Wrestling with Forgiveness (and Hopefully Finding It)

I’m continuing my series on feedback I received to my post, Ideas in Christianity Putting Some People’s Minds in a Tailspin!.

I said the following: “To cite my own experience, I long had trouble with Jesus’ teaching that God will not forgive our sins if we don’t forgive others (see Matthew 6:14-15). That seems to me to be salvation by works, for it conditions God’s forgiveness and acceptance of me on my ability to push a grudge out of my system. This teaching depressed me for a long time…I’d be rich if I had a penny for every time that Christians brought in extra-biblical insights to explain away Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. I’ve been told that I am forgiven simply by accepting God’s free grace, but that lack of forgiveness on my part can hinder me from producing spiritual fruit. But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says that those who don’t forgive others will not be forgiven by God. Many have said that, if I haven’t forgiven others, then that indicates that I haven’t truly accepted God’s forgiveness of myself. When I hear that, being saved appears to involve a lot more work than evangelicals say it does!”

An evangelical friend of mine responded: “I think to say that the requirement to forgive others is a form of works misses the point. Forgiveness is all about relationships. God is saying that if we aren’t willing to forgive someone who’s sinned against us, then why should he forgive us, especially when our sin against him is much greater than the sins other people have committed against us? It’s not that we have to be perfect in forgiving others, but that we need to be willing to forgive others when we realize we’re holding something against them, because God has forgiven us. But it’s not about works, it’s about relationships.”

I vaguely understand what my friend is talking about.  Perhaps one reason that I conceptualize forgiveness as “works” is my own difficulty in forming and sustaining relationships.  Also, forgiveness is pretty hard for me.  I wonder what exactly it entails.  Getting rid of negative feelings?  Having to be in a relationship with a person I don’t like, when social interaction is difficult for me in general, and I have issues with pretending to like a person whom I can’t stand (not that I haven’t done that on different occasions)?

It would be nice if I could receive God’s free grace and that would automatically make me want to forgive others.  But things aren’t that simple, at least in my case.  On the whole issue of our sin against God being greater than others’ sin against us, sure, I suppose I have believed that theoretically, because I felt that I had to do so in order to appease God or to escape hell.  But, quite frankly, I have a hard time feeling that way.  Granted, I’m responsible for the choices I make, but I am imperfect, like everyone else.  And if I have a sinful nature, as Christians say I have, why should I feel guilty about the things that I have done?

And yet, as I look back, there were sins that I did that I shouldn’t have done, and didn’t have to do.  Granted, I cannot really expunge sinful feelings from my system (i.e., pride, hate, lust, insecurity, etc.), but I didn’t have to make fun of people when I was younger.  I shouldn’t have done so.  I guess part of me feels that’s in the past and so it’s not relevant now.  And yet, I myself dwell on things that others have said to me in the past.  I do apply one standard to myself, and another standard to others.  I can’t really manipulate myself to believe that my sins against God are greater than others’ sins against me.  But I can at least recognize that we’re all in the same boat: I’ve done things I shouldn’t have done and didn’t have to do, and so have others. 

I will add one more thing about resentment.  I used to have resentment towards a friend of mine—over his put-downs, or my jealousy towards him.  He passed on recently.  I don’t have as much resentment against him now, and it’s because I realize that he had so much to contribute to this world, and I am sad that he can no longer make that contribution.  I found myself applying the same insight to other people I resent.  I was fantasizing this afternoon about winning the lottery and buying every scholarly publishing house, then preventing the publication of books and articles by people I don’t like.  But then I thought: they have a contribution to make, and who would I be to stand in the way of that on account of my personal problems (not that my fantasy has much of a chance of becoming a reality!)?

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.
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