by Eric Simpson
Recently I took my son to see the film version of C.S. Lewis novel,
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. More than its message of redemption, the film, like the book, powerfully illustrates the simplicity of forgiving others. The younger brother, Edmund, betrays his brothers and sisters through lies and deceit, but once redeemed by the sacrifice of Aslan, he is forgiven, and humbly reconciled with them.
There have been times when I have struggled with my concept of forgiveness. I have thought of it as the absence of punishment, not seeking to punish others for the sins they have committed against me. This is a good beginning, but I think it falls short of understanding what authentic forgiveness is, and what it can become. Forgiveness is not an absence; it is the presence of something that eradicates all pain, and that destroys barriers of communion. It is more than a negative extension of mercy; it is an active energy radiating from the presence of love. True forgiveness yearns for something more than mere restraint.
When a person repents, as does Edmund, he should certainly forgive, which includes refraining from punishment. One problem that results from seeing forgiveness as an absence rather than a presence is the idea that one might attempt to forgive without the presence of divine love. It is possible to refrain from punishing another person without actually forgiving him. Having been traumatized, deeply wounded, one thinks he should forgive, but does not seek or find the healing that can only be found in the presence of love. One might not authentically forgive just as one might not really repent. We may think we can relent from punishment but continue to judge the person who has hurt us.
Love that forgives is not primarily an emotion, nor is it merely the absence of punishment, but it is the presence of divine personality. This kind of love cannot exist without self-knowledge, which provides one with the ability to know the other, the subject of ones love. The love of God is a consuming fire; love always seeks to eradicate barriers to communion. It is radical in its willingness to completely release others from their offenses.
This doesnt mean that one needs automatically to trust an offender again, putting him or her in a position where re-offense is possible, in order to truly forgive. An obvious illustration might be the habitual cycle of abuse that occurs in domestic violence cases. Through divine love, a victim can authentically forgive the person who has been abusive without reconciliation.
If someone harms my kids, I may be empowered by Christ to forgive, but that doesnt mean Im going to let them hang out with my kids again. In such cases, certainly a person must prove himself to be repentant over time before responsibility in the relationship is returned, if it is ever returned, or before trust is regained. Trust is earned. Yet authentic forgiveness strives for the mutual knowledge that defines love, and for spiritual reconciliation.
If we truncate our understanding of forgiveness so that it becomes a negative act, the withdrawal of punishment rather than the full release of the person who has injured us, authentic repentance and reconciliation become more difficult. A person can no longer simply repent, cannot experience a change or transformation of heart, cannot turn away from sin, cannot go and sin no more as did the woman caught in adultery, cannot come to his senses as did the prodigal son. Edmund would not be crowned Edmund the Just, the twisted personality that has been made straight, but he would have to spend years proving himself, perhaps indefinitely, before being allowed into the court of his brothers and sisters, which may be understood as spiritual reconciliation in the kingdom of God. The prodigal son would be given into the care of his elder brother, who would not punish him, but would not give him the fatted calf either.
Simplicity of heart and true freedom results when I forgive others. It actually allows me not only to love my neighbor as myself, but to love my enemy, the person who continues to wound me and is not repentant. Forgiveness annihilates bitterness, and liberates my relationship with God.
I remember often that unless I forgive others, I will not be forgiven by God. Also, I know that forgiveness, like repentance, is a gift. When it comes to complex situations, there are degrees of forgiveness. What is just in each case depends on the persons involved in the measure of faith each has and the grace each person is given. In any case, however, there is no border dividing offenders from forgivers. We are all offenders and we are all forgivers. Repenting and forgiving is like walking, the daily exercise of grace. We have the saints and martyrs to uphold us and serve as examples.
Sometimes I think that forgiveness is really the easiest thing in the world to do because it does not depend on the person who is being forgiven, or on any outside circumstance (such as whether or not the person seeks it), but it is entirely dependent on my own interior state and willingness to forgive. By the same token, forgiveness is sometimes the most difficult thing in the world to do, and impossible if I do not constantly seek to be transformed by the presence of love. It takes this presence to authentically repent. It is also necessary to truly forgive.
Eric Simpson is a freelance writer. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, where he is a member at St. Sophia Orthodox Church.