If confession is good for the soul, as an old Scottish proverb asserts, then forgiveness is better. The one helps us name our failures in the service of new resolutions. The other frees us from the burden of the offense.
While much religious energy gets spent identifying reasons — both appropriate and exaggerated — for the weight of guilt people carry, too little time is spent assessing and experiencing the freedom that comes from forgiving and being forgiven. And way too little thought surrounds the enormous price forgiveness exacts.
When a widow faces in criminal court the driver whose drunkenness took her husband’s life, she owns that perpetrator’s soul. In the eyes of the court, the criminal can pay for the crime by doing the time. But if the aggrieved victim holds on to her well-deserved rage, forgiveness eludes the culprit’s grasp.
As long as an adult survivor of abuse harbors her bitterness, the abuser cannot offload his well-deserved, self-loathing shame.
But when the wounded find the capacity to forgive, the criminal’s soul discovers a liberation beyond imagining.
Sometimes that forgiveness comes at a price to be paid by the perpetrator: paying a court settlement, returning the stolen goods with interest, doing community service.
Always the forgiveness comes at a price to be paid by the victim: a willingness to accept the damage done by the other — and choosing to release the other from the burden of it.
While the Bible lifts up the virtue of bestowing such a gift — “Forgive as you have been forgiven” — that act is not pressed as an absolute demand on all people at all times. Requirements of retributive justice demand restitution, chastisement, incarceration or worse.
But when a victim finds the capacity to forgive, stunning changes result.
Such was the case when Jesus choked through his words while hanging on a cross. Among those words: “Father, forgive them … .” Scholars have debated for centuries how to interpret the phrase, “died for the sins of the world.” Some atonement theories offer just a small and even trivial slice of meaning. Some—like substitutionary penal atonement — have generated confessional status for some believers while evoking accusations of “abusive parent” Godhead among others.
But one theory cannot be denied: Jesus, the victim, was forgiving his crucifiers, the perpetrators. That he would look upon the soldiers who wrapped the crown and hammered the nails, that he would behold the crowds who had shouted for his execution, that his mind’s eye would hold in fresh memory the magistrates who illegally but self-servingly sentenced him, and that he would most certainly contemplate his disciples who betrayed, denied and abandoned him, … and, still, utter a prayer for their forgiveness meant he was releasing them from the worst of all possible crimes: conspiring to kill God.
What’s more, that he the innocent one would utter such a prayer as God the Son to God the Father meant that he also shared the very power to grant its fulfillment.
That forgiving power of Jesus’ crucifixion would find more detailed and complex theological explanations in later writings. But the wonder of his own forgiving took the whole notion of forgiveness to a level that could change the world. Those of us who call him Savior and Lord have experienced that liberation beyond imagining.
But have we found the capacity — at least on occasion — to forgive one another? That’s at least in part the purpose of “passing the peace” in our worship services. As ones forgiven, so we forgive. Are we transacting that forgiveness on Jesus’ behalf, even at the cost of granting a pardon not deserved but desperately needed by the ‘other’?
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul testifies that Jesus has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation. Guess what? Reconciliation comes by forgiving and being forgiven. God help us to live into such a calling and, thereby, to be instruments of Christ’s peace.