Last week I closed with a discussion of the power of forgiveness. I think it’s worth following that up with some thoughts about Christian forgiveness – specifically, what it is and what it isn’t. The modern western culture has adopted some pretty specific ideas of forgiveness, claiming that this is the “Christian” ideal. It’s not. It bears no relation to any historical version of true Christian forgiveness that ever existed in any major culture… until the modern day.
First, the modern misconception of Christian forgiveness. The modern idea is that “true Christians” should forgive anything, anywhere, anytime, always and forever. As is typical of most modern misconceptions of Christianity, this isn’t completely off base… it’s just missed some of the details that turn out to actually be rather important. Amusingly, this version of Christian forgiveness is pushed the most heavily by non-Christians – very often the exact same non-Christians I derided last week for not wanting to ever forgive anything
But, you say, they’re not Christian – they don’t have to. But us, us Christians, oh, we have to. Well, no – they are dictating the rules of our own faith to us in an attempt to disarm us in the culture wars. And, as usual, they completely misunderstand our faith. Unfortunately, so do many Christians, which is why they can get away with it.
The nugget of truth is that, yes, by Christian dogma nothing is unforgivable. Literally nothing. It doesn’t matter how evil your deeds were. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve lived an entire life of evil and repent only right before death. By two thousand years of Christian dogma, God will forgive you. Those of us who are practicing Christians are supposed to also strive for this ideal – although the other part of Christianity, largely forgotten in the modern culture as well, is that we are fallen humans. We are expected to strive for it. We are also expected to fail.
Even so, there is another part to this that is completely forgotten (or, mostly, purposefully ignored) in modern attacks on Christians supposedly acting in an un-Christian way. The forgiveness isn’t free, and it isn’t automatic. Forgiveness requires three things:
- An acknowledgement that one has, in fact, sinned [or, in the case of forgiveness from someone other than God, acknowledgement that you’ve committed a grievance; for brevity, I will just say sin from here on out]. That implies a further requirement: acknowledging that what you did was, in fact, wrong. Being a good Christian does require that you try not to judge others, and that you forgive them if you do judge them. It does not require you to pretend that what they did was right.
- Contrition – an honest regret for the sin. You have to actually be sorry for having done it. As we learn in grade school, being sorry for “getting caught” isn’t enough. Neither is it enough to be sorry merely because our sin had a bad effect. We must be sorry for the actual commission of the sin.
- We must make an honest and true attempt to turn away from the sin. You can’t acknowledge your sins, confess them to God, and totally plan on doing it again tomorrow and expect to be forgiven – even if you’re really, really sorry. It doesn’t work that way. If you’re going to just go out and cheerfully do it again, well, don’t expect your forgiveness. Now, God does know that we’re merely fallen mortals. If we really mean to be good, we try to be good, and we screw up… well, he expects that. But we have to try.
Now, God’s forgiveness is infinite – and it’s not subject to our rules. If he chooses to, God can forgive us even if we don’t meet these requirements. But the entire history of Church dogma tells us that we’re only assured of it if we meet these requirements. In turn, we are not under any obligation to forgive others who don’t meet them. If we choose to do so anyway, that’s our business and good for us. But honest Christian forgiveness doesn’t require it.
This is the true nature of Christian forgiveness. The modern version of “forgive everybody everything even if they’re not sorry, don’t view it as sin, and plan to keep doing it forever” isn’t Christian at all.