Emmaus whose hearts “burned” within them in hearing Jesus’ words, or the tongues of fire from heaven that came and rested on the disciples’ heads at Pentecost. Suggestively, the last incident that happens to Saul prior to being visited by Jesus in the light of heaven that flashed around him, is Saul’s witness of the stoning of Stephen, in which Stephen asks God not to hold this sin against his murderers. That is, he forgives them.
God works through his Church. In forgiveness, we take the coals that God has lit in us through his Spirit and cast them abroad on those who attack us. Lord willing, God uses those coals to light or rekindle his fire in those who sin against the people of his Church.
In forgiving others, we become most closely identified with Jesus Christ—particularly with his suffering on the cross where he forgave as well. That cannot help but affect us, and others, as we reflect, however imperfectly, his love, light, and life.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.