Does it seem to you that Western culture is growing increasingly merciless and unforgiving? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you think the opposite is true, given the rate at which behaviors traditionally understood as wrong are being normalized—but that has nothing to do with mercy or forgiveness. Actually, that trend underscores my point; given the increasingly pharisaical tenor of Western society, true toleration of behavior is disappearing into polarization, leaving only approval and anathematization as options. The drive for societal affirmation of such behaviors as same-gender sexual activity isn’t driven by the intolerance of Christians. Yes, there are plenty of intolerant Christians out there, but on the whole, the American church at least is far more prone to conflict avoidance. We strive to avoid offending anyone because offending people reduces both attendance and giving, and we’re all about seeing those numbers going up. When it comes to sin, we might still believe it’s sin, but our usual policy is, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The same cannot be said of the culture at large. That’s why the first rule of watching videos on YouTube is, “Don’t read the comments.” It’s also why this comic from Randall Munroe continues to resonate so powerfully:
Our culture is very good at forgiving things it doesn’t think need to be forgiven—and increasingly good at denouncing orthodox Christians as unloving and unforgiving for insisting that such things do need to be forgiven. When it comes to beliefs or actions which the elites who shape Western culture find unacceptable, however, there is little or no capacity for forgiveness. This is a result of the ongoing re-paganization of the West. The idea that forgiveness is a good thing was a Christian intrusion into the culture, and is fading as the cultural influence of the church fades. As Tim Keller points out,
The first thing about [Christians that offended pagan cultures] was that the Christians were marked by the ability to forgive. Almost all ancient cultures were shame-and-honor cultures. A shame-and-honor culture meant that if someone wronged you, you paid them back. Your honor was at stake. You have to save your honor. That’s what mattered. And most of the people in the shame-and-honor cultures believed that that’s what kept society together. Society was kept together by fear. . . .
Christians came along and said, “No, no, you forgive. Someone wrongs you, you forgive. Seventy times seven.” This was nuts to a shame-and-honor culture. Nuts. We know that the Northern European pagan cultures that were being won to faith through the monks coming up during the fifth/sixth/seventh/eighth/ninth century . . . were shame-and-honor cultures, and one of the things they used to say in resistance to the Christian gospel was that “If Christians come in here and everybody starts forgiving everybody else, society will just fall apart, because what keeps society together is fear.” And so the idea that you forgave your enemies and you turned the other cheek was crazy.
True forgiveness is renouncing the right to demand (or enact) judgment. As my oldest child learned while reading The Iliad for English class, such renunciation was alien and incomprehensible to pagans. It had no roots outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, it cannot have any lasting roots outside that tradition, because apart from a belief in the God of Scripture, the idea of such renunciation is galling to the spirit. Let us be clear here: biblical forgiveness is not contingent on the other person’s repentance. We can’t make it conditional, forgiving others only if they never do it again. As John Piper has said,
there are at least two other biblical categories that need to be stirred in here besides forgiveness. One is [what] I will call enemy love. . . . Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). And Peter picked it up in 1 Peter 3:9, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.”
So here we are told how to relate to a person who is not repenting, not recognizing any wrong being done, or maybe they are and they are glad they are doing it. And the answer is: Don’t return evil for evil. Rather, bless them. So it is not an issue of the fullest kind of forgiveness. You could call it, maybe, one-sided forgiveness. The Christian is choosing not to be the punisher, but treating the other person better than they deserve—in a sense, as if they hadn’t been hurt.
In truth, this is something God commands us to do as much for our own sake as for the sake of the one whom we forgive. John Stackhouse puts it well:
To insist that the victim withhold forgiveness until the offender repents actually serves to victimize the offended person twice: first by the offense itself and second by holding the victim in thrall to the offender by keeping her attached both to him and to the offense until he chooses to repent—which he may never do. Indeed, in some cases, people have been victimized by offenders who have died: Are they never to enjoy the peace that comes from forgiving the other?
No, the victim can cut herself or himself loose from the burden and corrosion of anger, vengeance, fear, and other horrible feelings arising from the offense by sincerely forgiving the offender. She is now free to walk away from this horrible part of the past and heal.
Unforgiveness anchors us to the past and keeps its pain ever sharp in our hearts. Forgiveness liberates us. The problem is, we can only see that from the far side; only the act of forgiving those who have hurt us makes the blessing of forgiveness clear. In prospect, forgiveness looks like giving up our rights. Piper’s insight is critically important here:
One of the main obstacles to forgiving, forbearing, returning good for evil, blessing those who hurt us, is that if we do this—if we really return good for evil, not the kind of manipulative way that hopes to really draw attention to the other person’s guilt, but I am talking about a really authentic blessing, treating them with kindness and hope from the heart—if we do that, then very few people, if anybody, will know that we have been hurt. And that is the challenge.
If we return good for evil, we are not moping around. Our countenance is not cast down. Our shoulders are not shrugged. We haven’t withdrawn into a silent funk. We are not drawing attention to our woundedness. We are acting in a cheerful, hopeful, gracious way, and nobody will have any idea that we have been insulted or put down or wounded or cheated. And almost everything in my sinful soul cries out against that.
We want people to know that we have been hurt. We want people to pity us or at least sympathize with us or recognize that our effort to return good for evil is a noble effort in the face of much difficulty. . . .
And perhaps most of all we want the person who has wounded us to be aware that they have wounded us, and we don’t want to act in a way that looks as if they didn’t hurt us—that looks as if it makes light of the fact that they wounded us or insulted us or put us down or criticized us in an inappropriate way or cheated on us. And all of this is a huge obstacle to obeying the Lord when he says, “Do not return evil for evil, but bless those who do you harm.”
The desire for others to know that we’ve been hurt isn’t all wrong. It’s rooted in our desire that justice be done, which is a reflection of the nature and character of God in us. The problem, brilliantly diagnosed by Lesslie Newbigin, is that
each of us overestimates what is due to us as compared with what is due to our neighbors. Consequently, justice cannot be done, for everyone will judge in his or her own favor. Justice is done only when we all acknowledge a judge with authority over us, in relation to whose judgment we must relativize our own.
There are three elements here which pertain to the question of forgiveness. First, we need to recognize that our unforgiveness isn’t as justified as we think it is. Our idea of justice is biased in our own favor, and thus is actually unjust (at least to some degree) to the one who has hurt us. Second, we need to trust that God is a perfect and perfectly just judge who knows all about the injustice done to us and will make it right, in his way and his time. In this, we’re called to follow the example of Jesus:
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
Third, we need to rest content in the fact that God knows how we’ve been hurt. In this, as in every other aspect of life, he is enough for us, and we need to believe that. Piper again:
The key is how important and how satisfying to us is the fact that God knows we have been hurt, that God understands and God attends to us. God feels with us. He is a merciful high priest. Is that enough? What this showed me was how deeply my heart tends to be oriented on other people more than it is oriented on God.
Our great need, my great need, is that God be more real to me than other people are. When God sees us returning good for evil, he knows everything. He knows we have been insulted or treated unjustly or cheated or whatever. He knows it. And he is sympathetic and he is attentive and he sees that we are returning good for evil when harm has been done to us. He sees that we are obeying him. He sees that we are loving our adversary. . . .
And so my question for myself and for my friend, for anybody who finds himself like us: Is it enough for God to know our sorrow, for God to know our pain, for God to know our disappointment, our frustration? Can we hand our cause entirely over to God? Can we move forward treating others better than they treat us even if it means only God knows and nobody else? That is how real God has to become to us.
Jacob Willemzoon de Wet, Gleichnis von den Arbeitern im Weinberg, mid-17th c.