Forgiveness, however wonderful in the abstract, is strikingly hard for humans to give (or even receive).
In his new book Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? (Viking, 2022) [20 quotes], Tim Keller shows that the key to grasping forgiveness on a human level is to ground it in God’s forgiveness available through Christ’s cross. Apart from this vertical source, human forgiveness is essentially a farce—unable to provide reconciliation or combat injustice in an evil world.
I asked the cofounder of The Gospel Coalition why forgiving is so hard, whether it undermines justice, what lessons he’s learned from his marriage to Kathy, and more. (You can also listen to Keller’s Gospelbound interview.)
How does our therapeutic age make forgiveness more difficult?
It changes the motive. The therapeutic reason for forgiveness is self-interest and self-actualization. You do it strictly for your own mental health, your own “freedom,” your own peace of mind. Now, true Christian forgiveness can bring you all those things—but as by-products. The ground motive of biblical forgiveness is, first, to honor God—to forgive as he has forgiven you—and, second, to bring about change for the common good. You should want the wrongdoer to repent for his or her sake, for God’s sake, and for the sake of possible future victims.
The therapeutic motive of self-interest won’t really work. If forgiveness is all about making you happier—well, lots of people find that nursing a grudge is quite pleasurable!
Is forgiveness more of an event or a process? In other words, having forgiven and even reconciled with someone, how do you then deal with sudden intrusions of bitterness? Does it mean you really didn’t forgive in the first place?
Forgiveness is granted (event) before it’s felt (process). It’s a promise before God not to take revenge on a wrongdoer for his or her sin against you. Making that promise entails three practical commitments. You promise (1) not to constantly bring the sin up to the wrongdoer in order to browbeat and punish her, (2) not to constantly bring the sin up to other people in order to hurt the wrongdoer’s reputation and relationship with others, and (3) not to constantly bring the sin up to yourself—not to keep the anger hot, not to replay the video of it in order to cherish the feeling of nobility and virtue that comes from having been treated unjustly.
At first, when you make those commitments—granting forgiveness—you don’t feel forgiving at all. You are still angry. That’s natural. But if you keep the commitments in a disciplined way (which will be hard)—and you remember the “vertical” dimension: that you’re a sinner living wholly by God’s grace—then slowly but surely you will feel the forgiveness you have granted.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to feel forgiving before you can grant it. If you try to do it that way, it will never happen. You must grant forgiveness in order to feel it.
‘Forgiveness is not the opposite of seeking true justice,’ you observe. ‘It is, among many other things, its precondition’ (167). This seems counterintuitive. What do you mean?
If you don’t internally forgive first (see previous answer), then when you go out to seek justice, you will more likely be out for vengeance.
Vengeance is always excessive. That was the point of the lex talionis. Why did it say “a tooth for a tooth”? Because vengeance for a knocked-out tooth always wants more—it wants to knock out all the perpetrator’s teeth. Vengeance tends not only to be disproportionate but to be surrounded with hateful, caustic, cruel language that does not help perpetrators repent—it only leads them to dig in and oppose all your efforts to put things right. The perpetrators rightly see you are not really after justice for their sake, or for future victims’ sake, or for truth’s sake, or for God’s sake; you are after vengeance for your sake, and you just want to inflict suffering on them.
To forgive is to reject any vengeance or payback for the wrong—it is not to act as if the wrong never happened.
So if you are going to effectively pursue justice, you should first forgive, eschewing vengeance, but then go out to rectify the wrongs.
How does a person honor the mandate to forgive while still maintaining healthy boundaries in an emotionally hurtful relationship (say, with an unbelieving family member)? What might forgiveness practically look like in such a scenario?
To forgive someone who wronged you does not mean you have to immediately trust him or her. Trust has to be re-earned. To forgive is to reject vengeance or payback for the wrong—it is not to act as if the wrong never happened. If the wrongdoer hasn’t repented, then you shouldn’t make it easy for her to sin against you again. (It is never loving to someone to make it easy for her to sin against you.) And yet you must be open to rebuilding trust slowly if the wrongdoer shows what looks like genuine repentance.
Every case differs, of course—and in the case of real egregious abuse, it would be wrong to insist the abused persons (e.g., battered wives) put themselves in harm’s way. (For examples of how you forgive not just “regular sinners” but “fools and evil persons,” see Dan Allender and Tremper Longman’s book Bold Love. There are some ingenious examples of how you show an abusive person you’re still open to him if he changes, but if he isn’t changing, you won’t allow him to sin against you for even one minute.)
Forgiveness can feel ‘high risk’ and ‘low reward’—like we’d be worse off (more at risk) if we forgive and better off (more protected, more insulated from harm) if we refuse to forgive. But why is this misguided? What are the dangers of an unforgiving heart?
Forgiveness is required by the Bible not on a cost-benefit basis but because God commands it. Yet the New Testament indicates that we should forgive not simply as the response of our wills to a command but as the natural response of hearts reordered by God’s forgiveness. Jesus very explicitly ties God’s forgiveness of us to our forgiveness of others—if we expect God’s forgiveness and if we have truly rejoiced in it, we will forgive others. If we don’t forgive, though, it’s fair to ask if we have truly received God’s forgiveness and been changed by it. If you never forgive sinners, do you really understand yourself to be a forgiven sinner?
Having said that, Romans 12:21—“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome [defeat] evil with good”—hints at the idea that if we don’t forgive, the wrongdoers essentially “win.” If we stay bitter for years, then the wrongdoers are robbing us of joy for years. And if we take vengeance, then we have in a sense become cruel like them. If we ever think, I won’t do that because it’s just what the wrongdoer would want me to do, then the wrongdoer is actually controlling your behavior. In short, if you don’t forgive, evil has defeated you. You are not living your own life but one shaped by the wrongdoer.
So we forgive in response to God’s command and God’s grace. But we also forgive in order to truly defeat the evil done to us, so that it does not continue to control us for years.
It’s been said that a good marriage is the union of two good forgivers. What has been the repentance/forgiveness dynamic in your relationship with Kathy over the years? Any lessons you’ve learned the hard way?
Here’s just one lesson. The sheer number of ways and times spouses can irritate one another means you have to be sure you are really forgiving and not just “excusing.” I found that if Kathy did something that irritated or frustrated me, the way I dealt with it was to tell myself, That wasn’t a big deal; that didn’t bother me; no need to bring it up. Then later I realized I was holding it against her—it became clear I really hadn’t forgiven her. And she was doing the same thing with me.
We had to become more routinely open and honest about what things we found irritating and frustrating about the other so that each of us could say “I’m sorry for that”—and then the other could really forgive and set it aside.
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