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The Freeing Grace of Forgiveness

By Susan L. Nelson

“I hate faults,” my 3-year-old daughter muttered under her breath after I reminded her that she had been told not to bring the doll that she had lost into the wallpaper store. As if the pain of losing her toy was not enough, she was telling me I had compounded her misery by introducing the factor of accountability. Guilt, blame, loss, hurt, broken relationships, broken hearts — all are a piece of life.

Of course life is not only about brokenness, guilt and disappointments. It is full of wonderful challenges, and deep and abiding connections with our loved ones. It greets us with surprises greater than our wildest imaginings; its mystery is beyond our reckoning. And one of the mysteries that can be the source of great hope is the way in which broken hearts can be mended, estranged relationships can be healed, enemies can become friends, and the grievous ways in which we, sometimes inadvertently, treat each other are not always turned back on us in cycles of vengeance but are met instead with a love that refuses to return evil for evil.

Presbyterians have always taken sin and our human need for forgiveness seriously. Whether we have spoken of total depravity, of original sin, or of the human proclivity to idolatrous ways, our tradition has acknowledged that if life is from time to time murky and ambiguous, laced with conflict and death, in our sin human beings make things much worse. We are sinners and “become debtors to the justice of God” (Larger Catechism).

And we have known that human sin is evident not only in the ways we turn from God but also in the implications that that turning has on our fellow creatures. In our sin we brutally violate one another, fashion systems like apartheid that exclude some while favoring others, and ignore the needy face of our brother or sister fallen by the side of the road. We can also sin in our attempts to be our very best selves. As the Confession of 1967 states:

“All men [and women], good and bad alike, are in the wrong before God and helpless without [God’s] forgiveness. Thus all … fall under God’s judgment. No one is more subject to that judgment than the [person] who assumes that he [or she] is guiltless before God or morally superior to others.”

If confession is good for the soul, then Presbyterians have been formed in the confessional, following patterns of repentance and gratitude for the grace of God that is our only source of hope. By God’s grace, we have affirmed, we are justified. It is God’s action, God’s forgiveness, that sets us free to become new persons in Christ.

While resisting anything that might sound at all like “works righteousness” — practices taken on to earn salvation — Presbyterians have always understood that the grace that comes to us is never easy and surely not superficial. While justification and forgiveness have sometimes sounded like a business transaction in which, through the atoning death of Jesus Christ, our debts are simply forgiven and our slate is wiped clean, forgiveness and atonement have never been a simple arithmetic exchange.

With [Christ’s prayer of forgiveness from the cross] the universal religion of revenge is overcome and the universal law of retaliation is annulled.
—Jurgen Moltmann

Through God’s forgiving grace, we have believed, we become new people. As the apostle Paul said, in Christ the old is crucified, and something new begins to grow (Gal. 2:19) — something that is captured in the well-worn phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We become people who are capable of resisting the desire to return evil for evil, of refusing to participate in cycles of vengeance, of peering through the angry behavior of our neighbor or enemy and discerning the broken heart at its root. We can see the hurt we have caused others and be moved beyond our need to rationalize our behavior to a true compassion that cares simply for the well-being of the other. We can hear about the radical suffering of another human being and vow in our soul that such treachery should never happen again. We become, that is, people who can forgive and practice habits of reconciliation that the world might be healed.

“Lord,” Peter asked Jesus, “if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:21-22).

Forgiveness, of course, is not an easy practice to master. Sometimes hurts seem too great, betrayals too treacherous to be forgiven. Children who are violated by a trusted parent or who are victims of sexual assault often carry self-blame throughout their lives for the horror that was enacted on them. These victims of sin need to realize their violation, experience the outrage and grief such acts can entail, and find healing and restoration of the ability to trust before they can begin to know how to forgive. Families and friends of victims of violence can carry with them throughout their lives the echoes of their cries of “Why?” and “What if . . . ?” The lives of those victims remain forever wounded in their memories.

Sometimes forgiveness can be mistaken for weakness and vulnerability, even by those who would forgive. Sometimes we cannot forgive because we have not even seen the hurt that has been perpetrated, having learned perhaps to accept certain violations as a way of life. Sometimes we try to forgive, only to realize later we have not forgiven at all.

So, how do we forgive? What does it mean to reconcile with our enemy? Can we learn to forgive those who have hurt us so deeply that the pain does not seem to go away? How can we emulate the example of Christ who, even on the cross, was able to forgive? How do we forgive when our inner balance sheet, perhaps keeping accounts since childhood, tells us that life has not been fair?

God’s grace frees us and heals us. While all are sinners, some communities and some individuals are more sinned against than they are guilty of sin — although those who are victims of sin can in time become the most ruthless in exacting vengeance.

We understand, on the one hand, that God’s grace forgives us and frees us to love one another, to risk confessing our sins and making amends where this is possible and appropriate. But we also realize that, for victims of sin, it is primarily God’s grace that heals and frees wounded persons from injuries that would shrink their souls. For these brothers and sisters an appropriate response to God’s love is to acknowledge how deeply hurt and disappointed they are and to recognize the need for healing. For these the question of forgiveness is deeply entwined with the need for restitution, an end to cycles that discard people as so much refuse, and a hope that the despair that is often the legacy of such wounding is not the final word.

