Last time I started from what Jesus said about forgiveness and how the church sometimes says almost the opposite. Jesus said, ‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’ Concern yourself first with forgiving others, and your ‘standing before God’ (to use a modern phrase) will take care of itself. But the church says that to ‘get right with God’ you need to feel guilty for your sin; you need to believe that Jesus died for you; you need to repent; you need to be baptised and join the church; etc., etc. And the church then says very little about forgiving others, except as moral teaching for its own members. It has swapped the priorities.
What I drew out in my last post were the parallels between what Jesus said and atheistic humanism. Jesus said live as though the angry God of the Old Testament, who requires sacrifice, doesn’t exist; instead, live a good life in the way you treat others. Jesus was against the religion of his day in as much as its rules and regulations were detracting people from being good to each other. And I think he would say the same of at least some churches today.
This time I want to explore a bit more about how forgiveness works in practice, and how church teaching can get in the way instead of helping or, at least, how it did for me.
The process of forgiving someone else is hard, but there are things you can do to make a start. You can try to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. You can try to focus on what’s good for their future rather than just on their offence in the past. You can try to focus on what’s best for the wider family or community that’s affected. And most of all, you can try to focus on what’s best for yourself, which is to move on from your negative feelings and replace them with positive ones.
All too often, however, the church doesn’t help with any of this. In fact its teaching can, perhaps unconsciously, discourage you from taking these steps. By teaching that God only forgives you when you have passed through certain steps (guilt, remorse, belief, repentance, etc.) it makes you think that you should only forgive others when they meet certain conditions too. It makes you place the same demands on the other person that you think God places on you. So you require the other person to show they are ashamed; you require them to give you an emotional apology; you require them perhaps to carry out a specific action, to pass a test that you give them to prove that they are sorry. Only then will you say that you can forgive them. But that keeps you looking backwards, to the offence, instead of forwards, and can never be true forgiveness. True forgiveness is a decision you reach to move on, for the best, regardless of what the other person says or does.
I should make clear at this point that I’m not saying that I’ve found Christians I know to be any worse at forgiving than anyone else, but I am saying that when I was a practising Christian I found myself being unforgiving. I expected others to demonstrate repentance, otherwise I didn’t think it was appopriate for me to forgive them. I know from first-hand experience that it’s possible to be a practising Christian and join the church without ever learning how to forgive. Thankfully most Christians I know do better at this than I did when I was in the church, but I think they do so because of their better humanity, despite the church’s teaching, not because of it.
I think the problem with the church’s teaching boils down to it making the wrong choice between two fundamentally different ways of understanding what forgiveness is.
To the church (and to much of human society throughout history, to be fair), forgiveness is a two-way transaction between the victim and the offender. The victim (the god who is offended by our sin) offers forgiveness to the offender (us) on condition that the offender demonstrates remorse and follows the path of repentance laid down by the victim. In many religions, that path to forgiveness involves sacrifice, and in Christianity that sacrifice becomes the death of Jesus himself.
But these days most of us recognise that forgiveness is something initiated entirely by the victim, regardless of whether the offender appreciates it or even knows about it. According to Wikipedia contributors and their sources forgiveness is
‘the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.’Forgiveness is a process undertaken by the victim, freely and without placing conditions on the offender. There is no need for any sacrifice.
I think Jesus understood forgiveness in this second way. He placed the emphasis on forgiving others. This is the practical action we can take as the victim, towards the offender. Only when we have tried to do that will we truly understand what unconditional forgiveness is—how difficult it is, yes, but also how radically liberating it is, and necessary for improving society. I hope I've moved on a bit from the judgmental person I was when I was a practising Christian, but I know I've still got a lot to learn.
If only the church taught the same thing as Jesus, that we should concern ourselves with forgiving others, rather than with religious rules or formulae that are supposedly required to gain forgiveness from a god. But I suppose if it did that, it would probably put itself out of a job!