The significance and meaning of forgiveness can be, somewhat ironically, a divisive topic. It gets no more divisive than when we talk about abuse victims and abuse. Should an abuse victim forgive their abuser even when the abuser is recalcitrant towards taking responsibility? Some would say yes, that is a necessary part of their healing and growth. Forgiveness is about what you do as the offended. Others would say no, that that forgiveness requires repentance. To forgive an abuser is to deny the pain and anger, not to mention some abusers expect forgiveness from their victims as part of their repertoire of manipulation to get away with the abuse.
Part of the reason for this disagreement about forgiveness is that the meaning of “forgiveness” isn’t necessarily precise and clear. Does it essentially mean regarding the past offense as if it didn’t happen, as proverbially summed up in the phrase “Forgive and forget?” Or, it is simply about forgoing vengeance, to not engage in an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth sort of vindictive behavior? Further complicating this is the purpose of forgiveness is not always agreed. Forgiveness is often portrayed with a therapeutic purpose. On the other hand, it can be responded that forgiveness is sacrificially about the other person, not one’s own well-being.
While addressing the different ideas of forgiveness is impossible to do in a blog post, and even impossible to do adequately in a full book, the different understandings of forgiveness can be looked at through two lenses: (1) how many parties are involved in the act of forgiveness and (2) what exactly does forgiveness entail? Regarding the number of parties in forgiveness, the offended party forgives the party regardless of the action of the offending party. In two-party forgiveness, the offending party must respond appropriately (repentance, amends, etc.) for the offended party to forgive. Regarding the question of what forgiveness entails, it can be seen as forgetting the past and acting like it didn’t happen, as not taking vengeance, etc. Additionally added to this question is the nature of the relationship of the two parties: does the offended party allow the offending party the type of access and influence they had that wrongly used in the first place?
What I am offering here is an attempt to treat forgiveness through a different lens in seeing forgiveness as a teleological act that has a specific purpose in mind.
I want to suggest at the heart of forgiveness is the vision of shalom, of life being well-lived. But this shalom is not about a specific individual’s shalom, but the shalom of the whole. In that, I want to suggest that forgiveness is an act that frees the offending party by not purely defining them by their sin such that they can be free to live and act appropriately in a community defined by shalom. Forgiveness is an act of liberation that invites the offending party into a new way of action as part of a community of shalom.
However, allow me to clarify: I don’t take the liberation in forgiveness to be a freedom from consequence. Wrong actions, and especially evil actions, should be met with the appropriate response due to the loss of trust their actions have fostered. Disciplinary actions are a necessary consequence of such actions. However, forgiveness as an act of liberation allows for the possibility and space that the perpetrator can be different. As such, forgiveness does not seek to take disproportionate actions in response to wrong and evil acts that have been committed that would keep the wrong-doers metaphorically “locked up.” To use an example that isn’t controversial to illustrate, a manager who acted in a very irresponsible with the budget and money under their control would not be automatically blacklisted from such a position in the future elsewhere, although it may lead to the ending of their present employment with no possibility of rehire. Furthermore, forgiveness makes an appropriate space and path for the offending party to live and act differently. By appropriate I mean it does not either put the offended party into highly vulnerable situations nor does it put an onerous and burdensome sense of requirements and litmus tests upon the offending party that far outweighs the act done. For the hypothetical manager mentioned above, they would need to show they have taken the appropriate responsibility for their irresponsibility by getting the necessary training for handling money and then show their reliability in the future by working their way back up. They would not be given the same position immediately in the name of “forgiveness” nor would they be submitted to needless requirements, such as having to make amends with their previous employer.
In other words, forgiveness as an act of liberating the perpetrator allows the perpetrator to learn, grow, and live differently. This vision of forgiveness is an attempt to take the language of forgiveness in the New Testament seriously. The primary word used for forgiveness by Jesus in the Gospels is ἀφίημι, which is a word used for release and was regularly used in the context of the obligations of debt, whether literal or metaphorical debts. Then, in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6.12, Jesus defines forgiveness as a releasing from one’s debts (ὀφείλημα). Then in the parable about forgiveness in the parable of the unforgiveness servant, Jesus again uses the language of debt and the imprisonment that a person in debt can experience to illustrate forgiveness.
