My wife once came up with an acute theological formulation in the heat of an argument. We were discussing my shortcomings in a rather spirited way when she said, “I think it’s pretty amazing that I forgive you for some of the dastardly things you’ve done!”

Sorry, but because I’m writing about forgiveness—not sin—I’ll have to omit the juicy details of those “dastardly things.” What struck me about her comment, though, was its insight into the nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness is no sweet, platonic ideal to be dispensed to the world like perfume sprayed from a fragrance bottle. It is achingly difficult. Long after you have forgiven, the wound lives on in memory. Above all, forgiveness is an unnatural act, and my wife was protesting its blatant unfairness.

A story from Genesis captures much the same sentiment. When I was a child listening to the story in Sunday school, I could not understand the loops and twists in the account of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers. One moment Joseph acted harshly, throwing his brothers in jail; the next moment he seemed overcome with sorrow, leaving the room to blubber like a drunk. He played tricks on his brothers, hiding money in their grain sacks, seizing one as a hostage, accusing another of stealing his silver cup. For months, maybe years, these intrigues went on until finally Joseph could restrain himself no longer. He called them in and forgave them.

I now see that story as a straightforward saga depicting the unnatural act of forgiveness. The brothers Joseph was striving to forgive were the very ones who had mocked him as a child, who had cooked up schemes to murder him, who had sold him into slavery. Because of them he had spent the best years of his youth moldering in an Egyptian dungeon. Now, with all his heart he wanted to forgive these brothers. But he couldn’t, not yet. It hurt too much.

I view Genesis 42–45 as Joseph’s way of saying, “I think it’s pretty amazing that I forgive you for some of the dastardly things you’ve done!” When he finally came to the point of forgiveness, the sound of his grief and love echoed throughout the palace. What is that wail? Is Joseph sick? Is he hurt? Joseph’s health was fine. The wails were the sounds of a man forgiving.

Against All Instincts

I and the public know

what all school children learn;

those to whom evil is done

do evil in return.

The poet who wrote those lines, W. H. Auden, understood the law of nature, a law that admits no forgiveness. You don’t find dolphins forgiving sharks for eating their playmates. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, not dog-forgive-dog. As for human beings, Wall Street and the nation’s financial markets run on the same unrelenting principle, as does much of politics, or athletics. An umpire never announces, “You were really out, but because of your exemplary spirit I’ll call you safe.” What nation responds to its belligerent neighbors with the proclamation, “You were right, we violated your borders. Will you please forgive us?”

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Sigmund Freud understood this law of nature. “One must forgive one’s enemies,” he said, “but not before they have been hanged.” He became a guru to eager young disciples, and all those who departed from him, such as Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, were labeled “defector” or “heretic.”

Forgiveness as an unnatural act—Freud, Auden, Joseph, and my wife express it as if by instinct. All of us learn the law of nature on the playground. But that creates an enormous problem for those of us called Christians, for our faith is shot through with forgiveness.

Many Christians recite the prayer each Sunday, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” At the center of this prayer, which Jesus gave as a model of how we ought to pray, lurks the unnatural act of forgiveness.

Tony Campolo sometimes asks students at secular universities what they know about Jesus. Can they repeat anything Jesus said? By clear consensus they reply, “Forgive your enemies.” While the students did not get Jesus’ words exactly right, they certainly caught his spirit. More than any other teaching of Christ, this one stands out to an unbeliever. Such forgiveness is so unnatural as to seem downright suicidal. It’s hard enough to forgive your rotten brothers, as Joseph did, but your enemies? The gang of thugs down the block? Iraqis? The drug dealers poisoning our nation?

Breaking The Cycle

Why would God require of us an unnatural act that defies every primal instinct? What makes forgiveness so important, so central to our faith? From my experience as an often-forgiven, sometimes-forgiving person, I can suggest three reasons.

First, forgiveness is the only way to break the cycle of blame—and pain—in a relationship.

I readily admit that breaking this cycle seems unfair. In some ways, Hinduism, with its doctrine of karma, provides a more satisfying sense of fairness. Some Hindu scholars estimate that for the punishments in other lives to balance out all my wrongs in this life (and coming lives), 6,800,000 incarnations should suffice.

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Marriage resembles Hinduism in some ways. Two stubborn people live together, get on each other’s nerves, and try to resolve the power struggle through a tit-for-tat war of fairness: “I can’t believe you forgot your own mother’s birthday.”

“Wait a minute, aren’t you supposed to be in charge of the calendar?”

“Don’t try to pass the blame to me—she’s your mother.”

“Yes, but I told you just last week to remind me. Why didn’t you?”

“You’re crazy—it’s your own mother. Can’t you keep track of your own mother’s birthday?”

“Why should I? It’s your job to remind me.”

Such inane conversation bleats on through, say, 6,800,000 cycles until finally one of the partners says, “Stop! I’ll break the chain.” And the only way to break that endless cycle is forgiveness. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?

