Canterbury Trials #12–On Forgiveness (Or the Nettle Part 2)

Michael Battle today led us in a series of discussions on conflict resolution and forgiveness. Again, much of the material was very good. And again, I found myself wanting to say “yes, but.”

I would say a hearty yes to the notion that forgiveness is not simply a discreet act or acts, but is in fact a way of life that is best defined as participation in the life of God. It is a cycle that is continuously on the move from contrition to forgiveness to repentance (note the order–that’s on purpose) to reconciliation and reunion only to start again. Short of heaven we are never at the stage where it forgiveness is completed and done.

I was particularly taken with the ordering of repentance Battle’s description–placing it after forgiveness. Repentance is a response to forgiveness not its predecessor. It is the re-ordering of the mind, heart, and act as a grateful response to the grace of God.

My caution here is similar to that expressed in my blog on petitionary prayer. Namely, while it is right and proper to name forgiveness as a way of life, it is also a discreet act, or series of discreet acts. And like petitionary prayer, those acts can be presumptive (as when one presumes that forgiveness automatically restores intimacy) or abused (forgiveness is misused as a means to gain control over another) and so on. But abusus non tolit usus, or so it seems to me.

Anyway, throughout, our time together focused on the subject of forgiveness (i.e., the person doing the forgiving). This makes sense given Battle’s notion of forgiveness as a lifestyle that is participation in God’s life. I wish we had had the time to talk about two other matters–namely, what it’s like to be the object of forgiveness, and the challenges and obstacles that lie in the way of asking for forgiveness.

What is it like to be forgiven? I am not talking about the weepy scenes of reconciliation on Dr. Phil, here, where all is made well just in time for the cameras to fade to black. In fact, I can imagine many scenarios where the experience of being forgiven is not pleasant at all. For to be forgiven is to have a judgment passed on one’s behaviour and one may not necessarily agree with that assessment. Of course, there are times when the assessment is wrong, but even when it is right, when it is an accurate statement of affairs to say, “You sinned against me; I forgive you,” I can easily imagine someone bristling against those words. Not least because many times that someone has been me.

The challenge of asking for forgiveness is similar. Again, it is very simple to craft scenarios where one may need to say, “I have sinned; please forgive me,” and yet have those words choke in one’s throat. A victim takes revenge on her abuser for example, in a way that cannot be justified by notions of justice or retribution. Here is a situation where power dynamics and history involved work against someone asking for forgiveness even if  that one can mentally recognize the need.

The point being, forgiveness is a whole lot harder than we want to think. And as Anglicans, seems to me at least, we’re pretty good at talking about how important it is to be forgiving, but not as as good at reflecting on what it means to need to ask for forgiveness and what it means to live as the object of another’s forgiveness when we’re convinced we haven’t done anything wrong. But those dynamics are precisely what need to be proclaimed, reflected upon theologically, and held before us if the conversation we know we need to have is going to go somewhere.

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