The cost of forgiveness

The Cambridge online dictionary defines the word forgive as “to stop blaming or being angry with someone for something that the person has done, or not punish them for something.” As simple as it may seem, forgiveness is not easy to actualise in everyday life mainly because of the ‘cost-factor.’ Say I accidentally break your beloved phone and you say you forgive me, then I should neither buy you a new phone nor pay for the repair of the old. If you make me pay, then you have not forgiven me.

Making someone pay gets more interesting when you consider personal relationships whereby the wrong committed cannot be monetarised. What happens when a friend betrays our trust? When a parent mistreats a child? When a child hurts their parent(s). Often times what happens is we withhold their affection from the one who wronged us and say, “I forgive you but I don’t want to talk to you right now.” A child who was mistreated by his/her parents might withhold honour and respect that their parents deserve. And for the parent against whom a child has wronged, they might say they have forgiven their child but go on to hold back something they know their child desires so as to teach them a lesson. All of this is making the offender pay and it is unforgiveness.

Examining forgiveness in this manner can easily lead to misunderstanding forgiveness. Forgiveness is not saying what was done was right. Forgiveness does not mean the offender and the offended have to become best buddies – forgiveness is not restoration/reconciliation. Forgiveness does not require forgetting – if you have a habit of forgetting stuff, you should probably see a doctor. Further, forgiveness does not mean that the offended should not protect themselves from the offender. If the offender still possess harm, one can still set boundaries to protect themselves from the offender, even after forgiveness has already taken place.

Forgiveness means writing off the debt but actually someone somewhere has to pay. If I break your phone (again, sorry about that) and you forgive me, then you are paying for that. You’ll probably need to get a new phone and guess who get to pay for it. However, unforgiveness also makes the offended pay at the same time as they are making the perpetrator pay for the offence also.  We know Forgiveness is stopping to be angry at someone. “To release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” Not forgiving, is simply bottling up all these emotions and anger. As it is put: “unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die from it.” Forgiveness is freedom. Unforgiveness is poisonous.

In my opinion, what make forgiveness difficult and almost impossible at times is justice. We all desire it. Even young children say “that is not fair” all the time because our innermost being cries for it. According to justice, when someone does something wrong, they should be punished. Forgiveness says don’t make the offender pay and justice screams for any wrong to be punished. With justice in one hand and forgiveness on the other, should we give up one to gain the other? I am not entirely sure how other worldviews address this dilemma but I am certain Christianity gives coherent answer.

Christians are commanded to forgive. (So if you are a Christian and don’t forgive, you are actually sinning and require to be punished yourself. Ironic!). A Christian will get to forgive one of two people – other Christians and non-Christians. Justice is attained in both instances with God carrying it out. Jesus, on the cross, died for all the sins of those who put their trust in Him. He was punished for their sin. As a Christian, when another Christian offends you (hence commits sin), that sin of theirs is placed on Christ and he died for it. Justice for that sin is met. Therefore, A Christian refusing to forgive another Christian is essentially saying God’s wrath poured out on His Son is not enough to cover the sin of the individual who has wronged them. Similarly, when it comes to forgiving non-Christians, a Christian should realise that those who do not put their sin at the cross of Jesus by believing in Him will spend eternity in total separation from God. They will spend eternity in hell where the punishment of sin takes place. So a Christian refusing to forgive a non-Christian is essentially saying God’s wrath that those who do not believe will experience in hell is not enough to fully punish the actions of the individual who has wronged them. In either instances, God’s justice in punishing sin is declared insufficient. But we know that is not true. God’s righteous wrath (on the cross or in hell) is more than enough to achieve justice for all sins.

Forgiveness is saying to someone; “you have wronged me. I am hurt. But I won’t seek vengeance because I forgive you. I put this sin you’ve committed against me in God’s hands. He will take care of the cost because I do not want either of us to pay for it” If restoration can be achieved after this, that’s awesome. However, as already stated, it is not a prerequisite for forgiveness. Also, the offended need not forget the offence carried against them. There is beauty in this too. It is good to know that even if someone remembers the horrible thing you did, they have consciously and deliberately decided to not make you pay for it. Being forgiven for something that is not in anyone’s mind is not as special.

Lastly, it is good to know that forgiveness can be given without the perpetrator asking for it. It is not uncommon to find people burdened because they have not forgiven someone simply because the person didn’t ask for it. The person might not know they did something wrong or they might just be too proud to admit it. They might be dead or just not in a position to ask for forgiveness. Whatever the cases, may we learn to stop drinking the poison of unforgiveness. It might kill us.

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