What has happened in a lot of Protestant circles, however, is that we have grown to learn to define forgiveness as freedom from consequence rather than a freedom to be and experience something different. When prevailing concerns about God’s forgiveness is about whether one will go to eternal hell or not, the primary lens by which we have learned to see forgiveness is in terms of its consequence. As a result, we don’t readily recognize God’s forgiveness as our liberation so that we can be freed from the risk of such a judgment. It becomes easy then to transfer this understanding of forgiveness to the social, horizontal acts of forgiveness towards each other as freedom from consequence, rather than a freedom from being irredeemably locked away.
What has furthermore gotten lost is that forgiveness is not about a transfer from an all negative status to an all positive status. Protestant accounts of God’s forgiveness treat God’s love as regarding the repentant sinner as on the same spiritually footing as the long faithful saint. In fact, in Protestantism, it is often the case there can not even be a real distinction between the sinner and saint, but that we are, in the words of Luther “simul justus et peccator.” While the original intention of this was good and needed, it is has had the effect of flattening out our view of people without making distinctions based upon actual actions and practices rather than redirecting people to recognize the heart of the Gospel is the liberation of the sinner and recognizing the process of transformation that is concomitant with the appropriate response to liberation.
As a consequence, we don’t have an understanding of liminality, which is a state in which people are going through a process of change that is positive but has not yet reached its intended goal. For instance, I would say in 1 Corinthians 2, Paul does make a distinction between people who are saved and have faith in God’s power and then those people whose faith in God has grown to the love of God; those with faith are in a liminal phase of transition from the old way of thinking and living to a new way demonstrated in Christ and realized through the Spirit. The consequence of this loss of liminality is that we have a hard time recognizing the state of liminal transformation that forgiveness has the potential to initiate. Forgiveness is seen as immediately getting us to the freedom from consequence and just moving on past what happened, rather than forgiveness allowing us the space to grow and learn to be a new person and appropriately participate in a community of shalom under God’s rule.
To that end, forgiveness as an act of liberation is an act in which the perpetrator is invited into a new way of acting and living, as founded upon the person of Jesus Christ as both the exemplar par excellence of liberating forgiveness that comes from God and the exemplar par excellence for how God calls us to live in this world. But forgiveness is the initial, one-party invitation of the offending party into this shalom, it is not the culmination of shalom. The perpetrator is invited into and given the opportunity for a process of change and transformation that will involve them taking responsibility through repentance and confession, making the appropriate amends to the victims, progress through time to establish one’s trustworthiness where one broke trust, etc. Meanwhile, when that type of process is respectfully engaged in without being used as a form of manipulation and coercion by the perpetrator to try to involuntarily obligate and guilt their victim to a certain type of feeling or response towards them, it also allows the victim an easier path towards shalom through healing.
As a consequence, this view of forgiveness doesn’t define forgiveness along the lines of the interests of specific individuals, although it does preferentially take the interests of the victim at heart as an integral part of the process that forgiveness initiates and makes possible. In the short run, the process that forgiveness invites into takes the concerns of the victims into account, although in the long-run forgiveness is about the opportunity of the perpetrator. Forgiveness is a teleological act directed towards the realization of the shalom of the community that includes both the victim’s concerns for well-being and healing and the perpetrator’s possibility of learning how to live responsibility within a community of shalom and experiencing it afresh again. From the victim, they must allow the possibility for people to be different and accept when the invitation is not taken without vengeance, while not denying the wrong done or being obligated to fit their feelings and behaviors into some pattern that acts as if it didn’t happen. From the perpetrator, they are given a route to move forward, but they need to learn to accept the forgiveness that has offered, rather than think some other definition of “forgiveness” entitles them to anything more than the opportunity for liberation.