What Too Little Forgiveness Does to Us
Timothy Keller (MDiv ’75)
This essay originally appeared in The New York Times.
Virginia is reeling from two mass shootings in less than a month in Chesapeake and Charlottesville. From what we know, the races and politics of the two people accused of the shootings were quite different.
But there seem to be common threads: They both seemed to have bitter resentment and unresolved anger toward individuals, groups or even society as a whole. The Chesapeake shooter wrote that his former Walmart colleagues “gave me evil twisted grins, mocked me and celebrated my downfall.” The brother of the man accused of the University of Virginia shooting said he’d been picked on in school and then reached a “breaking point.”
The most common explanations for the root causes of mass shootings — a mental health crisis and overly lax gun laws — have merit. Another factor is the fading of forgiveness in our society. It is no longer valued or promoted as it was in the past. And a society that has lost the ability to extend and receive forgiveness risks being crushed by the weight of recriminations and score settling.
Many people committed to justice value forgiveness, but others worry that it lets oppressors off the hook. Technology also makes a contribution. Social media is a realm in which missteps and wrongful, impulsive posts are never forgiven. Screenshots of every foolish word you have ever said online can be circulated in perpetuity. And our politics is filled with vitriol. In our cultural moment a conciliatory, forgiving voice is nowhere to be heard. Calls for forgiveness and reconciliation sound like both-sidesism, a mealy-mouthed lack of principle and courage.
Yet what is the alternative to forgiveness? In the 1970s, I was a pastor in a small town that had not a single professional therapist or social worker. I ended up counseling dozens of couples with troubled marriages. I discovered that those who learned and embraced forgiveness usually survived and those who did not never did. Without forgiveness, no human relationships or communities can be sustained. Without forgiveness, centuries-long cycles of retaliation, violence and genocide repeat themselves. Without forgiveness, you are more subject to heart disease and heart attacks, strokes and depression. We should forgive because it is profoundly practical. To fail to forgive is to undermine the health and coherence of one’s body, one’s relationships and the entire human community.
Another reason to forgive is simple fairness. We owe it to others to forgive because we all need forgiveness ourselves. At the end of his parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, Jesus describes God saying to an unforgiving man, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you?” Imagine that when Judgment Day comes, you will be evaluated only on the basis of all the times you told others, “You ought to” or “You should.” In other words, imagine you will be judged only on the basis of your own moral standards. Not a person on earth could pass such a test, and we know it.
So if we should forgive, then how can we?
First, there must be the recognition that forgiveness does not contradict the pursuit of justice. Rather, it is its precondition. Forgiving is not excusing. To forgive something, you must name it as the evil it is. The pursuit of justice and the speaking of truth are necessary. But if you don’t internally forgive wrongdoers — if you don’t give up your quest to pay back and to make them suffer as much as you have — you won’t really be seeking justice. You will be seeking vengeance. Vengeance consumes your inward being with anger and hate. If you don’t forgive internally, you won’t confront the wrongdoers for justice’s sake or for future victims’ sake or for God’s sake. You will be doing it for your sake, and the project will go awry. It leaves you infected with the very hardness and evil that was done to you.
Second, there must be a commitment to renounce revenge and bear the cost of forgiveness. Forgiveness is granted before it’s felt. It is a commitment not to constantly bring up the wrongs to the wrongdoers to punish them or to others to ruin their reputations or to yourself, constantly reliving the incident in order to keep the anger going. You will find these disciplines to be hard and even costly. But if you pay that cost, you will gradually find yourself escaping the grip of bitterness. Once forgiveness is granted, it clears the way for justice, possible reconciliation and other forms of restoration.
Finally, forgiveness requires belief in something bigger than ourselves. In October 2006 a gunman took hostages in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, shooting 10 children ages 7 to 13, five of whom died, and then committing suicide. Within hours, members of the Amish community visited the killer’s immediate family and his parents, expressing sympathy for their loss. Many in the mainstream press called on others to emulate the Amish and become more forgiving.
Four years later, a group of scholars wrote that our secular culture was losing the ability to forgive the way the Amish did. Americans, they argued, are committed to self-assertion, believing the interests and needs of the individual come before those of the family, the community or God. The Amish, by contrast, have as one of their core values self-renunciation, with forgiveness being one form of it. The authors concluded that our culture of expressive individualism is one that “nourishes revenge and mocks grace” and will not produce agents of forgiveness and reconciliation.
What is that higher good necessary for forgiveness? It can be many things; probably the most natural one is a willingness to sacrifice one’s interests for the good of the community. Christianity provides a unique resource at this point, unique even in comparison with other religions. At the heart of Christian faith is not primarily a wonderful, wise teacher (though Jesus was that, too) but a man who died for his enemies so that he could secure divine forgiveness for them. When you embrace the idea that Jesus’ self-sacrifice was done for you, the Crucifixion becomes an act of surpassing beauty that, when brought into the center of your being, gives you both the profound humility and towering happiness, even joy, needed to forgive others.
The Christian church today is not the model of forgiveness that it was at times in the past. God uses kindness to lead people’s hearts to change (Romans 2:4), but taken as a whole, today’s American church does not. Christians like me should repent and renew themselves as members of communities of forgiveness and reconciliation. When Jesus Christ was dying, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). If he treats his executioners like that, how can those of us who believe in him be cold, caustic or harsh with anyone?
If forgiveness in small things and large were deeply embedded in our culture, it would transform us politically, ending the demagogy that never admits wrongdoing and that mocks and belittles one’s opponents. It would transform us socially, ending racial stereotyping, discrimination and unwillingness to listen to one another. It would make every movement for justice less likely to burn out, overreach or alienate. It would remake us personally, enabling us to confront frustrations and hurts and work through them rather than turn to drugs or guns or other destructive ways of dealing with our pain.
Few have the ability to honestly confront their own failings, flaws, self-centeredness — in short, their sin — unless they are assured that grace is ready to meet them. C.S. Lewis put it well: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”