What is forgiveness?

Janie B. Cheaney’s column in the December 1, 2012 issue of WORLD accomplished something for me that few other journalistic offerings have accomplished in recent memory. Her piece, entitled “Bound by blood: The perils of forgiveness,” has not only provided a catalyst for this blog post, but also resulted in good discussions in the two classes I teach when I shared it with students, prompted a discussion with a colleague (after one of the students shared the discussion with him), and, probably most importantly, was actually thought provoking! So, while I disagree with Cheaney’s conclusion, I thank her for accomplishing what so few seem to be able to.

The backdrop of Cheaney’s editorial is the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other men at the U.S. embassy in Libya on September 11 of this year. The father of Tyrone Woods, a former Navy SEAL who was a security guard at the embassy and was killed in the attack, appeared on Sean Hannity’s television show and extended forgiveness to those responsible for what many have come to see as an intelligence failure. Cheaney quotes Woods as saying, “I don’t know who [the responsible parties] are, but one of these days the truth will come out. I still forgive you, but you need to stand up.” According to Cheaney, Woods cited his Christian faith during the interview and as the reason why he was able to offer forgiveness, as did his daughters, who expressed their forgiveness in the same interview.

Interestingly, Cheaney uses this to address what she believes is a too-casual approach to forgiveness by many in the Christian community. At one point, she writes that those who she calls “vendors of blanket forgiveness” miss two important elements of forgiveness: “the involvement of the offender, and the Person who is ultimately offended.”

Cheaney provides a quick overview of her own look into the Scriptures to see what they have to say about forgiveness, and she concludes that “in no case is forgiveness offered without knowing who the perpetrator is, and Psalm 51:4 makes it clear that in every case the ultimate offended party is God.” She proceeds to ask about forgiving “unknown perpetrators” (like Woods did). The first problem, Cheaney says, is this: “I doubt it’s even possible to forgive someone who has not asked for it…. Forgiveness is not an initiative, but a response. Forgiveness on one side must be balanced by confession and repentance on the other….”

By way of agreement, let me say that I absolutely agree with Cheaney that God is always the One ultimately offended. Every sin is an offense to God. However, I just as absolutely disagree with her conclusion that an unknown person cannot be forgiven and that forgiveness requires someone asking for it before it can be granted. I disagree for several reasons. First, forgiveness is for the benefit of the one forgiving as much or even more than for the benefit of the one being forgiven. Cheaney alludes to this when she writes, “We can agree that to remain bitter and angry over unconfessed wrong isn’t healthy.” And she is right; if I am unwilling to forgive a wrong, I am most likely the one that will suffer. My refusal to forgive will hinder my relationship with the one who wronged me, but it will also hinder my relationship with the Lord and perhaps with others. But Cheaney doesn’t stop there. In fact, her very next sentence reads, “But forgiveness that wasn’t requested isn’t true.”

This statement–which is erroneous, in my opinion–leads to my second point. For all the examples that Cheaney does cite, she never mentions Luke 23:23, which reads, “And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'” Jesus is hanging on the cross, and nowhere does the Scripture indicate that anyone standing there asked for forgiveness for crucifying Him, but He offers it anyway. In fact, far from seeking forgiveness, the next verse says that “the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him….” Scoffing is a far cry from repentance! Furthermore, Scripture is clear that God provided forgiveness for my sins–and yours–long before I ever asked for it. Romans 5:8 says, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Furthermore, in Colossians, Paul writes, in 3:13, “if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” God does not forgive with condition! Now, God’s forgiveness is completed when the sinner accepts it, by accepting the death of Christ on the cross, and in that regard human-to-human forgiveness is also completed when an offending party asks the offended party for forgiveness (and it is granted). But Christ offered the forgiveness long ago…long before I asked for it!

Another problem with Cheaney’s position is that it would prevent anyone from ever forgiving someone who is dead (or, due to impairment, incapable of asking for forgiveness). Suppose a drunk driver hits and kills someone. If the drunk driver also dies, or is put permanently into a coma, can the parents/siblings/spouse/children/friends of the one who was hit never forgive the drunk driver? Or take a different scenario… Suppose I was wronged by someone–recently or years ago, it doesn’t matter–but I have not yet forgiven the offender. Maybe because I accept Christ later, or am convicted of my need to forgive later, but if my desire to forgive does not come unless after the offender has passed away am I then unable to forgive? To take the inverse of Cheaney’s question, can forgiveness be granted if forgiveness is requested but not granted prior to death? There have been many deathbed requests for forgiveness. If someone makes the request but the offended party is not present to hear it, and does not learn of it until the offender has passed, is it too late? Or if the offender is present, but cannot bring him/herself to forgive until after the offender has passed, it it too late?

And why do I need to know the identity of the offender anyway? What does that add to the situation that will benefit me? I cannot think of anything. It will enable me to put a face on the offense, perhaps, but to suggest that I cannot forgive if I do not know the identity of the offender doesn’t seem to make sense. When someone backed into my car and left a big dent in the fender, then drove off without leaving any information, I am precluded from forgiving that person if I understand Cheaney’s argument. I am probably never going to know who did it, but why can I not forgive “whoever dented my car”? The offender will never receive my forgiveness–which is his or her loss–but I will have forgiven, and I will benefit as a result.

I was wronged in high school by someone who should have known better. He was an adult, he was in a leadership position, and he abused a trust and confidence that had been placed in him. He is well aware of what he did, but he never apologized or asked for my forgiveness. I doubt seriously he ever thinks of what he did now. I have not seen him in almost twenty years, and I do not expect our paths will ever again cross. If they do, I doubt he will ask my forgiveness. So I know the offense and I know my offender, but forgiveness has not been requested. According to Cheaney, then, I cannot forgive him.

She writes, “Setting aside revenge and looking to God for vindication are proper Christian responses (I Peter 2:23), but they aren’t the same as forgiveness, and it doesn’t help to confuse one for the other.” I agree that they are not the same, and I agree that I could surrender my claim to revenge without forgiving, but I do not see any biblical support for suggesting that is what I should do.

In her conclusion Cheaney writes that God “forgives on one basis only: the blood of His Son. Only then can He grant forgiveness, and only for those who ask.” I would suggest otherwise. I believe God has already granted the forgiveness. It was granted when Christ bled, died, and rose again. Hebrews 10:10 says, “…we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” The payment was made, and the forgiveness was given. Only those who ask will receive God’s forgiveness–and those who do not ask will be separated from God for eternity–but offering and receiving are two different things. And it is my position that God offered forgiveness long before we asked, and we are called to offer forgiveness regardless of whether it is asked for. When it is asked for and received the process is complete, but we can only do our part.

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