The praxis of forgiveness

This is the 15th and concluding post in a series reviewing the book The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis by Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click a number: 123456789101112, 1314.

We conclude our exploration of Anderson's book on practical theology (what he refers to as theological praxis) with a review of key points in his chapter on a practical theology of forgiveness (the praxis of forgiveness). When it comes to living out incarnational Trinitarian theology in the crucible of the "real world," there is, perhaps, no more important and challenging topic than this. Anderson comments:
Being a Christian means not merely being forgiven but being a forgiving person. Forgiveness is not only a spiritual grace but a human virtue, to be experienced and expressed as a mark of graceful living. (p291)
Jesus: "Father forgive them."
Crucifixion, seen from the Cross by Tissot  (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, several misconceptions exist among Christians as to what true (biblical) forgiveness entails. Anderson mentions three misconceptions:
  1. Forgiveness as therapeutic tool. According to Anderson, true forgiveness is no mere therapeutic tool to make oneself feel better. It has important spiritual and moral dimensions that must be addressed.
  2. Forgiveness as moral duty. According to Anderson, true forgiveness is not something that can be demanded of a person as though it is merely about fulfilling a moral/spiritual duty in a legalistic sense. Making such a demand on a victim might itself be an act that needs to be forgiven!  
  3. Forgiveness as quick fix. Note Anderson's comment on this misconception:
There is no shortcut to forgiveness, but it is a journey that we must take if we are to push through the self-deception that blinds us and experience personal healing and reconciliation with others. (pp295-6)
According to Anderson, true forgiveness comes only as a gift from God---a gift of deliverance and healing. That gift entails the operation of the kingdom of God in our midst, and in that regard, he notes that in the Lord's Prayer, the petition "Thy kingdom come..." precedes the petition concerning forgiveness ("Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us"). To invoke the work of the kingdom, is to invoke the healing presence of God himself in our midst. That, in turn, leads to the manifestation of the power of God's forgiving grace in and through us as citizens of his kingdom. To live in accordance with the kingdom is to live as a forgiven person who is forgiving. Such a person lives...
...contrary to the [human] instincts of retaliation and such a way that relationships are restored and a new culture of mutual care and regard comes into existence. (p296)
But how can we expect a victim who has been terribly wronged to forgive their offender? In reply, Anderson notes an important distinction between judgment and punishment:
Judgment is something like a verdict rendered in a court of law: one is pronounced guilty or innocent. Punishment is like the sentence imposed by the court. In a determination of punishment, extenuating circumstances can be taken into consideration; thus not all who are judged guilty experience the same punishment. (p297, italics added) 
True forgiveness does not nullify the judgment (the verdict) of guilt; it releases the offender from punishment. Forgiving does not mean forgetting---it does not mean ignoring that a wrong was done. The verdict of "guilty" is first rendered (not denied) and then the victim can consider whether or not they are willing to release the offender from any punishment. In pastoral ministry, (as pastors and counselors) we have a two-step role in supporting and affirming the victim in this journey:
  1. We help them render a judgment against the offense and the offender. This means helping them address the moral issues involved. This is a vital step in helping the victim get beyond self-blame (common among the victimized, particularly in cases of sexual abuse). This helps the victim process their feelings of anger---bringing their feelings of outrage to a conclusion.
  2. We help them deal with the issue of the offender's punishment. As Anderson notes, "The Bible does not prohibit us from passing judgment against moral wrong. At the same time, it warns us about exacting vengeance" (p298)---see Romans 12:19 and Deuteronomy 32:35. In this step, we help the victim understand that though forgiving does not mean forgetting, it does involve "the costly grace of releasing one who is truly guilty from the consequences of the offence, all for the sake of and with the hope of reconciliation" (p298).
Reconciliation, of course, is ultimately a two-way street. However, biblical forgiveness is what the victim extends unilaterally, with the hope of eventual reconciliation. This is the kind of forgiveness Paul asked Philemon (the slave owner) to extend to Onesimus (the runaway slave). Paul did not merely want Philemon to forgive Onesimus in the sense of "wiping the slate clean"---he wanted him, through true forgiveness, to open the door wide to full reconciliation. Anderson comments:
Paul viewed forgiveness as a spiritual dynamic that had the possibility of altering the former relationship and creating a new one based on reconciliation and mutual trust. The spiritual reality of "being in Christ," for Paul, meant a new creation, not only a new start within the old one. (p299)
Concerning the ultimate goal of full reconciliation, Anderson notes that "the intention of forgiveness is to nullify the shame and guilt so that the reconciliation and a new beginning become possible" (p303).

As already noted, true forgiveness is an often-lengthy (and often-painful) journey, not a single act. It's a journey that takes the victim toward freedom and peace and on toward reconciliation with the offender. A pastor or counselor functioning as a moral advocate for the victim can be very helpful along the way by helping them clarify their feelings and come to an appropriate judgment concerning the wrong done them, and then to explore the possibility of forgiveness defined as a cancelling of the need for seeing the offender punished.

Pastors and counselors, beware! Quick fixes and religious-sounding moralistic platitudes are particularly unhelpful in assisting a victim on this difficult, often tortuous journey. Instead, what they need from us is compassion and empathy---the ability to feel the victim's pain as a tangible expression of Jesus' presence as the Advocate who is already sharing in their suffering. As Anderson notes, "The praxis of Christ is released through compassion" (p308).

May we, through the power of the Spirit (the Paraclete), be that compassionate, empathic presence. That would be true theological praxis---the true outworking of the now-present kingdom of God on earth. Come Lord Jesus. Amen.