I used to think that to forgive someone was to release them from an obligation they had incurred by wronging me. Such a definition is easy to formulate and fits neatly into certain elegant theories about right and wrong. However, I think that what is more true is that we are all, already, under measureless obligation to forgive one another because of that law which says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
When we ask God to forgive us, however, we are not asking him to fulfill an obligation. There are theological reasons for this but the one I want to point out is that God has already poured out on us all that he has to give. If we don’t feel or know that, it is due to our own impenetrable hearts. So when we ask God to forgive us, we are not asking for something to take place within God – we are not asking that he feel something for us which he never felt before. Rather, we are asking that our hearts be enabled to recieve what is given – that the light shining around us will be able to penetrate into our hearts. The forgiveness of God is not a mere declaration on his part – it is a light, a healing, that actually cures our sin the more we take it in. It absolves sin, cleanses us from it, burns it, shames it into nothing.
The forgiveness is more real than the sin, and the sin cannot stand up to it.
My husband spent some minutes lately looking into an icon of Christ. When he returned he told me that sin doesn’t matter. That is a terrifying thing to hear from one’s husband. Acting as if sin doesn’t matter relative to one’s own pleasure is dangerous indeed. But when you say that sin is ultimately meaningless and nothing after gazing on God, that is a different matter. In the Light of God, there is no darkness. Sin is not the defining thing about me there. It vanishes. To the degree I enter in, to that degree my sin is gone – forgiven and cleansed and banished.
This leads me to ask if whether, when we forgive our neighbor, there is not something of this grace that enters them even through us. If we merely release them from an obligation, probably not. In that case the consciousness of the unpaid debt remains forever, suspended over the person who wronged us by the mere force of our will. But perhaps if forgiveness even between creatures is of another kind they are given some of the same health as I am when God forgives me. My sins, and their sins alike, are nothing where God’s light is, and we are only what God has made us to be, the mysterious me and the unique him. And when I see my neighbor that way, maybe I bring that light to him in some way.
All this sheds some light on a question I have long had – why we must ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. Doesn’t our forgiveness of others proceed from God’s forgiveness of us, rather than the other way around?
I still think that is true. Nevertheless, refusing to forgive others can lead to God not forgiving me.
Not that God refuses to allow himself to feel forgiveness for me. We have already said that this is not what God’s forgiveness consists of anyway.
Rather, his forgiveness refuses to restrict itself to my heart alone. His light is infinitely abundant; it will not settle on me and close others out, no matter how much I may want it to. Either I will know forgiveness – the forgiveness that encompasses me and my bitterest enemy alike – or I will refuse forgiveness. Whether I refuse it for myself or others, I will shut myself out from it just the same.
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. For if you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.
10/08/08 Realizing that this essay is on the front page of Google for some searches, I want to add something I spoke about in another post. I think the forgiveness petition, in turn, sheds light on another question. When God requires us to love one another unconditionally; when Jesus Christ teaches us to forgive “seventy times seven” (that is, endlessly); is he putting requirements on us that he himself is above keeping? Is God free from the morality of love? Is he “allowed” to hate people and refuse forgiveness to them, simply because he is God and is not under obligation? Or are we being told to imitate God in boundless, endless love?
There is much that could be said about this, and for someone who wants to look into it in depth, I recommend “The River of Fire” by Kalomiros.
However I want to point out something about the prayer to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” I believe there’s a surface or “beginner’s” meaning, alluded to above. If you are in the habit of refusing forgiveness to others, praying this petition leaves you terrified that the same thing will happen to you, and so it’s meant to do.
But once you start practicing forgiveness the deeper meaning opens up to you. There’s a certain fearful irony in asking God to be as good as you are. It points out to you how silly it is to suppose that we are capable of forgiveness but God is not. How ridiculous to imagine that we can relent and have pity and understand one another’s frailty’s – but God is above such things. In short, I believe The Lord’s Prayer teaches us, among other things, to begin believing that there are no limits to God’s kindness and mercy. The only limits are our own – in receiving them.