Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. – Matthew 18:21-22 (NRSV)
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. – Psalm 103:11-12 (NRSV)
Forgiveness is an essential part of love and love is an essential part of forgiveness. It is when we start talking about forgiveness that we begin to consider the limits of our own love and wonder about the limits of God’s love. The idea that God loves everyone (and so should we) seems good and beautiful. I have talked before about the understanding that God’s love is a constant, the ground of being on which we find support and strength as we walk the path of discipleship faced with the natural uncertainties of life.
It is a beautiful idea until, as with most ideas, one takes it to the extremes. If God loves everyone, then God loves Hitler and Mussolini. If God loves everyone, then God love despots and dictators. If God loves everyone, then God loves abusers and molesters. Can God forgive the Holocaust? Can God forgive someone who steals the innocence from a child? Can God forgive the serial killer who has no ability to feel remorse?
I suspect this question is more about “should” then “can.” Ultimately, as God is infinite, then God can forgive whatever God chooses to forgive. It is more proper to ask, “Should God forgive radical evil?” As we look at the span of history as well as current events, it is not hard to find actions that are reprehensible, for which forgiveness and love would be difficult if not impossible. Should God forgive such actions even when there is repentance?
There is no satisfactory answer to that question. Attempts to answer it have led to reams of rabbinical texts, volumes of academic theology, stunned silences in the midst of adult Sunday school. If the answer is a clear, “Yes,” then forgiveness seems somehow cheapened, an easy out of guilt for the worse humanity has to offer. If the answer is a clear, “No,” then we are struck with the uncertainty of acknowledging a limit to forgiveness. Somewhere between little, white lies and genocide there is a boundary which, once crossed, excludes forgiveness. Perhaps we rarely reach that boundary; perhaps we cross it with frequency.
At the heart of a Christian discussion on forgiveness is the image of Jesus offering forgiveness to those who nailed him to the cross. The love of God is seen most clearly in the experience of radical evil by Jesus himself. Jesus goes to the cross as an innocent; suffers as an innocent; dies as an innocent, and still offers a word of forgiveness. Could we do the same? Or perhaps the image of Christ’s forgiveness from the cross points out that the love and forgiveness of God is broader than we want to admit.
And again I think that the extremes of forgiveness may distract us from the heart of the matter, our learning to be forgiving people. If we want love to be more than a platitude, we have to learn to forgive, to restore relationships that will inevitably be strained. But when we talk about forgiveness, we need to start with the small annoyances that are part of our daily lives rather than starting with radical evil that we cannot begin to understand. We need to learn to forgive the ill-timed word and the impatient response. We need to learn to forgive the petty disagreement and the unintentional slight. Once we take a deep breath and learn to forgive smaller things, then larger offenses are no longer insurmountable.
At the same time, I don’t believe that Jesus expects us to have the level of forgiveness that he showed on the cross. I believe he gives us an example of forgiveness to strive toward, a direction on our path. God has offered us forgiveness so that we can become forgiving. The ability to let go of offenses is as important on our walk as seeking to avoid causing offense in the first place. We will have impatient days. We will meet people with whom we simply do not click. We will be offended and we will cause offense. We will need to be forgiven just as we will need to be forgiving.
Anyone in a long-term relationship can tell you that forgiveness is essential to love and love is essential to forgiveness. God has chosen to be in an eternal relationship with us, requiring an eternity of love and an eternity of forgiveness. Thankfully in God we find an abundance of both, enough that we might also learn to grow into loving and forgiving people.