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On Forgiveness

An examination of forgiveness versus retributive justice.

(This excerpt is taken from Dr. Tiel's book, "Why Did Adam Fall?" and other Unasked-for Sermons. To read more, you can get the book from our bookstore here.)

Texts: “Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, until seven times: but, until seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22); “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested . . .” (Romans 3:21).

When we hear the old saying, “an eye for an eye,” we tend to think of primitive or barbaric justice. But this saying actually captures the force of both modern and ancient justice. Aristotle explained that justice requires a recompense for what was lost; accordingly, he called it “retributive,” re-paying justice. Justice corrects for wrongs deliberately enacted, but limits the correction by a principle of proportionality. Were we to strike back for wrongs based solely on our feelings, our actions would turn from justice to revenge, as our retaliation would far exceed the actual injury.

Let’s imagine an example . . . suppose you were to sneak into my cattle pens at night and make off with twenty of my cows. Retributive justice demands that you repay me the lost cows. If you have already eaten or sold them, then you owe me the value of the cows. If you cannot pay that value, then you owe me the value through labor or through your hide, pain inflicted that somehow reaches to the measure of the pain you caused in depriving me of my cattle. The idea in all of these examples is that what is taken must be either positively restored to the victim or negatively withdrawn in the perpetrator’s person. But the harm to be inflicted on the perpetrator must be proportionate to what he caused in his victim. We all recognize the need for criminal penalties to vary according to the severity of the crime. This is the modern equivalent of the ancient theory of justice.

But Jesus offers us a very different principle. Instead of “an eye for an eye,” instead of proportionate retributive justice, he asks us to forgive. Now, there are two levels at which we can understand justice and forgiveness: personal and civic. In both cases, we could apply either the retributive or the forgiveness models. If you personally slight me or harm me, even though it may not be a crime, I might attempt to strike back at you through some similar or worse non-criminal action. Is Jesus talking about these personal actions or the sort of criminal action mentioned above? Well, for one, I suppose it’s difficult to imagine how any magistrate could forgive someone 490 times for criminal offenses, and not entice every criminal in the world to enter his city’s gates! It would undermine civic order. Then again, Jesus himself recognized political sovereignty, both when he mentioned giving to Caesar what was owed him, and when he recognized Pontius Pilate’s authority as coming from God himself. Moreover, when Jesus forgave the thief on the cross, he forgave him only spiritually; he didn’t rescind the political punishment that the thief recognized he deserved. So, it’s not likely that Jesus meant his teaching on forgiveness to provide a model of jurisprudence. But what we Christians are well aware of, is that he at least intended it to govern our interpersonal interactions. So, for the sake of our argument here, let’s look solely at the personal (non-criminal) dimension of Jesus’ teaching.

Let us consider then what Jesus’ alternative theory of justice—as forgiveness—might really mean. Prima facie it appears that he is simply dismissing justice altogether. But the Scriptures are replete with instances of divine justice, so a dismissal hardly seems likely. Moreover, our text from St. Paul explicitly recognizes a second kind of justice, though St. Paul employs the term “righteousness.” The Greek roots for both “justice” and “righteousness” are the same, dike, so we need to explore the common conception. St. Paul begins the Epistle to the Romans with the traditional Jewish and Greek theories of retributive justice applied to human conduct on a divine scale. He continues in the second chapter of Romans explaining that we will all receive the due reward or penalty for our actions, exactly proportionate to what we have done—immortality and honor for those who persevere in doing good, damnation and harm for those who choose evil. But then, in chapter three, he suddenly introduces a new kind of righteousness, a new type of justice—a justice not grounded in the old Law, but instead grounded in Jesus Christ and available through faith. What might this be? And how does it square with the old theory?

Let’s think about what God is really up to in our world. He is seeking to transform human beings overridden by vice and unhappiness into lovers of God and neighbor, thereby completing their human nature. For the love of God is the purpose of human nature (this is why Jesus tells us that it is the greatest commandment). So, only through our love of God can we ever truly be complete, truly be happy (or “blessed” as Jesus liked to call it). Now, here’s the big question: if the argument of Romans stopped at Romans 3:20, if, for example, God hit us with precise retributive justice, would we ever love him and complete ourselves in him? No, for we’d be cut to bits by our own vices, never made fit as pure brides for the perfect groom. So, unless God did something different, the demands of retributive justice would separate us from him forever.

Our evil conduct has horrible consequences for our relationships, leading to divorce, bitter children, shattered friendships, lost employment, and still further damaging coping mechanisms, an endless spiral toward destruction. We do indeed pay for our bad choices.

But God loves us, we hasten to insist. Right, he does, and love implies seeking the good for its object. However, retributive justice only establishes the good negatively by taking out of our souls proportionately the harms that we inflict on others. We damage ourselves through our sins. Our evil conduct has horrible consequences for our relationships, leading to divorce, bitter children, shattered friendships, lost employment, and still further damaging coping mechanisms, an endless spiral toward destruction. We do indeed pay for our bad choices. Whether in this life or in the next, justice is done. As Jesus put it to Nicodemus, we are already condemned.

So, retributive justice doesn’t restore us positively, doesn’t make us better. And only by becoming better people can we ultimately become lovers fit to know God face to face. For as the writer of the Hebrews indicated, without holiness no man shall see God. How is a soul, bleeding from its own vice, going to approach God? In his fresco, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” Masaccio showed us how Adam and Eve fled the garden, the look of anguish and hopelessness. Not exactly a bridal portrait.

