Forgiveness: You Can't Have It Both Ways

In 1999, Archbishop Desmond Tutu published a memoir from his time as Chair of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "No Future without Forgiveness." His observations about forgiveness are widely quoted, including his charge that forgiveness is a necessary ingredient for society: "Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing. It is practical politics. Without forgiveness there is no future."

Unfortunately, he simultaneously touts the necessity of forgiveness for individual health: "To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest." This sentiment is in line with much contemporary psychological and even religious thought on the nature and purpose of forgiveness.

Since many of those who advocate forgiveness for victims of violence and other wrongdoing do so within a religious context, this emphasis on the individual is a curious move. Theologian Lewis Smedes's foundational book,"Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve" begins by situating forgiveness in a biblical context, but quickly shifts his focus to the psychological health of the individual. "The only way to heal the pain that will not heal itself is to forgive the person who hurt you," he writes. "When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free, but you discover that the real prisoner was yourself."

While both Tutu and Smedes are balancing theological, psychological and political notions of forgiveness, the danger arises when definitions overlap. Conflating biblical understandings of forgiveness with individual, therapeutic notions distorts the biblical text and creates pressure on individual victims. The New Testament envisions forgiveness as conditional with community ends. The ministry of Jesus focuses on the value of forgiveness for maintaining group cohesion and strengthening the relationship with God. For the nascent Christian community, forgiveness and repentance were necessary for protecting and ensuring its survival. And Jesus makes clear that divine forgiveness is utterly dependent on human forgiveness, which depends on participation from both victim and offender.

In Mt. 18:15-22, Jesus advocates forgiveness for the receptive offender through a process that includes confrontation, public rebuke and forgiveness. However, "if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector" (18:17). One-sided forgiveness is not recommended, not in this or any other New Testament text. In fact, God's own forgiveness is conditional, as demonstrated in the follow-up to the Lord's Prayer in Matthew: "If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you" (6:14) and the admonition in Luke, "Forgive and you will be forgiven" (6:37).

With the 20th century focus on psychological health came an increasing emphasis on the self-contained individual. Psychologists began to advocate the healing qualities of forgiveness for the individual alone. The idea that forgiveness serves to heal relationships and communities was subordinated to a forgiveness that heals the all-important self.

In "Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment," Christopher D. Marshall brings this pop-psychological notion to bear on biblical forgiveness. He writes, "Forgiveness, in fact, is the only thing capable of releasing victims from the prison house of their pain, fear, and negative feelings."

When forgiveness becomes unconditional and entirely contained in the minds and hearts of victims, its very nature changes. By no means did the concept of forgiveness originate with biblical literature, but Jesus' teachings often serve as a starting point. For Jesus, forgiveness was relational. It involved repentance, and was directed from one person to another. Forgiveness did something for the community, not just the individual.

Today's popular notions reduce forgiveness to little more than mental and emotional gymnastics on the part of the victim, without regard to the presence or disposition of the offender. When victims are instructed that this kind of forgiveness is the "only" way to heal from an offense, they are charged with directing their charitable emotions toward an offender with no expectation of repentance or reparation.

For Christians who seek a thorough understanding of biblical forgiveness, I offer this litmus test. See if you can take some of today's popular notions about forgiveness and put them in the mouth of Jesus. Do they fit?

"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, for forgiveness is the best form of self-interest." Or, "If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive, because forgiveness is how you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life." Or, even Jesus' prayer from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for forgiveness is a gift I give myself."

Christian proponents of forgiveness can't have it both ways. This is not to say that contemporary therapeutic understandings are incorrect, only that they are inconsistent with the forgiveness teachings of Jesus. Locating forgiveness entirely within the individual pressures victims to manage the entire project of forgiveness themselves without requiring repentance or restitution from offenders.

When forgiveness becomes the emotional task of the victim alone, the corporate and relational nature of crime and other offenses gets lost. Also lost is the corporate and relational nature of forgiveness as presented in Jesus' ministry, replaced by the flood of cheap catharsis and self-satisfaction that comes with the rush of so-called unconditional forgiveness.