Forgiveness is one of the most difficult admonitions that Christ has given to us. Its importance is highlighted by the specific reference to forgiving others in the Lord’s Prayer. The notion of forgiveness has evolved to an idea summarized in the common cliche “forgive and forget”, which in turn tends to bring Christianity within the perception of an onlooker as a religion for the weak. With this in mind, particularly within the confusion of the contemporary age, an evaluation of this idea against true Christian principles is helpful to clarify what is really meant by forgiveness.
Jesus uses the parable of the wicked servant (Matthew 18:23-34) to illustrate the ties between forgiveness and debt. We accrue a debt of justice through our misdeeds toward God and others. Because God’s goodness is infinite, any offense against God demands an infinite repayment. Since there is no offer we can make that is infinite in intensity, our own just repayment must be infinite in time.
By His mercy, God took on the sins of the world through His suffering, death, and resurrection to give us an alternative to this eternal punishment. In doing so, He offers His forgiveness as a gift of love, that we may be joined to Him despite our failings. But just as the parable demonstrates, in accepting God’s forgiveness we bring upon ourselves the obligation to forgive the debts of others: since we are finite beings, any debt that they incur to us is only finite.
So how does this holding of others to their debts play out in real life? We might publicly assign blame to them for what they have done, attempting to pin this offensive act to their reputation. We might harbor resentment against them, refusing to acknowledge any act of kindness on their part and assuming the worst motive for everything they do. We might quietly sulk and brood over the offense and the hurt it has brought upon us. We might thereafter regard them as an enemy upon which to score moral victories, or even worse to seek revenge.
What do all these tactics have in common? Their motivations derive from an internalized hurt. We demand that the debt be paid in a manner that brings us satisfaction. There are two problems with this. First, hurt is a perception. There may have been no intention to hurt us, as in an honest mistake, or the hurt may have arisen from a fault of our personality that sees an offense in an objectively neutral act. Second, we ourselves might be so personally flawed that we can only be placated by questionable or immoral acts on the part of the offender. The solution ordained by Jesus in the parable is to no longer associate our own personal hurt with the offender, but rather to bring it to Him in prayer.
So if a moral offense against us has indeed been enacted, is it then completely out of our hands? Is it our obligation to completely forget that it happened, and leave it entirely to God? Not quite. We ourselves owe a debt of love to everyone. Since part of loving them is to desire the greatest good for them, simply dismissing the offense may not necessarily bring about this good.
Our debt of love depends on the nature of our relationship. The moral development of some people may be under our responsibility. As mentioned, we must first dispel all association between our own psyche and the offense. Second, we must take reasonable measures to be sure an offense was actually committed, that it was not strictly a matter of our own perception. Then we must draw their attention to it, expressing a genuinely detached sorrow for the distance placed between themselves and God and for the diminution of our relationship as a result of this distance. They must be aware that a restoration of both requires an asking of pardon from us and repentance toward God, and we must firmly desire this reconciliation for their own well-being and for the sake of unity and peace.
Dietrich von Hildebrand puts it in better words in his outstanding book “Transformation in Christ” (chapter “Blessed Are the Peacemakers”):
Our admonition should not bear, properly speaking, the note of a reproach. It should rather be in the character of a humble and amicable exposition of our grief, a gentle invitation to our friend to consider the matter in a valid perspective and to collect himself anew, taking his start from that incident on a plane of spiritual earnestness and love. Nevertheless, it remains true that the full harmony implied by the objective ‘logos’ of the relationship is not reestablished before our friend has understood and admitted his wrong, until he has asked our pardon for it.
With strangers the situation is different. The debt of love is still there, but the obligation for the restoration of friendship is absent. Circumstances may not allow a personal confrontation, in which case we must simply forgive them and let it go. The offense may be minor enough that bringing attention would bring more disharmony than the offense itself. For greater offenses, by playing a personal part in the situation we may incur a responsibility to lovingly confront and discourage them in this behavior. They may feel encouraged to continue by knowingly or unknowingly hurting others, but as with all moral offenses the greatest damage would be to their own soul. Thus our own intervention, whether effective or not, would be obligatory.
Finally, we rely on our own perceptions and judgments to evaluate others and formulate our best manner of interacting with them. Not everyone “speaks the same love language”, finds fulfillment in the same things, or perceives us in the same way. People have different levels of trustworthiness on different matters, different maturity levels, different levels of kindness, different values, etc. It is not against the spirit of forgiveness to use the knowledge gained from an offense to better know and evaluate them for the sake of our future dealings with them; in fact it often improves the relationship.
It is very often the case that true forgiveness requires a far greater moral strength than simply “forgiving and forgetting”. In many ways love and peace require sacrifice, so forgiveness is one form of the true emptying of ourselves which is a noble calling of our faith.