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Is Forgiveness Unjust?
August 25, 2022
It may seem as though forgiveness perpetuates injustice by failing to hold people responsible for the things that they have done. But by considering what it is not, we see that the forgiveness God calls us to is the only way to establish true justice and peace in a fractured world.
Jesus was once asked by one of his followers: How many times are we required to forgive someone who wrongs us? Is 7 times the right number? Jesus responded by saying: Not 7 times, but 77 times. That’s not to suggest that it’s okay to bear a grudge after the 78th offense. Rather, Jesus is suggesting that our willingness to forgive should be unlimited.
But this raises a serious issue. A basic definition of justice requires that you give each person what she or he deserves. If a wrongdoer deserves punishment, then does forgiveness violate justice? By commanding us to forgive, is Jesus calling us to be unjust?
There are increasing numbers of people who see forgiveness as not only unrealistic, but unjust because forgiveness forestalls our ability to express anger or lament in the face of evil and wrongdoing. Forgiveness, it seems, fails to hold people responsible for the things that they have done, and therefore it perpetuates injustice.
How should we respond to this? For starters, it is important to note that when Jesus commands us to forgive, he is telling us how to respond to someone who has wronged us on a relational level. Jesus is not suggesting that wrongdoers should not be held accountable for their actions, or that you should not seek legal redress if that is warranted. Nor is Jesus implying that you should continue to put yourself in the exact same position to get hurt all over again. Given the confusion surrounding forgiveness, it may be important to describe what forgiveness is not.
First, forgiveness is not excusing. On the surface, forgiving someone and excusing someone might seem to be identical, but in fact, they are the opposite. When you excuse someone, there's nothing to blame. They might have done something to hurt you, but one way or another, you eventually come to realize that they didn't mean it, or they couldn't help it. There were perhaps extenuating circumstances, or they were acting under duress. If there was no one to blame, then there is nothing to forgive—so you excuse them. But with forgiveness, someone is to blame. Something has happened that is blameworthy and inexcusable. Forgiving is actually the opposite of excusing someone.
Second, forgiving is not forgetting. People often say: Forgive and forget. Let bygones be bygones. That makes a certain degree of sense when it comes to minor slights, but not when we are talking about major offenses. Some things that have happened to us are so terrible, we could never forget. That’s why it is important to see that forgiving is not forgetting. In fact, in order to forgive, you have to actively remember who has hurt you, what they did, and why it was wrong
It's true the prophet Jeremiah says that when God forgives us, he remembers our sins no more. And Isaiah says God casts all of our sins behind his back.In this life, it seems hard to imagine that we could ever do what God is capable of doing.But it may just be that when God ushers in a whole new world, where all suffering and injustice will be healed and made right, maybe then it will become possible for even the greatest tragedies we have faced in this life to slowly fade into oblivion. Perhaps we will be able to forgive and forget in God’s promised future. But in this life, we must remember in order to forgive.
Third, forgiving is not feeling. Many people would say that you could never forgive someone unless you feel like it. But forgiveness is first and foremost an action. It's a decision of the will. It's a choice rather than a feeling, which means that forgiveness is often granted before it is felt. Forgiveness is a process. Our feelings of anger and outrage are real. When we are being asked to forgive, we're not being asked to suppress those feelings, but rather we're being asked not to act on them by way of retaliation or revenge. That's why forgiveness is a process. Overtime, we may just find that as we forgive, our feelings of anger and outrage slowly begin to subside. But at its core, forgiveness is not the release of hard feelings towards someone. Rather, forgiveness is a decision not to hold the wrong against the other person any longer.
If we do not correctly understand forgiveness, we will never be able to do it. But if we know what true forgiveness entails, we will see that forgiveness is not unjust. In fact, forgiveness is the only way to establish true justice and peace in a fractured world.
Written by Jason Harris
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker