Forgiveness is the costliest gift one can receive. I know of no calculus for the value of the gift. Forgiveness is unique because it is offered to another who has done one harm, in any number of heinous ways. Or, the harm may have been done to one’s family, one’s business, or any other combination of relations.
But the process of forgiveness can be complicated. It seems easy to say, “I forgive you.” But what does the act of saying that do?
Miroslav Volf, theologian and professor at Yale Divinity School, has written extensively on the subject of forgiveness. He is acquainted with unwelcome evil in the form of tortuous questioning during the Croatian-Serbian conflict. The following quote, taken from his essay “Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Justice,” totally readjusted my understanding of the issue: “To offer forgiveness is at the same time to condemn the deed and accuse the doer; to receive forgiveness is at the same time to admit to the deed and accept the blame.”
In his personally moving and theologically magisterial book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Volf continues the above theme: “To forgive is to name and condemn the misdeed. The same is true of God. God doesn’t just condemn and then forgive. God also condemns in the very act of forgiving.” Volf later argues that “condemnation is not the heart of forgiveness. It’s the very indispensable presupposition of it. The heart of forgiveness is the release of a genuine debt.” Then in a gospel sentence Volf says, “Forgiveness cuts the tie of equivalence between the offense and the way we treat the offender…I forego all retribution.”
Careful reflection on these comments leads me to two statements. There is an aftermath to seeking and receiving forgiveness. If Volf is correct, the aftermath is twofold. One, there is great joy over release from an unpayable debt: how does one repay a person for a betrayal, for abuse, for deceit, for racism—name what you will? One is set free, without threat of retribution. Two, there is that issue of condemnation—an issue Volf first brought to my attention. To forgive someone is to pronounce a judgment, to declare or to af rm another’s guilt. But it is not a pain inflicted to injure, to damage, to diminish another’s personhood. It is the pain of coming face to face with the truth about oneself and knowing that the truth sets one free. Truth will not undercut one’s capacity to be a person of integrity among one’s family, associates, and brothers and sisters in Christ.
Volf is prepared to argue that it is God’s prior forgiveness of persons before repentance that is key. “Instead of being a condition of forgiveness, however, repentance is its necessary consequence.”
“But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). So Jesus prays for his crucifiers as he was dying: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Note: This is not to say that repentance is unnecessary. It is to say that prior grace has something to do with making repentance possible. And this prior grace helps the penitent one acknowledge the truth in the judgment implied in the forgiveness received (Psalm 51:3-4).
This gift of repentance enables the penitent one to receive the forgiveness offered and to begin movements of restitution toward the offended person or persons. So the aftermath can include one more enabling gift: freedom.