What would a world without forgiveness look like?
We could expect constant wars, fighting, and conflict. We would witness the dissolution of marriage, family, and all but the most casual friendships. Court systems would clog. Everyone would seek to live and work alone. We would settle and adopt a universal language of pre-approved, non-offensive slogans and platitudes that would keep you in the clear. We would break out of our bubble of self-indulgent comfort only to toss an occasional log onto the insatiable bonfire of public shaming and outrage. In short, the human spirit would increasingly be characterized by disconnected, self-righteous bitterness.
The effects of our society’s abandonment of forgiveness are clear and appalling. So why can’t we turn the other cheek? Why can’t we break free from this cycle? In order to take practical steps toward regaining a healthy habit of forgiveness, we have to understand how we lost forgiveness in the first place.
Experiencing the impact of a cultural trend is a lot like eating a soup. You find that you like or dislike a particular flavor in the soup. But when it comes to giving feedback, it can prove difficult to put your finger on precisely what that flavor is, let alone diagnose the ingredients which produced it. In this case, a haughty, accusatory attitude is the final effect, the nauseating flavor permeating the soup of our culture. I want to suggest four primary ingredients which have created that flavor:
1. We don’t see our need for grace
Jesus makes it abundantly clear that there is a direct connection between comprehending our own forgiveness, and how well we forgive others. (Mt 6:12, 14-15; 18:23-35). If I don’t need forgiveness, then why should I forgive you? Jesus teaches that “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Mt 7:2). He means for us to hear that equation as a warning. But we won’t heed the warning unless we can be honest about our own failings. When we start with the presumption of our own near-perfection, everyone else will be weighed and found wanting.
2. We have an out-sized view of ourselves
When we remove God from the picture (either in statement or in practice), then we swell to fill the screen. We become the god to whom David confesses: “Against you, you only have I sinned”. Thus we take against ourselves the crimes of the world. Every marginalization, every error of judgment, every thoughtless word becomes an offense which I must play my part in rectifying. The vehemence of our reaction, evident in “cancel-culture” leaves behind and even demonizes objections voiced in a lower pitch. This level of reaction only makes sense when I, as an individual, sit as the larger than life representative of all humanity, and arbiter of its justice.
3. No one asks for forgiveness
It’s the chicken-egg conundrum. To ask for forgiveness is to wave the white flag, to give yourself to the mercy of your victim. But surrender comes more readily to countries where amnesty flows freely. That is hardly the case for us. People do not ask for forgiveness because they know that true forgiveness will not be given. Our rules of warfare are barbaric and terrifying: give no quarter, take no prisoners. Offenders are cast out, careers ended, friendships severed, and every public mistake can only be redeemed by becoming yet another cautionary tale. When you shut the door to the possibility of asking forgiveness, you find you have closed off your ability to give it to others.
4. “Speak-your-truth” allows for differences, not right and wrong
“You are what you decide to be. Make your own reality.” These are mantras we embrace. The message of ultimate self-determination creates a wide, ambiguous ground of moral shades of gray. I can always view my behavior and my speech as the progressive unfolding of my journey of self-discovery. This is a journey that, by definition, I travel alone, and which therefore precludes judgment from outside. On the other hand, for me to ask for forgiveness, or for you to give it, assumes a higher standard to which we both submit. But in a world where behavior merely reflects a spectrum of modes of self-expression, to ask for forgiveness is for me to confess to beingbad, not merely doing bad, as it was traditionally understood. Already an exercise in humility, repentance has now risen to the level of negating your value as a human being.
What is the solution?
Matthew 6:14 can prove tricky to those who claim free grace: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” This sounds a whole lot like our receiving grace is contingent on our first giving it to others. Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 helps untangle this knot, by showing us whose forgiveness is dependent on whom. In the parable, the servant is first forgiven his massive debt, then he goes and chokes the guy who owes him relatively little. As a result the servant’s cruelty, the original master seems to change his mind – he throws the unforgiving servant in jail until he pays everything.
Jesus’ point is that His forgiveness is the starting place. If we can’t forgive others, it’s simply a direct reflection of our failure to understand what Christ has already done. To put it another way, there’s no way this servant, or we, could possibly be demanding back a couple hundred bucks, unless we truly have no concept of what being forgiven millions means. It’s psychologically impossible.
1. Right-size your own role in God’s kingdom
If we remember who we are, and who is running the show, forgiveness becomes easier. There is a king. There is a ruler. There is One who executes justice perfectly. God is the one accountable for holding up God’s standard. That means we’re off the hook. It’s like if you were to deliver an undesirable memo from your boss to your co-worker, Steve. Steve erupts at you. He fumes, and cusses, and then tells you flatly, “Well, I’m just not going to do it.” You might agree with the memo you passed along, or you might agree with Steve. It doesn’t really matter. You’ll be a little hurt and offended by Steve, but then you’ll return to work, grateful you’re not the boss. God can look out for Himself, and He certainly can look out for you.
2. See the costliness of your own sins to Christ
Debt doesn’t disappear just because we want it to, or even just because God wants it to. Canceling a debt means someone has to absorb it. One of the reasons we avert our eyes from the cross is because it’s ugly. Not simply ugly in an abstract way, like a muddy puddle, or the empty parking lot of a strip mall. The cross is ugly in an intimate way, because it implicates us personally in its ugly, awful costliness. We will find it hard to meditate on our role in the cross, and then go out and vent about someone else on Facebook.
If we know and remember, not only what we have been forgiven in Christ, but what we are being forgiven every day, and at what cost, we will find our own forgiveness flowing more freely.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL.
"Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs" by Sinclair Ferguson
"The Forgiveness of Sins is Fundamental" by Grant Van Leuven
"Satan’s Strategy #6: Just Say Sorry" by Robert Spinney
Atonement, edited by Gabriel Fluhrer
Redemption Accomplished and Applied, with D.A. Carson, Kevin DeYoung, Richard Phillips, and more.