The Mite and Measure of Forgiveness

I have often wondered whether a wrong can be forgiven if its effects are persistently felt. A permanent injury and a deep betrayal alike cannot be forgotten; and when these harms are remembered by the victim, can it be without regret? And if the victim still feels sorrow, should not also the wrongdoer? Where then is forgiveness?

Let us be sure of the question we are asking. I want no consideration now of injuries where the fault may be at dispute. When several people knowingly engage in a risky course of action and some but not all suffer harm, to speak of forgiveness among them is to invent fault. But, to clarify the question, I exclude even cases where a person is clearly at fault, but had no deliberate intention: recklessness, carelessness, drunkeness leading to accidental death, negligence in workmanship or safety precautions, all of that. If we forgive in these kinds of faults, we may be only acknowledging that we ourselves might make the same mistake; and we are not extending unilateral forgiveness as much as bargaining a kind of insurance, peforming a transaction with a societal bank of tolerance. And if indeed this is not the case, then the forgiveness exercised can be considered of the same nature as that granted in the most extreme cases, of wrong done deliberately and yet forgiven.

We must also speak of a permanent injury that will not be forgotten, or again we are merely performing a credit transaction. If in a week or a month or a year I will have entirely forgotten the wrong you did me, to forgive you now is merely an exercise in foresight. This may not always be easy to do–sometimes in the moment we are completely enthralled by some trivial injury against us–and the prudence of employing this credit-forgiveness should not be dismissed. But the virtue is arguably prudence, not uniquely forgiveness, if we can imagine in our mind that we might ever forget the offense.

Most simply, then, we are speaking of murder–or wrongs that have the same abiding nature as murder. The objection at once arises, how can the victim of murder ever possibly forgive the murderer? But perhaps the victim does not die immediately. Or perhaps we speak of the victim’s family (some will accept the substitution, some will not). In either case, deliberate and unprovoked murder is very rarely forgiven; but we do hear, a few times in our lives, of cases when this is said to occur. (Here is one example: the murder of Amish school girls in October 2006. The journalist is full of doubt whether the forgiveness offered has a genuine substance, the same doubt we now entertain here.) We can conjure up a few other scenarios as well: What if someone burned down the house of a family, and with it near all of that family’s property, which they could never fully recover? What if a spouse of many long and loving years departs in sudden and fervent adultery? But the further we wander from our prime case the more space we leave for arguments about recovery, compensation, and so forth. So, for this inquiry, we stay with our prime case: murder unmitigated.

Now, we should pause here and note that some do not believe there is any such thing as forgiveness of this nature, nor that there ought to be. To forgive an act the harm of which is permanent and irreparable they consider a moral abomination. For them, the only proper forgiveness is the kind which can be accomplished by exchanging shares of the reserve of mutual tolerance held by society. From there the discussion can only move to which deeds may be covered by these funds, a subject beyond my present energies.

If we ponder our case it becomes quite grim. What can become of the mother who has forgiven her husband’s murderer? In those first years there will be a constant turmoil of grief, a tide that sometimes storms and rages, sometimes ebbs; the questions of children that cannot be answered, the sobs heaving in small chests that cannot be stilled. But this time will pass. Some urge forgiveness that this time might pass more quickly and the bereaved not be caught in a trap of resentment, anger, and bitterness. However long or short the time of tumultous grief, never after will the years be free of sorrow. There will be a part of the soul forever lost to grief, like the fading away of certain colors or the half-glimpsed shadows of an unspeakable presence.

Our hearts love to pitter in sympathy with the bereaved mother and children. But now let us outrage the pride of our consciences by considering the murderer. None of us want to tread in the path of the deliberate, unjustified murderer, but if you have felt persistent regret and the want of true forgiveness, carry that feeling with you now. Leave aside the guilty fear of being caught–our conjured murderer has been tried, found guilty, and fully forgiven. No doubt his days are lighter than those of the wife and children bereft by his violence. We consider his state of mind because forgiveness is a matter of removing the burden on the one who did wrong, not the ones wronged; if he has been forgiven, however undeservedly, does that fully free him? Or does he find that his thoughts, on occasion, are interrupted, as suddenly as a blink, by thoughts of his deed? In the midst of some discourse between he and himself, his self interjects like a sneeze: You killed him.

He should never forget, well we may say. Let him be haunted into his grave, and beyond. But have you ever been guilty of a wrong — just guilty, no excuse? Have done anything that mattered, and could not be overlooked for convenience? Have you wished for forgiveness that was not reasonable, only kind? If you have any thought that brings you shame, can you not wish with the murderer that forgiveness could be complete? Oh, that the crime were erased, that the harm were undone, that the hurt were unfelt! Would that anything could cancel what once has been done! If there were any small reparation that might, if done over again so many times, at last diminish the mountain of my fault!

But there is no freedom, is there? I have invented and presumed the experience of the wrongdoer and the wronged. I have given no proof that someone forgiven cannot walk away free forever from any guilty thought. But I feel secure in having imagined so. I have begun this journey considering forgiveness as the act by which a person who has been wronged consents and commits to remember no more the wrongdoing, and also the state when the wrongdoer has been freed from any recollection of his misdeed. Having searched, I cannot find this thing. Instead I have found that even when a man is let go free without any retribution for his crime, even when he is willingly pardoned to suffer no material consequence, there is nothing to expunge his deed save the decay of human memory. And what redemption is the death of memory? When the victims are all dead do the criminals all go unpunished? The feebleness of the mind is not the fulfillment of forgiveness. Where there is living memory the remembrance of guilt is near at hand.

This runs hard against the description of forgiveness captured in Psalm 103:12:

“as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

Yet the life of David the Psalmist bears witness to my meaning. David had many wives, and the corruption of this followed him through his life. One of his sons raped one of his daughters; then, as David did nothing, one of his other sons killed the first. As David still did nothing, this sond went on to raise a rebellion against his own father, in which he was then killed. David’s first son of his infamous wife Bathsheba died as a direct consquence of David’s sin; but so also did other sons of David. How far was David’s sin taken from him? Shortly after he died his regent son killed another of David’s sons, again because of a woman.

If David believed in the infinite forgiveness he sung about, then, it could not have been in his own life. Indeed, to have a crime the penalty of which fairly paid, the consequence of which has been made of no significance at all, and the memory of which has been laid aside willingly and joyfully and not by natural force; to accomplish all these you must have the all-sufficient substitution of Christ and the continuing life of the redeemed, who do not inherit a moment in time contingent on a thousand guilty acts of their forbearers, who are fully capable of remembering and fully capable of seeing what, after all, man hath wrought–nothing, absolutely nothing. For it is not that God makes up for the bad things bad men have done to each other by punishing the one good man who ever walked the earth; the total redeeming work of God is not quantitatively equal to our sin, but qualitatively greater than it, like the death of a man for the sin of a sparrow.

True forgiveness, then, can only be granted by God. Those who pledge forgiveness on this earth, in true apprehension of what that means, are not actually at that time abrogating the guilt; they are making a statement of faith about the work of God yet to be completed. They are saying, in effect, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Forgiveness is after all an anticipatory transaction, a borrowing against a future state; thus merely human forgiveness that banks on forgetfulness mimics what it can never attain, substituting the inability to remember for the ability to redeem.

The forgiveness that we can neither give nor get has already been obtained, but not by human mercy. God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” the only one who can make any sin of man of no effect. When we look at forgiveness in our lives and find it wanting, the bloodstain of what we have done still shadowing our lives, we might conclude that God has left us in our wretchedness without hope. But we ought to conclude that he has not finished in us the glory of his hope.