by the Rev. Peter Stimpson
QUESTION: I don’t understand forgiveness. It seems so weak, as if you’re letting someone get away with murder and opening the door for them to abuse you all over again. Am I right?
ANSWER: No, but it is a hard concept to understand. There are really three elements defining forgiveness. Let’s look at them.
1. Repentance: A person must be genuinely contrite, truly sorry for having hurt you.
2. Change: How do you know if someone is really sorry? By their behavior. This means reparation, not hurriedly reciting five Hail Mary’s and five Our Fathers, but real change. Often, this simply means doing the opposite of what was done wrong. If sarcastic, then being kind as well as direct. If defaming the name of someone, then restoring their good name. If lying, then telling the truth. If stealing, then the restitution of monies.
The goal here is not to hurt the person, but rather to save him. The hope is to start the person on a path toward renewal, realizing that he is in the process of creating who he is. The judgment of God is to accept our judgment, to allow us to have the consequences of our own actions. The punishment for being selfish is to be selfish. It is written on our soul, and no amount of fast talking will change that reality. A person is stuck with his or her choice for all eternity, and that is far more powerful than any pound of flesh that we extract from those who hurt us.
3. Pardon: Now comes what we understand as “forgiveness.” It does not mean magically erasing a sin from someone’s soul, but rather giving them another chance. Why? Because forgiveness is based less on the fact that the “forgiver” is a nice person, and more on the fact that the “forgivee” has the potential for change. We need to separate out person from behavior. For instance, if your son does something wrong, you should not say, “You are a bad boy”, but rather “You are a good boy who did something bad.” Change is always possible, this, for instance, being one of the reasons why the religious community is against the death penalty.
But, what if after all this the person continues to hurt you? Then, you withdraw your forgiveness and separate yourself from the person so as to avoid being hurt. We tend to forget that in Christian theology, Jesus told his disciples “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them. Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” (John 20: 21-23).
To make this clearer, if I kept punching you in the nose and asking for your forgiveness, eventually, you would determine that enough is enough, tell me to leave, and even put up your fists to protect yourself. Are you being UnChristian? No, just UnStupid! God does not want you to be a punching bag, just to give others who are genuinely sorry a chance to change.