Michael John Carley on Forgiveness

I’m reading Michael John Carley’s Asperger’s from the Inside Out, and I found some good quotes on forgiveness. Here they are:

“The concept of ‘No one knew’ [about our Asperger’s] serve[s] as our generalized forgiveness of the world. But this sense of forgiveness will prove useful if applied to specific memories as well. For as you rehash the life you have lived, and reacquaint yourself with the people in your past who intentionally or unintentionally may have hurt you, notions of forgiveness will more than help. Forgiveness, by definition–in both the world’s religious, and secularist, theories–doesn’t imply that we have to like the people [who] once made our lives hard. And it certainly doesn’t mean we have to want to spend time with these people–quite frankly, this is rarely a good idea. But the anger towards them only hurts us. Forgiving these tormenters is easier said than done, I know, and it is especially hard to forgive those who are close to us, like family. We expose more of our weak spots to such people; so when they hurt us, the perceived betrayal of trust and vulnerability makes things hurt more.

“But, for our own sake, we have to try. If this act, if this extension of ‘No one knew,’ can’t happen today, then you should work to have it happen someday. Because forgiveness doesn’t free past perpetrators. It frees you” (62-63).

Later in the book, Carley tells the story of a young woman on the autism spectrum named Jane, who clashed with her school on numerous occasions. In a world of uncertainty, she clung to her legal rights as something reliable, and she brought numerous lawsuits against her college. She was usually unsuccessful because of her misunderstanding of legal nuances. As GRASP tried to mediate a solution between Jane and her school, Jane still insisted on her “rights.” She planned to continue her activity of tape-recording phone conversations and accosting low-level school employees. Carley says the following about her refusal to forgive:

“Being right isn’t what’s most important. Understanding what you are and are not entitled to will help enormously, but a defining line in the sand where one crosses over into victimization might very well be when you become a person who knows nothing other than what your rights are. Jane thought she was punishing those who had hurt her, yet she was punishing only herself. And despite the very real culpability of this reprehensible college, Jane had filed every offense in perfect detail into her memory banks, where they sat like bad meat in the fridge, paralyzing her ability to forgive, and get a degree” (209).

Here are some reactions:

1. I’ve often heard that I should forgive because it will make me feel better. A lot of Christian sermons on forgiveness say the same thing. Joel Osteen says it in Your Best Life Now, but I also hear it from non-prosperity Gospel preachers. But should we project Dr. Phil therapy onto the biblical passages about forgiveness? As far as I know, the Bible doesn’t say we should forgive in order to feel better. We should forgive because God forgives us, or because vengeance belongs to God, or because God sends rain on the just and the unjust alike, or because we’re no better than the people who have done us wrong (Matthew 5:44-47; 18:21-35; Romans 12:19-21; Ephesians 4:32). At the same time, the Bible is concerned about our inward state. Just type in “joy” or “happiness” in an online Bible concordance, and you’ll find that this is so! So perhaps forgiveness is good because it makes us feel better, though that’s not the only reason.

2. Michael John Carley’s definition of forgiveness is common sense. According to him, forgiveness is releasing bitterness about the past, not necessarily becoming friends with the people who have hurt us. But is that what the Bible teaches? In Matthew 18:15, we read, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one” (NRSV). The KJV (and the Greek) says you shall regain your brother. Doesn’t that imply reconciliation, becoming brothers again, a restoration of fellowship? I hope not, since I have no intention of resurrecting certain friendships!

To be honest, I don’t know what biblical forgiveness is. In Matthew 18, Jesus likens it to cancelling debts. That’s a Matthean theme in general, since the Lord’s prayer has, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Cancelling debts is fairly easy. I just tell a person who owes me money that he no longer owes it to me. And the commandment is fulfilled! I don’t have to see that person ever again, but I’ve done God’s will. (Of course, my perspective would probably be different if someone kept borrowing money from me, with no intention of paying it back!)

But how’s that concretely play out when money is not an issue? Tim Keller once said that cancelling a debt means not talking badly about the offender behind his back, or not being mean to him. That may be true, but clarification is necessary even here. Sure, we shouldn’t slander people, but sometimes we may want to vent to a friend about our problems with a person (in confidentiality, of course). That can hopefully give us a healthier perspective, or at least some release from our bottled-up anger. And being “fake nice” is rather insincere, in my opinion.

Overall, I strive to have a worldview like God’s (in my picture): God can be offended, but he has larger concerns than his own personal ego. He wants righteousness. He desires the conversion of sinners. God is someone who hates the sin but loves the sinner (even though he will still punish sinners who refuse to repent). And so I should view everyone as a person of value, as someone who deserves love and respect. If that person offends me, then I should hope for him or her to arrive at a state of love and peace. But is that forgiveness? Not really, since I believe that God regards every human being in this way, but that doesn’t mean that he forgives everyone. It’s not forgiveness, but it is love.

3. I like the way that Carley treats forgiveness as a process. I may not be ready to have positive feelings about those who have done me wrong. I may not be at a state of making peace with the past, or at least of letting go. But forgiveness should be my goal.

My problem with certain Christian approaches to forgiveness is that they treat it as easy. Someone hurts me, and I’m supposed to immediately forgive him, no questions asked. But, when someone hurts me, I can’t just pretend like it doesn’t matter. And healing can take time.

As far as the Bible goes, the NRSV accurately translates the part of the Lord’s prayer about forgiveness: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Have forgiven! And, so, if we want forgiveness from God, then we need to have completed our forgiveness of others. At first sight, that doesn’t sound like a process, but as something we’ve already done when we come to God in prayer.

But what counts as forgiveness? Is it arriving at a state of perfect peace with another person? Is it feeling completely reconciled with the past? Or is it a commitment to a path of forgiveness, which entails letting go of bitterness? And, even if we’ve not forgiven perfectly, God at least acknowledges that we are trying, and he counts that as our fulfillment of his command to forgive. After all, Jesus did help the man who cried out, “Help my unbelief,” and he acknowledged the value of even the smallest bit of faith (Mark 9:24; see Luke 17:3-6, which seems to tie mustard seed faith to forgiveness). Jesus often reached people where they were, as long as they recognized their need of him.

On one occasion, even God took some time to forgive. After the Golden Calf incident, God didn’t immediately say, “Oh, that’s all right,” and bless Israel as if nothing had happened. He couldn’t stand being around them after that, so he sent an angel to lead them into the Promised Land (see Exodus 32-33). But, eventually, he came to dwell in their midst. If God took some time to forgive, then how much more is it necessary for us, who are sinful human beings?

But, at the same time, we want to assume that God has forgiven us completely. Do I want to think that God still holds things against me? No. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have any peace in my relationship with God. Yet, at the same time, I’m not sure if I want him to delude himself about my sinfulness. I hope that he remembers my flaws, which have come to the surface throughout my life. At least then he can work with me on them. So I’m hesitant to see forgiveness as self-delusion–pretending as if an offense does not matter or exist. And that’s probably why repentance is necessary for forgiveness to occur: it shows that we’re seeing sin as an important matter. Yet, even if an offender has not arrived at that point, we should still let go of any bitterness that we have against him–for our own sake. His unrepentant attitude may hinder any relationship that we can form with him, but we’re only hurting ourselves when we hold on to resentment.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Asperger's, Autism, Bible, Books, Daily Quiet Time, Matthew, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.