Is there a limit to forgiveness?
When Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive somebody who sins against him, he receives a reply which would have sounded as outrageously generous then as it does now:
‘…..As many as seven times?’ [asks Peter.] Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ (Matthew 18.21-2)
In other words, there is no limit to the times one forgives.
Place Jesus’ claim that there is no limit to forgiveness alongside another text. When Jesus was in dispute with the scribes from Jerusalem, he was accused of doing his works under the influence of Beelzebub. Jesus responded:
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness; but is guilty of an eternal sin” – for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mark 3.28-30)
The unpardonable sin here is the rejection of the Spirit’s work in God’s Kingdom and therefore the rejection of God. Those who obstinately reject Jesus, despite witnessing his works and the context in which they are taking place, are placing themselves beyond the salvation of God until they turn back towards God. The people of God, who knowingly reject what God is doing because they fear what will happen to them if they recognise God’s hand at work, are warned in the Gospels about judgement. Their offence is greater than those who reject God because they do not know or understand what they are doing.
Two aspects of the limits to forgiveness are raised here. One is the reasonably straightforward question about frequency of forgiveness. The other is whether some sins are so serious that they can never be forgiven. Whether there are limits to forgiveness, in particular in the latter sense, has always been a question of dispute. It is seen at its most harrowing in the Holocaust. Simon Wiesenthal, well-known for his organisation which hunted Nazi war criminals after World War II, was himself imprisoned in a concentration camp. While a prisoner, he was taken to the bedside of a dying SS soldier who, overwhelmed by guilt, graphically described his crimes and asked Wiesenthal, as a Jew, for forgiveness. After hearing the soldier and being deeply troubled by what he heard, Wiesenthal simply left in silence. Nobody could criticise Wiesenthal for his action, though Wiesenthal himself subsequently questioned whether he had acted correctly. Wiesenthal was confronted with the most difficult of situations – he had suffered horrendous treatment at the hands of the Nazis and yet the soldier’s request evoked from deep within Wiesenthal the tortured question of forgiveness.
Questions about forgiveness arise with any crimes against humanity. On a less grand scale, though with no less serious consequences for those who suffer as a result, are senseless crimes against individuals: when a gang of young people senseless beat to death a father enjoying a game of cricket with his son in the park; when a young father is stabbed to death because he objected to people damaging his car.
Forgiveness does not remove the quest for justice. Serious transgressions can have serious consequences for the perpetrators, but justice, which should be restorative, needs to be seen alongside a forgiveness which comes from the very nature of God.
However, some difficult and emotive questions arise, especially with the Holocaust, which highlights sharp questions about forgiveness. If God does side with those who are oppressed and victimised, then would it not be a betrayal to forgive those who commit such monstrous crimes against humanity? Is it right to move on as though these crimes are forgotten? Professor Ulrich Simon, formerly of Kings College London, drawing on the Gospel’s acknowledgement that some sins cannot be forgiven, is clear:
“There is a sin against Man and Spirit which Christ declared to be unforgivable, and Auschwitz is this sin against Man and Spirit. It is the supreme act of blasphemy, and the men and tools who caused it neither desire nor can receive the forgiveness of their sin.”
In many ways it is disrespectful for those who have not had to undergo such horrors even to raise the question of forgiveness and yet if we are to listen seriously to the spirit of the Gospel, then the answer, hard as it may be in so many instances, has to be that God’s forgiveness is beyond human understanding. Isaiah hints at God’s priority when he reminds the Israelites, exiled because of their disobedience and faithlessness:
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palm of my hands; your walls are continually before me. (49.15-6).
Even when Israel had forgotten God, God would not forget Israel. Even when Israel had turned her back on the Lord, the Lord did not turn his back on Israel just as a mother cannot forget the child she has carried and borne. There comes a point at which those who have been the object of wrong-doing and crimes need to forgive, otherwise, like the former US serviceman in front of the Vietnam memorial (see April’s extract on reconciliation), they continue to remain imprisoned by those who have wronged them. This is hard to hear for those who have suffered and have been victimised, but how else can one walk the path of reconciliation? M.Volf, in Exclusion and Embrace, (p.9) describes this dilemma in these words:
“My thought was pulled in two different directions by the blood of the innocent crying out to God and by the blood of God’s lamb offered for the guilty. How does one remain loyal both to the demand of the oppressed and to the gift of forgiveness that the Crucified offered to the perpetrators?”
In other words, God holds in his love both the person who is wronged and the one who inflicts the wrong.
Whose forgiveness is it?
The Lord’s prayer (Luke 11.2-4) places human forgiveness in the context of God’s forgiveness. When Christians forgive, it is because God has already forgiven them, ‘And forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.’ (11.4) This important development is a reminder that the forgiveness that women and men offer to those who have given offence is a reflection of the forgiveness that God offers to the human family. Two important consequences flow from God’s forgiveness. First, as the Lord’s prayer explicitly indicates, it is important to offer forgiveness to those who have given offence to us in the same way that God’s forgiveness is given. The story of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18.23-35) warns readers of the consequences of not reflecting God’s forgiveness in their lives. Secondly, human forgiveness is grounded in divine forgiveness and it can sometimes be very difficult to grasp this good news. Furthermore, an unwillingness to forgive others may well stem from an inability to accept the forgiveness that God offers. If I do not believe, at a deep level within me, that I am forgiven by God, then it is likely that I will want others to be aware of their sinfulness so that they share the same struggle as me. If I do not believe that I am forgiven, then others being in the same boat will make me feel better.
Overtly acknowledging God’s role in forgiveness will enable it to happen. When, after World War II, a party of West German church leaders first visited Moscow to begin a dialogue with members of the Russian Orthodox Church, the German leaders expressed their sorrow over the horrors inflicted upon the Russian people by the Germans during the war. They asked to be forgiven. During the worship, there were many tears as they all remembered the cruelties and slaughter of the time. Then the Russians said ‘God may forgive you’ and they kissed the crosses of the German church leaders and asked for their blessings.
The Russian Christians were not saying ‘God may forgive you, but we cannot,’ rather they were saying that God will give them the strength to forgive and overcome their traumatic memories. By kissing the crosses and asking for their blessings, they were accepting the German leaders as their leaders. Forgiveness thus forges a way forward and breaks the spiral of vengeance and retribution.
Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.