Forgiveness is about being able to accept our human situation, with all the ambiguity and messiness it entails — and accepting the fact that inevitably people do disappoint one another. Because we are limited in time, in talent, and in ability to truly understand everything about one another, we often miss the mark. We forget birthdays or an old friend’s name. We get so caught up in a project that we overlook the misery or happiness on another’s face. We have to make choices how to spend our time and resources, which means choosing not to do, as well as what to do.

Forgiveness means accepting others — and ourselves — as human and not divine. Forgiveness means resisting a defensive response when we are hurt or paradoxically when we hurt others — a response that would mean cutting another off, or cutting ourselves off from community with others so that we would not be further hurt or be able to inflict hurt again. Forgiveness means risking the pain of living and holding to a hope that disappointments and hurt do not have to be the final word.

Forgiveness is a process a journey. As much as we might like forgiveness to be a “forgive and forget” moment, lives do not work that way. Old hurts have a way of resurfacing as we are led to examine a new facet of a wound we had hoped had healed. Forgiveness is a commitment to face life with a posture that risks rather than protects, while also struggling with the fact that there are times when protection is the wise choice.

Forgiveness is not passivity. It is an active response to brokenness. While refusing to return evil for evil, forgiveness can also be an act of resistance, refusing to let evil continue. Martin Luther King Jr.’s tactic of non-violent resistance is an example of forgiveness that refuses to let evil continue. By resisting segregation, civil rights workers were saying no to racism, but by being non-violent they were inviting the enemy to join the community. Forgiveness loves the sinner while clearly saying that the sin is unacceptable.

Sister Helen Prejean’s witness to men on Death Row, portrayed in the film “Dead Man Walking,” is another example of forgiveness that resists evil. Sister Helen made clear God’s love to the perpetrator of a crime while also firmly insisting that he confess it.

Forgiveness means giving up our illusions of innocence. The Presbyterian insistence on the doctrine of original sin has meant that we realize it is impossible for human beings not to be involved in sin in some way. To live in the First World, with all our advantages, is by definition to reap from others’ hard work. We live off of others’ suffering, and thus we are complicit in that suffering. Forgiveness means giving up postures of innocence — and all the tactics of cover-up and denial that take so much energy and only make matters worse. In the context of God’s grace, we do not need to proclaim our innocence, but to seek ways to rectify the injustice in which we participate.

Forgiveness means practicing a new logic. When I told my daughter that the loss of her doll was her fault, I was participating in the logic of blame. If something goes wrong, then someone is at fault. The logic of forgiveness seeks to resist both wrongdoing and returning injury for injury. The logic of forgiveness is more interested in restoration than in retribution, in confession than in penalty, in changed lives than in incarceration. The world watches in amazement as the citizens of South Africa, through their Truth and Reconciliation Commission, practice the logic of forgiveness, electing to hear the confessions of perpetrators of crimes; to listen as the agonies of an oppressed people are voiced; to corporately mourn the lives of those brutally murdered, raped and tortured in the struggle for justice — and resist the need to respond punitively.

The logic of forgiveness — which is the logic of the cross, the resurrection and Pentecost — means sin is revealed while lives both of those who sinned and of those who were sinned against are changed and healed. It is a logic that knows that such transformation is possible even without exacting “a pound of flesh.” Moltmann has described this logic: “To forgive those who have wronged one is an act of highest sovereignty and great inner freedom. In forgiving and reconciling, the victims … free themselves from compulsion to evil deeds.”

Forgiveness is not cheap. Ironically, it is often the one who is sinned against who pays the price for the perpetrator’s forgiveness. The young African-Americans who refused to move from white-only lunch tables were battered and torn. But their blood finally brought a racist nation to see the brutality of its systems. Jesus, the one we proclaim as innocent of sin, willingly bore the sins of the world that we might be horrified by the shedding of that blood and come to see all the ways in which we, too, participate in the crucifixions that continue in our world.

Forgiveness is not about forgetting. Forgiveness is an act of courage that makes possible the remembering of our sins — of our wounds of violation, and the reconfiguring of them in the context of healing and hope. In a world that has had many holocausts, we rightly fear what forgetting such acts of treachery might mean. We build museums to show how such evil begins (seeming so benign) so that we might be vigilant that such history not be repeated.

Our intuition is to link forgiving and forgetting. However, past resentments, wounds unattended to, can fester right into the next generation unless they are defused. Forgiveness as remembering means that history is not forgotten, but the context of the whole of history — including also all those moments when grace has abounded — is remembered by a covenant community that gathers at a table to cry with those who suffer, to make room for the enemy, to remember its hope.

Such forgiveness calls for honest talk, a willingness to risk gathering at the table, and a wild imagination that dares to believe that God’s realm will come, even here and now.

Susan L. Nelson is associate professor of theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of Healing the Broken Heart (Chalice Press, 1997). This article originally appeared in the March 1998 issue of Presbyterians Today.

Suggested Reading

  • Arnold, Johann Christoph, Seventy Times Seven: The Power of Forgiveness (The Plough Publishing House, 1997)
  • Fortune, Marie M., Is Nothing Sacred? When Sex Invades the Pastoral Relationship (Harper & Row, 1989)
  • Mairs, Nancy, Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal (Beacon Press, 1994)
  • Park, Andrew Sung, The Wounded Heart of God (Abingdon, 1993)
  • Volf, Miroslov, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1997)
  • Wolterstorff, Nicholas, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Eerdmans, 1983)