Often we hear that we ought to forgive and indeed for Christians, it is said in the most serious terms: Forgive us....as we forgive others, blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy, the parable of the forgiven yet unforgiving servant, the story of the adulterous woman sentenced to die, even that of the woman who wept at the feet of Christ seems to point to it indirectly as Christ said, which one will love more, the servant forgiven 50 or 5,000 bucks? And "Because she has LOVED much, her sins though many, are forgiven her."
I have realized that I have a greatly difficult time forgiving others. By this I don't mean that I mistreat them, in fact I make conscious efforts/acts of forgiveness. What I mean is that I realized something in analyzing myself today regarding my own shame in facing God (to ask for forgiveness or to believe that I am forgiven) after consciously, deliberately sinning then later feeling bad about it. Deep down I have an aversion to the part of me that fails in this way, which is understandable,but also, there is a part of me that is exacting like the people Jesus spoke of. It requires punishment for offences deliberately committed and I realize that this is also how I am with those people who have deeply wounded me. It is as though I need a debt to be paid. Otherwise, the same aversion I feel for weak sinner me, I feel for them, until I have made them "pay" in a way, through shunning (silent treatment or other types of aloofness or withdrawal of good will until they grovel in a way that feels sufficient to the injury felt deep inside).
I used to look at this as simply responsible self-protection or boundary-setting (You teach people how to treat you, goes the wisdom) but now I see that what I am doing is keeping score. Because it feels more like I am punishing bad behaviour than saying no to mistreatment. How are we as Christians supposed to forgive unconditionally,(not maintain and hold them to an account of debts, consciously or unconsciously) and yet love ourselves enough not to deliberately encourage ill-treatment from others? Some of what Jesus said seems so dangerous sometimes, the beatitudes and indeed the whole sermon on the mount. Jesus seems not to have cared at all about setting boundaries or teaching people how to treat us in his beatitudes. At the same time, he did protest his own mistreatment at least twice, at his arrest and interrogation before the sanhedrin (Why do you strike me?)
What does Christian forgiveness really mean? I also need practical tips to help me deal with this issue, both for my attitude towards myself when I am coming out of the trance of sin, which sometimes makes me delay unreasonably, to ask God for forgiveness, and which also I project to other sinners who have wounded me on more than a superficial emotional level.
I'd like to mention one thing that St. Thomas treats in his "Summa". This seems to be an almost completely ignored distinction in our times, but an essential one, it seems to me. The difference between the stain of sin and the debt of punishment. In The first part of the second part of Summa, question 87, article 6, Thomas writes:
"Two things may be considered in sin: the guilty act, and the consequent stain. Now it is evident that in all actual sins, when the act of sin has ceased, the guilt remains; because the act of sin makes man deserving of punishment, in so far as he transgresses the order of Divine justice, to which he cannot return except he pay some sort of penal compensation, which restores him to the equality of justice; so that, according to the order of Divine justice, he who has been too indulgent to his will, by transgressing God's commandments, suffers, either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish. This restoration of the equality of justice by penal compensation is also to be observed in injuries done to one's fellow men. Consequently it is evident that when the sinful or injurious act has ceased there still remains the debt of punishment.
But if we speak of the removal of sin as to the stain, it is evident that the stain of sin cannot be removed from the soul, without the soul being united to God, since it was through being separated from Him that it suffered the loss of its brightness, in which the stain consists, as stated above (Question 86, Article 1). Now man is united to God by his will. Wherefore the stain of sin cannot be removed from man, unless his will ACCEPT the order of Divine justice, that is to say, unless either of his own accord he take upon himself the punishment of his past sin, or bear patiently the punishment which God inflicts on him; and in both ways punishment avails for satisfaction. Now when punishment is satisfactory, it loses somewhat of the nature of punishment: for the nature of punishment is to be against the will; and although satisfactory punishment, absolutely speaking, is against the will, nevertheless in this particular case and for this particular purpose, it is voluntary. Consequently it is voluntary simply, but involuntary in a certain respect, as we have explained when speaking of the voluntary and the involuntary (6, 6). We must, therefore, say that, when the stain of sin has been removed, there may remain a debt of punishment, not indeed of punishment simply, but of satisfactory punishment."
As far as I understand what he says, forgiveness, either by God, or by neighbor, pertain to the stain, not the debt. It means that we shouldn't confuse forgiveness with an elimination of just punishment. In fact, Thomas understands punishment in a very unpsychological way. He says earlier that if we rebel against any order, this order will restore itself by natural force. If we put our hand into the fire, the fire doesn't "punish" as - we just face consequences of violating nature. The same goes for moral order, so there is no question of God being some tyrant who persecutes the sinners.
