I write a lot on this blog about forgiveness and unforgiveness. A lot of the posts say basically the same thing: God is unfair and unloving to condition his forgiveness of me on my forgiveness of others; I am only human; what exactly counts as forgiveness, anyway? Blah, blah, blah. Occasionally, some light breaks through, and I make progress in arriving at a fruitful understanding of forgiveness and unforgiveness, or what the Bible says about these concepts.
A topic that has been on my mind lately has been forgiveness of people for things that they cannot entirely help. In the past, I have been reluctant to apologize to God for things that I cannot entirely help. I cannot always turn off an angry or a bad mood, for example, or thoughts of hatred for specific people. In these cases, I have said to God: “Lord, I am not necessarily asking for forgiveness for these angry thoughts, for they are not exactly thoughts that I chose; rather, I ask that you spiritually cleanse me of them. Replace my anger with your joy.”
Nowadays, though, I do tend to ask for God’s forgiveness when I am in a hateful, bitter, resentful mood. Why? Well, my mind goes back to those Bible verses about forgiveness that have given me problems: the verses that say that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:26). As much of a problem as I may have with those verses, I think that God allowed them to be in the Bible for a reason. I believe that God wants us to think both about God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others, and to see those things as somehow in parallel.
In the case of forgiving things that people cannot entirely help, I reflect that there are attitudes that people have towards me that I resent. A person may dislike me, or find me annoying, or look at me with contempt. I resent that. At the same time, can these people really help what they feel towards me? I want God to cut me some slack about my feelings. Shouldn’t I do the same for others?
One can then ask if the logical conclusion of what I am saying is that people should not have to apologize for what they feel. I would not go that far. If a person treats me with contempt, I would like an apology from that person, even if the person cannot help his or her feelings. If a person is boiling with anger and lashes out at someone, that person should apologize. I place that in parallel with my own negative feelings, which is why I apologize to God for them.
Maybe these things are apples and oranges. Feelings, after all, are different from actions that proceed from those feelings. If a person regards me with contempt but does not manifestly show it, do I expect an apology from that person? Not really. Actually, I would be offended if a person did apologize to me for that, for her doing so would inform me of her contempt for me. My point is that this approach (i.e., repenting about and forgiving things that cannot entirely be helped) has helped me somewhat in terms of my attitude towards God and other people: it has helped me to be more merciful.
I think of two ideas from the history of Christian thought. First, there is Jonathan Edwards’ defense of the doctrine of original sin. Jonathan Edwards believed that human beings were born with a sinful nature, a propensity towards sin. Edwards dealt with an excellent question from detractors: How can God send people to hell over something that they cannot help, a sinful condition that they did not ask for? Edwards’ response was that we, as human beings, tend to demonize people whose bad deeds proceed from their corrupt nature. If we know of a person who has a corrupt nature, that makes us think less of that person, not more. We ourselves do not excuse a corrupt person by saying that he cannot help his corruption and is simply being who he is. For Edwards, the same is true of God: God judges people for their corrupt natures.
Second, there is something that E.W. Bullinger said in a book that I read in high school: The Great Cloud of Witnesses. Bullinger said that sin is not so much about what we do, but about what we are. We should repent about what we are. We are sinners, people with a sinful nature.
I do not exactly choose to dwell on the punitive nature of these ideas, for I doubt that can lead anywhere productive, for me. But these ideas are relevant, maybe indirectly relevant, to the importance of showing mercy to others in their imperfections, as we would like for God to be merciful to us in our imperfections. These ideas also relate to asking forgiveness and being responsible for things that we cannot entirely help.
I would have an extreme amount of difficulty, however, with forgiving something that someone can help. If I had a wife or a girlfriend, for example, and some Don Juan slept with her just to show that he could, I would not be able to forgive that person. That person did not have to do that. He had a choice. Sure, he may have had a propensity to do things like that, but he could have controlled his actions. I would need extra strength from God to forgive, in that case, and, even then, it would be a daily internal battle.
Some of my thoughts in this post can be taken in negative directions. For example, an abused woman should not shrug off abuse from her husband or boyfriend because she thinks that he cannot help being as he is. She needs to protect herself. There are situations in which justice is necessary. At the same time, I do believe in cutting people some slack when it comes to their baggage, for we all have baggage. And yet, people are responsible for how they deal with their baggage.