Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What is forgiveness? I

Once more plundering a recent sermon, I'd like to explore the concept and practice of forgiveness under four contrasted pairs.

(i) Not ignoring, but confronting
To forgive doesn’t mean the problem is swept under the carpet. Jesus said “If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” (Matthew 18.15) Forgiveness doesn’t mean ignoring the problem, hoping it will go away, pretending it is not happening. If we are going to be peacemakers, we’ll need to be loving troublemakers. Jesus doesn’t make this optional. "If you have a grievance you must, you are obligated to, confront the one you believe has sinned against you. You cannot overlook a fault on the presumption that it is better not to disturb the peace. Rather, you must risk stirring the waters, causing disorder, rather than overlook the sin" (Stanley Hauerwas, "Peacemaking: The virtue of the church" in The Hauerwas Reader, 319).

Why? Because there is no such thing as a private grievance. Our lives are not our own. We in the body of Christ belong to one another. The sister or brother who sins is hurting not only us, but also themselves and the community as a whole. Not every minor irritation requires explicit mention, but if it is a genuine wrong (rather than merely a personality difference) ignoring it is a failure of love.

Of course, during the process of confrontation we may well discover that we have been mistaken, that our grievance is not well founded. That is a risk we must take. Or we may find ourselves in even deeper waters - our complaint is accepted and the fault repented of and now we must be reconciled. But that is our goal: to learn to swim in the ocean of genuine relationships of trust, not simply to paddle about in polite acquaintances that never extend beyond Sunday pleasantries. Whom do you need to confront, rather than ignore?
Twelve points for guessing the inner western Sydney suburb in the picture.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V.


Bruce Yabsley said...

Ever been in a power differential, Byron? Or had to deal with someone much cleverer, or much less clever, than yourself? Or been in a power differential with someone much ...

Since this is from a sermon, and you are in any case a sensible guy, I assume this will come up at some later point. But when point (i) is stated like this in isolation, it does rather invite the question.

Anonymous said...

Byron, your post provokes a few things in me. I like where you're coming from here - and where I think you might be going - but I'm not sure that I could entirely travel with you (and Hauerwas) on the issue of confrontation. Yes, confrontation - or light-shedding - can be, and perhaps should normally be, part of the forgiving process. I would want to insist, however, that when such light-shedding activity is undertaken, it is a part that must proceed, rather than precede, forgiveness. Also, I would not want to in any way make forgiveness dependent on the 'success' or otherwise of any light-shedding outcomes. Indeed, such confronting is not always even possible.

You are right to note that 'there is no such thing as a private grievance'. But surely, in the life of God there is no such thing as a private anything. Are there not times when meekness may demand (an intended irony) that I simply bite my tongue and carry my 'private' grievance to and with the One who has borne all of our sins in his body on the tree?

Again, I think that my concern here is that forgiveness not be made dependent on any human work.

Finally, let me introduce by way of addition a final word to your last paragraph. It comes from Paul Fiddes: 'Forgiveness is a costly and difficult matter both for the one who offers it and the one who receives it, because true forgiveness aims for reconciliation, and this means the removal of barriers to relationship ... Forgiveness is no mere legal pardon, as became clear in our analysis of the New Testament concept of 'justification'; it is not an impersonal notice of acquittal which could be issued long ago and left lying around for us to pick up in due time, but a healing of relationship that must involve us now as the ones who are estranged'.

Anonymous said...

Sir, I found your comment very interesting. On forgiveness how can anyone forgive someone unless they ask that person for forgiveness first? it's something I have pondered and I would be interested on your view point

In the meantime
God bless.

byron smith said...

Bruce - yes, 'confronting' may look different in different circumstances.

Jason - excellent points. I should have been clearer that forgiveness logically (and temporally) preceeds 'light-shedding', which is an implication of it. And thanks for the Paul Fiddes quote. That was something of what I was trying to get across later in the sermon (I'm currently not planning on posting the whole sermon, just these four points on 'what is forgiveness?' which are actually attempting to summarise previous weeks).

Forgiveness is the work of God; human forgiving can only ever be a participation in and echo of divine forgiving. That is indeed where this short series is heading (or at least where the sermon went - still working out how to some of it into a short series). Thanks for your insights!

Elwyn: "how can anyone forgive someone unless they ask that person for forgiveness first?" Good question! The victim (who must forgive) is also always a perpetrator (who must be forgiven), albeit not always to the same extent or for the same reasons. But it does make things complex when everyone is complicit. Or almost everyone - there is one who can get the ball rolling, so to speak. And that is why basing our forgiving in God's prior forgiving is so important. We can only forgive as those already forgiven. I'll get to that around post #4 or maybe add a 5th one.

Anthony Douglas said...

Looks like Camperdown to me.

Nice point about our obligation to forgive for the sake of the third parties involved. It removes our predilection for judging whether to take any action, dethroning ourselves.

Martin Kemp said...


byron smith said...

Anthony - twelve points. It's just around the corner from here.

Anthony Douglas said...

Hooray! I had in mind that it was the roof of the Toyota service place we used to use - in Australia St I think.

David Drum said...

Forgiveness...the only action that can soften the past and alter both the present and the future...a deeply personal decision that can be made even in the dark night of the soul. As Mother Theresa wrote in one of the most profound moments in all human experience: " I will love God even if He does not love me." I will forgive even if I am not forgiven.

byron smith said...

That's a great description, thanks!