If, however, any violated order will tend to reestablish itself, then there is no way to avoid the consequences of sin, i.e. punishment. In my understanding, if someone offends me, I can forgive him, but not eliminate just punishment for this offense. It works a bit like Hindu karma. Forgiveness is bringing back "union" of love, but we, as humans, are powerless to change the laws of nature. God could do this, but as an exception. So I have to pay for all my sins, even though the sins are forgiven by God. They are eliminated in the sense that there is nothing that hinders the union of love between me and God, but they are not eliminated in the sense that the damage I caused doesn't need some payment.
Until recently there was an idea of penance in the Catholic Church, but maybe wrong ideas about it have caused the Church to somehow withdraw from this teaching. People are scandalized now by the idea that sufferings of this life can be punishment for our sins. Well, actually, I don't have any problem with that. Not only do I realize that my past sins deserve just punishment, I WANT THAT PUNISHMENT, because I want the order to be reestablished. Penance is something we naturally desire, if we understand the meaning of sin, the destruction it causes. The whole idea of purgatory is based on the need to pay for the sins, those which are already forgiven by God and neighbors.
When I was a child, I learnt that a good confession needs not only admitting my sins in order to be forgiven, but also penance or satisfaction. Nowadays, I frequently hear people who imagine that mercy and forgiveness means that someone offended someone and he is free to go, just because he is sorry for what he's done. That's not Christian understanding of forgiveness (at least, not Thomas'). I think it'd be reasonable, for example, that I demand punishment for someone whom I forgave, even though love can inspire us to pray to God to free this person from punishment either. And, I repeat, it is not that I take pleasure in demanding just punishment for sinners - it just is natural that we have to make up for the evil we've done. Isn't it?
So I wouldn't say that your attitude, St. Rubia, is something incompatible with forgiveness. If I may point out something, however, perhaps what you yourself noticed can be a problem - namely the subjective quality of this desire for justice. I guess our weakness is in the fact that we do not desire justice as such, objectively, but we want some personal, subjective revenge.
What do you think of that?
Great topic and thorough response.
Part of what has changed during the past few decades is this idea of "punishment" that Mt is referring to -- a suffering that restores right balance. It's sometimes why people are even hard on themselves after doing wrong.
Of course, this punishment ought be directed at strengthening the person rather than some vicarious practice that induces pain for pain's sake. If I eat too much, for example, I can confess the sin and find God's forgiveness, but I might also need to practice the virtue of temperance more diligently, maybe even fast from time to time. There's this traditional correspondence between deadly sins and heavenly virtues, the latter providing direction for the kinds of disciplines that promote balance and help us avoid further sin. Practicing virtue is difficult. Making restitution is also possible in some cases, and this ought to be done as well.
- see http://freedomoffaith.tripod.com/id11.html
The "forget" part of "forgive and forget" does not mean that we do not recall what happened, nor that we make prudent decisions to set appropriate boundaries with unhealthy people. Forgetting in this sense is more affective -- we can recall the events without feeling angry or ashamed. We have "let it go" and moved on. This is never easy, and seldom happens with one prayer or act of willingness. Sometimes it takes time. We can always pray for the grace of "willingness to forgive," and I'm sure it's in accord with God's will.
Forgiveness is an act of will and this can be made in an instant. But there is also a psychological dimension of forgiveness, in the sense that we may be still angry or hurt when we think of a particular offense, even though we made an act of will to forgive the person. It seems that purification of affective memory makes this emotional part easier, because after a while there is no emotional connection whatsoever with the past offense. It is not an act of will and, therefore, not a merit in a moral sense. It just happens. But I also noticed that many men forget about past offenses much easier, both in affective and actual sense, they just let go and do not go back. For many women it is psychologically very difficult to not to remember, ruminate and get angry or hurt again. It seems to have much to do with biological (brain) and psychological (unconscious) structure of men and women. For example, women are much more prone to depression and guilt, than men, which might have many causes (psychoanalysts tend to connect this with the fact that, first, women are identified with their mothers, while men constantly have to distance themselves from their early bond with the mother, and second, because women tend to turn aggression towards themselves, while men - towards others). But it would follow from that that women are less "forgiving" since they ruminate, go back, mull over, can't let go etc. But, of course, this is ridiculous, since forgiveness is not about our emotional or even biological make up, is it?
You introduce some important considerations, Mt. I agree with your main point, that forgiveness is an "act of will," and that affective guilt is secondary and not an indication if forgiveness has taken place. What complicates things is that feelings/emotions do weigh on the will, making it difficult sometimes to sustain the will-to-forgive. Like faith, hope, love and many virtues, the act-of-forgiveness needs to be reaffirmed; it can also become weakened, even reversed. It's one thing to have painful memories, for example, but another to indulge them and fantasize scenarios for revenge. The latter would certainly counter forgiveness, but one could repent of that and keep going.
You bring up the differences between men and women concerning these struggles, and we can add children vs. adults as well. Children seem to have an amazing capacity to let go and move on. They will be playing together, get into an argument and fall out, only to resume play the next day. Sustained bullying is a different matter; kids learn to avoid such people if they can. But all in all it seems that they forgive quite readily, which is perhaps one reason Jesus taught that we must become like children.
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