David Ellis raised an interesting question with respect to forgiveness and restoration in Rwanda: why would I want to forgive someone who killed members of my family? How does that come to be considered a desirable thing to do? I offered a brief answer in that discussion thread, but I didn’t do it justice. It is as complex a subject as one could ask for, dealing as it does with the depths of human relationships under their greatest stress. A blog entry cannot uncover every possible nuance or address all the questions. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to do what we can do.
I’ll start with a biblically-based definition. A quick source for all NT usages of forgive, forgiven, or forgiveness is available here.
To forgive (the verb form) and forgiveness (the noun form) are used to translate three Greek words:
ἀφίημι (aphiēmi, verb) and the related ἄφεσις (aphesis, noun), used in the sense relating to forgiveness some 64 times in the NT. The noun form is frequently translated in some English versions as remission, the cancellation of a debt, charge, or penalty.
χαρίζομαι (charizomai, verb), used in the relevant sense about 12 times in the NT
The links on the anglicized forms are to a lexicon with further links to NT passages using these words. As is the case with English or any other language, these words have multiple meanings not necessarily related to each other. The definitions relevant to forgiveness may be summarized: to forgive is to graciously and benevolently grant pardon, restoration, or cancellation of a penalty with respect to a debt or a crime.
Certainly genocide is a crime of massive proportions; the Rwanda story was about survivors granting exceptional forgiveness. Please allow me now to string together several somewhat disconnected observations, which I hope will eventually coalesce to form a coherent picture.
Forgiveness is the prerogative of the person who has experienced the hurt, loss, or pain. I wrote earlier about two murders in my own family, and there I said,
I can forgive my cousins’ killers as far as it is my place to do so (for the loss or pain I have experienced through what they did)…
My point is that I can only forgive the killers for the way they hurt me. I cannot forgive them for the hurt they caused anyone else in the family, or among their friends; it is strictly up to each person to do that. It would be horribly wrong and presumptuous to say “you are forgiven” as if my word on that covered all harm done. Further, I cannot forgive the crime they committed with respect to the law; only the state can do that. In Rwanda, 60,000 accused killers were set free from prison just because there was no place to incarcerate them all. Obviously that’s exceptional. Most of all, I cannot forgive them for their sins against God himself. This is why Jesus’ words of forgiveness in Mark 2:1-12 raised such a ruckus: he was taking up a prerogative that belonged only to God.
Forgiveness is closely tied to repentance. This was how it was practiced in Rwanda, and that is the biblical form as well (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38; Luke 24:47). There is at least one shining exception to that, however: Jesus on the cross, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). It seems to me that one can forgive another person in one’s heart, without requiring that other person’s repentance, in the sense that one lets go of one’s anger and desire to punish or gain revenge. To move to the next level, though, where relationship is restored, seems to require genuine repentance. This is also biblical: a restored relationship with God through Jesus Christ depends on our turning away from the darkness of our sins, and toward God’s light. To put it another way, as it relates to human relationships, to forgive someone does not mean automatically to trust them. Trust must be re-earned, which begins with words and actions fitting with repentance.
Some people will never do that: they will never be trustworthy. We might continue to offer them opportunities to turn themselves around, but if we’re wise we’ll keep that contained within very careful boundaries, so that if they break trust, they can only cause limited damage. If you steal my car this year and come back the next year telling me you’re a changed man, I might offer to let you borrow my lawn mower, but you’ll need to prove yourself with more than words before I let you borrow my car keys (unless I consider losing my car an acceptable risk). For all its flaws (which are many), one positive purpose of our prison system is to protect the general population from people who cannot be trusted. The man convicted of killing my cousin Jeanette was a multiple offender. No amount of forgiveness could overcome the fact that he shouldn’t be trusted with opportunity to do the same again to someone else. He’s in prison for life, and for good reason.
Forgiveness need not mean setting aside all consequences for an offense or a crime. Dan Allender, in his excellent book Bold Love, speaks of “offering the gift of consequences.” Every parent knows consequences are necessary for their children’s learning and maturation. I was formerly a Human Resource director, and once I had to terminate an employee for a long-term pattern of irresponsibility. He hadn’t really grown up yet. Two or three years later I ran into him, and he thanked me for the wake-up call that had given him. It’s never too late to mature some more. But note that “the gift of consequences” is a gift of love (“Bold Love”). It’s not something we do for ourselves, we do it for the sake of the other, for their good and not for ours. The Bible speaks of reaping what we sow (Galatians 6:7, among other places), and clearly part of the reason for that is for the purpose of learning.
Forgiveness is a process, just as working through the pain of an offense is a process. I have yet to feel and to experience all the loss or hurt that were dealt to me by certain injuries in my past. In some cases it took some time to get to the stage where I could start forgiving, and I think we ought to allow ourselves and each other time to get to that point (though we ought to consider it our goal, even during that processing time, that we will move on to that point). Even then I could only forgive of that pain as much as I had experienced up to that point. I don’t think we can forgive future hurts, even if they are future hurts brought about by past offenses. We can forgive what we have experienced of the hurt so far; and as time passes and we experience more of the continuing pain, we continue to forgive anew.
Now, here’s what I mean by that, practically speaking. Suppose I’m lying awake in bed some night next week, feeling upset and angry again about how a former boss treated me. “Why am I still so upset?” I might ask myself, “I thought I had forgiven him!” In actuality, I may have done so. But if I’m experiencing new hurt over it, then I need to forgive again specifically for that new hurt, which might just be my upset and anger that night.
That’s enough for now. It’s only a beginning. I said above that I was going to start with a biblically-based definition. In reality that’s all I’ve done so far, for all of this has been definitional material. I haven’t mentioned how forgiveness relates to justice, or why it might be a good thing to forgive. That will come in my next post on this topic.
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