No Excuse for Not Forgiving

In my last column, we looked at a few of the most popular excuses devised by us Christians for avoiding the command to forgive enemies.  But there are still others.

One common dodge is to say, “God does not forgive impenitent sinners.  Why should we be held to a higher standard than that to which God holds Himself?”

This clever retort sounds good, but it all hinges on what we mean by a “higher” standard.  Obviously, no standard is “higher” than God’s own standard in the sense of “better” or “more perfect.”  But if by “higher”, you really mean “stricter” then there is a very sufficient answer to this question: “Because we’re not God”.

The sleight of hand at work here is the notion that God would never forbid us something he doesn’t forbid himself.  But this is nonsense.  We are commanded “Judge not” by the Judge of the whole world.  Why?  Because we are not qualified to judge anybody and He is qualified to judge everybody.  In other words, it is precisely because we are not God that we are commanded to forgive.

Still another excuse for refusing forgiveness goes this way: “The command to forgive is not unconditioned, because if it were, a priest could not refuse absolution. Since, in some cases, the priest is supposed to refuse absolution, so can we refuse to forgive.”

This is, however, to confuse sacramental confession with the common Christian demand for forgiveness. Like it or not, the command “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance” (Mark 11:25) is unconditioned, just as the command to love our enemies is. And it is coupled with the equally unconditional (and dire) assurance “if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Pastors with a responsibility to govern the Church are given latitude by our Lord to exercise discretion in the dispensation of sacramental absolution (“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 21:23)) precisely because they act in persona Christi and we do not.

Yet another excuse people sometimes offer works this way: “I can forgive evils done against me personally, but I don’t have to forgive, say, the 9/11 conspirators because they did not effect me personally.  That’s why it was so presumptuous of Pope John Paul to pray a prayer of forgiveness for them.  That is for the victims to do, not some Pope sitting in Rome in the comfort of a papal palace!  He has no idea how those victims suffered!”

The trick behind this excuse is to allow yourself to identify with the victims of a sin enough to hate their enemies, but to pretend that this act of identification does not likewise oblige you to forgive their enemies as it obliges them.  Basic rule of thumb: if a sin done to a stranger arouses pity for the stranger and loathing for the one who committed the sin, then to that degree you are bound to forgive it as if it were done to you. 

“But,” we splutter desperately, “Do you really think, for example, that Osama bin Laden is owed forgiveness?”

No. Nobody is owed forgiveness. Unconditional love is, by definition, undeserved. Grace is grace, not something we deserve.

So, sooner or later, we return to the granite fact that we are solemnly commanded by Jesus Christ himself to extend forgiveness to absolutely everybody who sins against us, whether they ever repent or not. Why does he give this command? Two reasons:

1. We’re not God and

2. It will destroy our lives and damn our souls if we don’t.

You can refuse to forgive [Insert Jerk’s Name Here] till the day you die. The actual, practical, real world result of this will be that no actual practical good will be done whatever by clinging to unforgiveness.

For it is false that clinging to unforgiveness will somehow empower us to Do What Needs To be Done. This is like confusing idling your motor at a million RPM with driving.  It is a purely destructive waste of time.  For the biggest irony is: We not only commit the sin of usurping the place of God, we also have no effect whatever on the sinner while we eat ourselves alive with pointless, utterly unproductive, and impotent rage. The truly Christian thing is to act in whatever practical and just way we can–and then hand the sinner over to God with the words, “I forgive X in the name of Christ”.  This, like quitting smoking, is easy–and must be done thousands of times.

That’s the Tradition. It’s the most repellent part of the entire gospel. But also, I think, the most necessary.


Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email