Two novels by Nobel laureates express the pattern eloquently. In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez portrays a marriage that disintegrates over a bar of soap. It was the wife’s job to keep the house in order, including the towels, toilet paper, and soap in the bathroom. One day she forgot to replace the soap, an oversight her husband mentioned in an exaggerated way (“I’ve been bathing for almost a week without any soap”), but that she vigorously denied. Although she had indeed forgotten, her pride was at stake, and she would not back down. For the next seven months they slept in separate rooms and ate in silence.

“Even when they were old and placid,” writes Márquez, “they were very careful about bringing it up, for the barely healed wounds could begin to bleed again as if they had been inflicted only yesterday.” How can a bar of soap ruin a marriage? Because neither partner would say, “Stop. This cannot go on. I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Over such trivialities, lifelong relationships crack apart; only forgiveness can halt the widening fissures.

Viper’s Tangle, by François Mauriac, tells a similar story of an old man who spends the last few decades—decades!—of his marriage sleeping down the hall from his wife. Every night he waits for her to approach him, but she never appears. Every night she lies awake waiting for him to approach her, and he never appears. Neither will break the cycle that began over some sexual miscue years before.

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Forgiveness breaks the cycle. It does not settle all questions of blame and justice and fairness; to the contrary, often it evades those questions. But it does allow relationships to start over. In that way, said Solzhenitsyn, we differ from all animals. It is not our capacity to think that makes us different, but our capacity to repent, and to forgive. Only humans can perform that most unnatural act, and by doing so only they can develop relationships that transcend the relentless law of nature.

Charles Williams has said of the Lord’s Prayer (“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive …”), “No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word ‘as’ in that clause.… The condition of forgiving then is to be forgiven; the condition of being forgiven is to forgive.” It is one thing to get caught up in a tit-for-tat, dog-eat-dog cycle with a spouse or business partner, and another thing entirely to get caught up in such a cycle with Almighty God. Thankfully, he is the author of forgiveness, and it is he who calls us to a higher law.

Loosening The Stranglehold

As forgiveness breaks the cycle of blame in a relationship, it also (and this is the second reason forgiveness is so central) loosens the stranglehold of guilt on us and on others.

Last year the world watched a drama of forgiveness acted out on the stage of world politics. After East Germany elected a Parliament in its first free elections, that Parliament assembled to take up the reins of government. The Eastern bloc was changing daily, West Germany was proposing reunification, and the Parliament had many weighty matters of state to consider. But their first official act was to vote on this extraordinary statement:

We, the first freely elected parliamentarians of the GDR … on behalf of the citizens of this land, admit responsibility for the humiliation, expulsion and murder of Jewish men, women and children. We feel sorrow and shame, and acknowledge this burden of German history.… We ask all the Jews of the world to forgive us. We ask the people of Israel to forgive us for the hypocrisy and hostility of official East German policies toward Israel and for the persecution and humiliation of Jewish citizens in our country after 1945 as well.

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East Germany’s Parliament passed the statement unanimously, members rose to their feet for a long ovation, then paused for a moment of silence in memory of the Jews who had died in the Holocaust.

What did such an act of Parliament accomplish? Certainly it did not bring the murdered Jews back to life, or undo the horrible deeds of nazism. No, but it helped loosen the stranglehold of guilt that had pressed around the necks of East Germans for nearly 50 years—five decades in which their government had denied any need for forgiveness.

In recent years, thousands of Americans and Britons have watched another drama of forgiveness played out in a different venue: a theater stage, in the musical version of Les Misérables. The musical follows its original source, Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel, in recounting the story of Jean Valjean, a French prisoner hounded—and ultimately transformed—by forgiveness.

Jean Valjean served a 19-year term of hard labor for stealing bread. He entered the French penal system as an impressionable young man, and emerged as a tough, hardened convict. No one could beat Jean Valjean in a fistfight. No one could break his will. After serving his term, at last he was set free. But convicts in those days had to carry identity cards, and no innkeeper would let a dangerous felon like Jean Valjean spend the night. For four days he wandered the village roads seeking shelter, until finally a kindly bishop had mercy on him.

That night Jean Valjean lay still in a comfortable bed until the bishop and his sister had drifted off to sleep. He rose, rummaged through the cupboard for the family silver, and crept off into the darkness.

The next morning three policemen knocked on the bishop’s door, with Jean Valjean in tow. They had found the convict running away, with the purloined silver in his pack. They were ready to put the scoundrel in chains for life. But the bishop did the very opposite of what the gendarmes, or Jean Valjean, expected.

“So here you are!” he cried to Valjean. “I’m delighted to see you. Have you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?”

Jean Valjean’s eyes had widened. He was now staring at the old man with an expression no words can convey.

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Valjean is no thief, the bishop assured the gendarmes. “This silver was my gift to him.” When the gendarmes had withdrawn, the bishop gave the candlesticks to his guest, now speechless and trembling. “Do not forget, do not ever forget,” said the bishop, “that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.”

The power of the bishop’s act, defying every human instinct for revenge and justice, changed Jean Valjean’s life forever. A naked encounter with forgiveness melted the defenses of his soul. He kept the candlesticks as a memento, and dedicated himself to helping others in need.

