Forgiveness: What’s Left When the Excuses Run Out

She married just out of high school and never managed to get to college. She lived in relative poverty with her husband, and had four children with him through the 80s. They pursued a counter-culture life, avoiding American materialism and seeking to live as a couple committed to the values of care for the earth, the poor and the family. At length, her husband entered law school while she sacrificed her education in order to do menial work to finance his. It was grueling, but she loved him and was committed to see this task through.

She did. He graduated–and divorced her. He paid no child support and, at length convinced the courts that her poverty and lack of substantial employability (no college degree, your honor) entitled him to custody of the kids. She now pays him child support while he works at a prestigious law firm and enjoys regular power lunches with wealthy clients. He has, in short, walked away from the love and commitment he promised her in search of power, money and younger sex. She belongs to a phase in his past. He has, as the pop psychologists say, “grown.” She has, as the pop psychologists do not say, been betrayed and devastated.

Our culture, when confronted by this kind of evil, has a number of strategies for “dealing” with it; nearly all of them calculated to avoid dealing with it. We blame such outrageous betrayals on Society, on the man’s parents, on his inner child, even on the woman (she didn’t “grow with him” say some, so “he did what he needed to do for him”). Where bad theology once blamed every sin on the devil, bad theology now blames every sin on Nobody in Particular. “Who are we to judge?” is the universal cry of our culture.

This is what is called killing with kindness. For in the end, such a mentality trains us to attempt what is not possible and what God and our own soul rightly hates: it trains us to try to call darkness light, black white and evil good. And that cannot be done without doing violence to our very souls (and the souls of those crushed by evil).

What then? Are we to forget all this cultural namby-pambyness and return to the old days of stringing up evildoers? If we are not to excuse the sinner, what else are we to do?

Name the sin and forgive the sinner.

Forgiveness is not for people who are well-meaning, it is for people who are, well, mean. People who have run out of excuses. People who are vicious, selfish and nasty. People who will probably never apologize or pay us back for the incalculable pain they caused us. Forgiveness, in short, is for sin, not for mistakes, oversights, clumsiness, mental illness or a host of other excusable things.

It is crucial to recognize this because if we do not, we force victims (including ourselves) into playing the unwinnable game of trying to pretend the horrible thing they suffered and the horrible person who did it was “not that bad.” Indeed, by a misreading of biblical texts like “If you do not forgive, neither will my Father in heaven forgive you” we often imagine God is angry at us for “judging” the victimizer. For many of us live under the cruel illusion that we are “judging others” if we are not able to crush within ourselves the raw awareness that the husband who abandoned us or the boss who cheated us was, in fact, sinning.

This is the extraordinary news the Christian message of forgiveness offers us: It bids us destroy forever the notion that forgiveness means painting up jerks as “not that bad.” To be sure, the Christian demand for forgiveness assumes that we will look for whatever might excuse bad behavior. Maybe she ignored you because she doesn’t know English. Maybe he shouted at you because he has a chemical imbalance and is subject to mood swings. Those sorts of things really do lessen the guilt of a sin and we must always take them into account. But when all the excusing is done, we sometimes find that there still remains behind, like a kind of scum on their soul, a real residue of pure, unadulterated nastiness. So-and-so hurt us out plain old spite because he was jealous of our good grades. No excuses left. He was just cruel and vindictive. Period.

It is precisely here that Christ does not demand we pretend old So-and-so “meant well.” Rather, Christ calls us to make a real judgment about the sin committed against us, not that we may condemn the sinner, but that we may call the sin by name. We not only may, but must speak what has really been done to us just as we not only may but must speak what we have done in the sacrament of confession.

And for the same reason: that the forgiving power of Christ may be offered to the one who really did hurt us, just as it is offered to us, who really have sinned. Some people think that forgiveness is only to be offered to the penitent: if the sinner doesn’t say “I’m sorry” we don’t have to offer forgiveness. But this is not so. “It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rm 5:8) Grace, the grace of forgiveness flowing through us by the Holy Spirit, does not depend on the penitence of the one to whom we offer it. To be sure, that one who has hurt us may not accept it, may even deny he has ever sinned against us, may go on sinning. But still we are free (and commanded) to offer forgiveness, just as Christ offers it to us. But we must, as our Lord does, offer forgiveness, not mere excuses for ineptitude. In doing so, we will begin to be free of the terrible lies of our time that deny the reality of sin or demand that we hate sinners. Instead we will be able to name the sin for what it is, and pray the sinner into the hands of Mercy: pierced hands that have felt sin to its depths and that have power to touch the hardest heart.

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