Monday, September 19, 2011

Short Cuts – What Forgiveness Isn’t (Part 2)

Shortcut through a cornfield

Forgiveness. We say the word a lot, but I don’t think many people really believe in it. I suggested once that someone forgive her friend, I quoted Jesus’ advice, and said that it would help with reconciliation. She was skeptical and asked, “Sure it’s true. But it won’t work. Not in real life. Will it?” Forgiveness might be a nice concept, but what are we supposed to do? What is forgiveness? Is it practical?

Before we talk about what forgiveness is, I’m going to talk about what it isn’t. There are a lot of ways to short-cut forgiveness. These allow us to look really righteous without the hard work. Too many people, especially good Christian people, are far too quick to say, “I forgive you” or to apologize without forgiving and think the issue settled. When we take the short cut, we end up lost in a land of vengeance and hatred.

One way we can short-cut forgiveness is by partial forgiveness. In the story of the son who plundered the family business, most of us would probably go the partial forgiveness. We forgive enough to get him under our thumb as an employee. But we certainly don’t forgive all. The son knows forever more that he is inadequate. And we know that we’re justified in being his master because of what he did. And there is no reconciliation. We would prefer a slave to a son.

Another way we can short-cut it is to say something that counts as an apology, but isn’t forgiveness. You can say, “It’s OK,” or worse, “No problem”/”It’s cool”. “It’s OK” may be most accurate, “Our relationship is now mediocre because of what you did to me,” but that’s not forgiveness. When one person incurs a debt, it’s not even anymore. One owes the other. “No problem,” is almost always a lie, an escape from having to actually do the hard work of forgiving. It was a problem. It did hurt you. Pretending like it didn’t hurt is the worst thing you can do. It leaves the debtor unforgiven and now somewhat sorry that he asked for forgiveness in the first place (after all, it was “no problem”).

True forgiveness requires the debt be acknowledged. It requires the offended to realize that he was offended, and to honestly come to terms with how bad it hurt. This is often a very difficult step because it means we have to know ourselves and think about our feelings. This is hard for Americans, and downright terrifying for American males. But think about it: financially, you can’t write off “business losses” on your taxes without known how much your business lost (or you’re cheating on your taxes… which is not the subject of this post).  If you want to communicate about your imprudence in Vegas your statement, “I lost some money in Vegas” might mean “I lost 500 nickels in the slots in Vegas” or “I lost 500,000 dollars on roulette in Vegas”.

Like all human failures, there are plenty of great reasons to take the short-cut. First, we do it because it’s easier. Its hard work to hike down the straight and narrow trail of forgiveness; the smooth road of superficial apology is far easier. But there’s another great societal reason to take the short cut: Relativism. We’re taught from a young age that there is no such thing as sin or offense or debt: the feelings of being offended are imaginary, irrational constructions of a moralistic society.

The problem with this is that we cannot, try as we might, believe that Offenses are imaginary. Everyone, when he bothers to consult his own experience, knows that offenses are real. Even those who firmly deny an objective moral realm have the real subjective experience of being hurt, of being owed something by another. Whatever its origin (societal programming, human instinct, or from On High), we feel bad when another person hurts us.

And so we are stuck. We feel bad when we are hurt; we make others feel bad when we hurt them. And it doesn’t get better with apology. In fact, it makes it worse. With short cuts, we live in a world of make-believe, living like we have the sublime thing when we don’t. We settle for quick and superficial ‘reconciliation’ and give up hope on deep and lasting reunion.

1 comment:

  1. How far-sighted is this father? Most people see the money as wasted, maybe he knew that was the cost to deliver his son from pride, to humility.
    I can hear his parting words to his son:
    "If ever you find something better and greater than the living God we serve, please return and share such good news."
    I think he both knew what awaited his son and value such experience would bring.