Hugo’s novel stands, in fact, as a two-edged parable of forgiveness. A detective, who knew no law but justice, stalked Jean Valjean mercilessly over the next two decades. As Valjean is transformed by forgiveness, the detective is consumed by revenge. Finally, finding no room for grace in his life, he jumps off a bridge into the Seine.

Forgiveness thus transforms individuals, both forgivers and forgiven. For Joseph, who had borne a well-deserved grudge against his brothers, forgiveness spilled out in the form of tears and groans; but these moans, like those of childbirth, were harbingers of liberation. Through them, Joseph gained at last his freedom. And the New Testament shows a resurrected Jesus leading Peter by the hand through a threefold ritual of forgiveness (John 21:15–19). Peter need not go through life with the guilty, hangdog look of one who had betrayed the Son of God on earth. Oh, no. On the backs of transformed sinners Christ would build his church.

Bridging The Gap

Forgiveness breaks the cycle of blame in a relationship. Forgiveness loosens the stranglehold of guilt in individuals. And it accomplishes these things, finally, through a remarkable transaction: Forgiveness puts the forgiver on the same side as the party who did the wrong. Through it we realize that we are not as different from the wrongdoer as we would like to think.

I am discovering my true fallen nature through two unrelated activities: golf and editing. I confess with some shame that each reveals my selfish tendency to excuse myself and blame others.

The instant I hit a bad golf shot, my subconscious marshals dozens of plausible excuses: The ground is too wet today; my club caught on a rock; that car horn distracted me. Nearly always, I find, my intentions were correct, but an outside force intervened.

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In contrast, if I approach the eighteenth green tied with my partner, and he slices his drive into the woods, I am quick to assess blame. Dave just can’t take the pressure. He clutched.

The same principle applies in editing. As I edit my own first drafts, my subconscious supplies manifold explanations for my sloppy writing: I am overworked; I had too much on my mind; I knew I’d catch those mistakes in a later revision. But when I edit a friend’s articles, I find myself thinking, She should know better. That’s a simple error of syntax. Why doesn’t she catch these mistakes?

I mention these examples to illustrate how forgiveness operates: it offers a way for me to bridge the gap, taking the place of my errant golf partner and struggling writer friend. When I forgive, I acknowledge that sometimes I write junk that some unheralded editor will have to slave over to make coherent; that sometimes drinking too much coffee makes me so jittery I can’t swing a golf club better than a fly swatter. Forgiving another is a way of saying, “I’m human. I make mistakes. I want to be granted that privilege, and so I grant you that privilege.”

It may approach sacrilege to use golf and editing as analogues to the Incarnation, but at some level I think a similar principle was at work when God came to earth in Christ. How could a perfect God tolerate the notion of evil? Somehow he had to come to terms with these human creatures he desperately wanted to love—but how? Experientially, God did not know what it was like to be tempted to sin, or to have a bad day. On earth, living among us, he learned what it was like. He put himself on our side.

Hebrews 4 makes explicit this mystery of incarnation: “… we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (v. 15). Second Corinthians goes even further: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (5:21). You cannot get any more explicit than that. God bridged the gap; he took our side all the way. And because he did, Hebrews affirms, Jesus can plead our case to the Father. He has been here. He understands.

From the gospel accounts, it seems forgiveness was not easy for God, either. “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me,” Jesus prayed, contemplating the cost, and the sweat rolled off him like drops of blood. There was no other way. Finally, in one of his last statements before dying, he said, “Forgive them”—all of them, the Roman soldiers, the religious leaders, his disciples who had fled in darkness, you, me, who have denied him so many times—“forgive them, for they know not what they do.” By becoming a human being, the Son of God could truly say, with understanding, “They know not what they do.” He had lived among us. Now he understood.

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The Cross may be God’s way of saying to us, “It’s pretty amazing that I forgive you for all those dastardly things you’ve done.” For God, forgiveness was as achingly difficult as Calvary. But to get back and restore the ones he loved, to break the cycle of pain and guilt, he had to come down from heaven and live, and die, among us.

As Episcopalian writer Gale D. Webbe once said, “… the only ultimate way to conquer evil is to let it be smothered within a willing, living human being. When it is absorbed there like blood in a sponge or a spear into one’s heart, it loses its power and goes no further.”

Resolving The Unfairness

I learned to appreciate forgiveness for these three reasons, but something still troubled me. Although forgiveness may be good for the relationship and good for me, even so at the core it remains unfair. My wife was right: there is something unjust about a person’s dastardly deeds going unpunished.

Such thoughts nagged at me until one day I came across an admonition from the apostle Paul tucked away among many other admonitions in Romans 12. Hate evil, be joyful, live in harmony, do not be conceited—the list goes on and on. Then appears this verse: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (v. 19).

At last I understood: In the final analysis, forgiveness is an act of faith. By forgiving another, I am simply trusting that God is a better justice maker than I am. By forgiving, I leave issues of fairness for God to work out. I defer to him the scales of justice.

Wrong does not disappear when I forgive. But it loses its grip on me, and is taken over by God. He knows what to do.

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