by Alex Knepper
I think C.S. Lewis is right that it is not chastity but forgiveness which is truly the least-popular of Christian virtues. People don’t want to forgive. They think it means letting someone get away with it. They think it means making excuses. They think it means acting like it doesn’t matter. They think it means giving someone a blank check to hurt you. They think it means allowing someone to not have to change after they’ve done wrong.
Even when reminded that forgiveness goes hand-in-hand with repentance and penance — apologizing and meaning it and showing it, and making amends when appropriate — people still feel apprehensive: it’s not fair that someone should be able to hurt us and then have their slate wiped clean, is it?
No, perhaps it is not fair; at least not by human standards. God’s love is gratuitous, indiscriminate, and audacious, and scripture is clear that it ‘covers’ (1 Peter 4:8) sins. It does not erase them, but rather it hides them — and that isn’t fair; no, it isn’t. The only person Jesus explicitly promised entry into Heaven was a crucified criminal — with crucifixions being reserved for the supposedly ‘worst of the worst’ under Roman law.
It may feel like someone deserves to be a target of rage, hate, resentment, anger, or frustration. Sometimes there is even some utility in it. Sometimes it can be a spur for something change when swift change is called for and nothing else seems to work. But when we project those experiences onto the world, onto another person, we must not forget that in a sense we become those states of being; when we rage, we are rage; when we resent; we are resentment. However much someone else may deserve it, we cannot forget we are robbing ourselves — and others, especially those who have nothing to with a given grievance — of something beautiful and good, because rage and love cannot coexist in the same state of being.
I’m not saying that we should never get angry. Even God gets angry sometimes, according to scripture; scripture even says God can be destructive (Romans 9:22) and hateful (Malachi 1:3). But it’s never the final word, never something to persist in perpetuity, always a ladder to be climbed so that it can be thrown away without looking back.
Forgiveness is mandatory. It’s the ethical crown jewel of the Christian faith. It feels wrong; it feels irrational; it feels too much to make forgiveness a way of life. It is nonetheless in accord with truth. There is no way around it: the alternatives are all unworthy, impossible, or ultimately destroy what they claim to seek to preserve. And if we do not forgive, we are certainly not following Christ: seven times seventy-seven, remember? If I feel the need to, I can summarize the faith in three words: ‘Love and forgiveness.’ In an important sense it is the faith’s most radical teaching, closely orbiting Love and reflecting its light-rays wherever it can.