So, God had to do something quite different, something restorative, if he intended for us to love Him again after our sins. Now, let’s imagine a situation in normal life where your wife, let’s say, has committed a serious harm against you, and you are angry about it. What’s the best possible result in this situation? Ideally, it’d be for your wife to realize her error and choose to come back to you and make the situation right, to choose to become a better wife. Of course, you could become so angry that you decide no longer to seek her good, and just blast her with your anger, or start committing harms against her in retaliation. A form of retributive justice, perhaps. But to what end? What have you really accomplished here, what have you done that is positive? Like you, God wants lovers who choose to love him, not slaves that are forced to love. Best perhaps to swallow your anger and seek her restoration?

That seems to be the path that God chooses too. The demands of retributive justice can simply be swallowed. I can eat the hurt that my wife caused me. I can suffer the loss of my cows. God can take on the sins of the entire world, because they are all ultimately directed at him. Taking the sins of the perpetrator hurts when you are already his victim. There’s no doubt about this. God knows this full well. Jesus experienced the worst of this kind of pain on the cross. But in doing so, he made possible restoration, not retaliation. For in eating our sins himself, he enabled the restoration of our souls, the positive construction of that good that was supposed to be there all along. The act of faith is the acceptance of his taking on the pain and suffering that we caused by our own vices, coupled to the choice to seek out that new kind of life, a life of positive goodness that alone promises the fulfillment of human nature. Through faith the forgiveness of God cleanses the soul. When you forgive your neighbor, when you eat that harm, and when that other person realizes what you’re doing, he can choose the path of love and goodness again too. And then everybody wins. Reconciliation triumphs. For what’s better, that you lose your neighbor entirely, or that you and he restore the friendship that was lost? What’s better, that you and your wife become coldly distant, or that the two of you restore that intimate care that alone characterizes the relationship between husband and wife? Obviously, in each of these cases, restoration is by far the better option!

Forgiveness isn’t a one-time action, but a habit, chosen over and over again. Each time I feel the anger, each time I remember the harm and re-experience its effects, I must again put it away, divorce it from myself.

How far do we take this forgiveness? As far as God takes it, because he continues to hope and act for the sake of the restoration of the lost sheep. St. Paul even says that you should not leave your unbelieving spouse, but hope that through your charity, she might be won over. What this really indicates is that forgiveness isn’t merely an action, but a habit, a virtue. We are told to forgive seventy times seven times, not as a literal number to check off, but rather as a continuous choice that characterizes our lives. And this is hugely important, because the choice to forgive must be chosen over and over again when the harms are proportionately large. For as the harmful act recurs in our imagination and sears our emotions, the demand for justice—for retaliation—recurs. We want to hurt back in the way that we were hurt. But I already forgave this, I might say to myself, so what’s going on? Forgiveness isn’t a one-time action, but a habit, chosen over and over again. Each time I feel the anger, each time I remember the harm and re-experience its effects, I must again put it away, divorce it from myself. In fact, the term we translate as “forgive” in the New Testament is the same word used for divorce. Forgiveness technically doesn’t apply to people, but to their sins. Strictly speaking, we forgive people their sins. The direct object is the sin, but it is done for the person (the indirect object). We shorten the original formula and speak simply of forgiving people, combining the putting away of the sin with the hoped-for reconciliation. But it’s worth keeping them separate in our discussion here, because the act of forgiveness is a choice, a continuous choice, to put that sin—that harm—away. Jesus understands that we are not merely pure wills, but human beings spread out in time. What we are, we are becoming, and so the choice of what we will be depends upon the repetition of our choices right now. Only in this way do we form our true selves. Thus, 490 times may prove quite realistic to establishing a virtuous control over some extremely deep hurts. Not that we escape the pain of the harm—no—but, while the hurt is endured (and it is endurance), the act that caused it can be put away, so that love for the perpetrator might be maintained. Love looks forward with hope to the good that might be, not the evil that was. Forgiveness must be blended into charity, or else it just won’t work. You cannot simply will away harsh feelings, but you can always act against your feelings, act in ways that promote charity over against malice, spite, envy, and hatred.

We know from criminal cases that victims of crime have to act against the crime—against the criminal (in court) and against the effects of the crime (through new creative action)—or else they will be defined by it. They have to “take power back” to use the now-popular phraseology. What does this mean? It means that the control over one’s life must be taken back from the criminal who stole it. A new kind of life, chosen in spite of how one feels, becomes necessary to slowly though surely redefine oneself. Power taken back is freedom redeemed. The same principle is at work on the personal violation level. When we choose to forgive, we are putting the sin away not just for the perpetrator but for ourselves! We are saying that we will not be defined by this sin and by its bitter effects.

Thus, forgiveness is an act of faith, knowing that God will restore all loss in the final judgment, restoring what was lost to you in your love for another, in your setting aside the demand for retribution.

But what about me? What about my pain, my harms, my losses? Is all of this just forgotten? When I set aside the demand for retribution, God himself takes up my cause. If the perpetrator repents, then God restores both of us. If he refuses ultimately to do this, then God restores me. But it takes faith in God’s promise of ultimate justice to activate the hope that alone can generate real forgiving love. Thus, forgiveness is an act of faith, knowing that God will restore all loss in the final judgment, restoring what was lost to you in your love for another, in your setting aside the demand for retribution. This is a kind of justice unimagined by Aristotle, but consistent with his theory, because in the end, all can be made whole.

Dr. Jeffrey Tiel

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