The author of Forgiveness: Following Jesus into Radical Loving talks about the imperative for forgiveness in the Christian faith
Paula Huston: I believe that the central place Christianity cedes to forgiveness is unique among the world religions, and thus it is crucial that we who want to follow Christ learn how to forgive and to accept forgiveness. Christ goes so far as to say that we must forgive one another as we have been forgiven or we risk losing God’s mercy for ourselves. More, if we have wounded or offended someone else, then we need to seek out that person and try our best to reconcile before we bring our gift to the altar.
Clearly, forgiveness is not an optional practice for Christians, but a requirement. Yet we are so used to putting ourselves first that forgiveness may be a long time coming. So how does a person begin? First, I need to give up the automatically self-protective stance that feels so natural in a hyper-competitive society like ours. To do so, I have to develop some humility about who I think I am. I must be able to recognize that I myself am far from perfect, and I must own up to my own propensity to blunder, to strike out without meaning to, and even to wound deliberately as payback for perceived offenses. The fact is, I live upon the mercy of others, and I need to be able to humbly accept this reality. Second, I need to understand that the real goal is to love others as Christ loves me, and I can never get there if I am blocked by recalcitrant anger or long-term grudges. Forgiveness demolishes the walls that separate me from other people and opens the flood-gates of love and grace. This is why the subtitle of Forgiveness is “Following Jesus into Radical Loving.”
explorefaith: How do you define forgiveness? What does it require and what’s not necessary?
Paula Huston: Forgiveness as Jesus teaches it in the Gospels is the natural extension of his wider teaching on love. To forgive is to deliberately set aside the rage that comes with being wounded by another. It requires that I forego vengeance, and stop wishing ill on the person who has hurt me. But there is a positive side to forgiveness too: not only do I relinquish my anger and desist hoping that bad things will happen to my tormentor, but I also begin to pray for his or her well-being. I begin to “love my enemies,” as Christ told me I should. Is forgiveness therefore the same thing as reconciliation? I don’t believe it is. I can stop hating someone and begin to pray for his good without having to re-establish a relationship with him. This is especially important in cases of ongoing abuse or oppression. The person I am forgiving may simply be too dangerous to allow back into my life. Under these circumstances, I can honestly forgive from afar while being utterly realistic about the ongoing threat. This said, however, I believe that the radical love I am being called to by Jesus demands the most loving approach I can safely make.
explorefaith: Everyone has had an experience where forgiving seemed contrary to self-protection. When someone hurts us, we may want to lash out or carry a grudge to make sure we don’t get hurt again. What’s wrong with that?
Paula Huston: Years ago, and struggling with anger toward an enemy, I asked the theologian Dallas Willard this very question. I’ve never forgotten his response. He said, “If you hire someone to housesit who turns out to be an arsonist and burns down your home, you can honestly forgive him without feeling like you’ve got to re-hire him the next time around.” In other words, forgiving and forgetting are two different things, and the first doesn’t necessarily entail the second. Prudence may require that now that I have experienced first-hand the other person’s weaknesses, I should be cautious about trusting again. However, I can do this without erecting a barrier of rage in order to hold him at bay. I try to see him as realistically as I possibly can and deal with him on that basis, which might require separation in order to protect myself from further hurt. At the same time, I avoid hyping his dangerous qualities or brooding anxiously over the possibility of getting hurt again. This is where fortitude, or courageous endurance, comes in. Real fortitude is rooted in the sure knowledge of God’s providence. Ultimately, it is God I must rely on, not other human beings, and when I truly believe this, I can be forthright and honest about the limits that need to be set in a dangerous relationship rather than artificially nurturing anger in order to avoid that necessary but uncomfortable truth-telling.
explorefaith: What about truly heinous evil that affects whole communities of innocent people? You had a problem with this as a teenager and young adult, and in fact turned away from God because of the pain and suffering you witnessed in the world. What did you learn to forgive that brought you back to faith?
Paula Huston: I spent the summer after my junior year in high school in a volunteer medical program in Honduras. This was the summer of 1969, during the so-called “Soccer War” between Honduras and El Salvador. My village was about fifty miles from the border, which meant we had some refugees come through. Along with that experience came my first close-up view of real poverty: hunger, malnutrition, dysentery, simple conditions that without treatment become life-threatening—for example, infected teeth or ulcerated varicose veins. The hardest for me were the “throwaway children,” little babies who quietly died because there were no resources to save them. Though I was raised Lutheran and had always been a committed Christian, I was shocked at the extent of the suffering I was witnessing, and I turned all my anger about this injustice toward God. If he were so powerful and loving, then why didn’t he do something about the evil in the world? Why did he let innocent people live in agony?
The problem of evil served to keep me away from Christianity for nearly twenty years. When I finally began to reread the Gospels, however, I saw that Jesus was fully aware of the problem, and that this is why he calls me to such radical loving. He tells me that if I want to follow him—if I want to help him redeem the world from evil—I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners: that in fact, whatever I do for the least of my brothers, I do for him. As I ponder those words, it becomes clear to me that most of the suffering in the world is precipitated by my self-centered tendency to ignore the plight of those around me. Even in cases of “natural evil,” such as Hurricane Katrina, the level of suffering is often enormously amplified by human malfeasance. So to answer your question, I suppose I had to “forgive” God for the presence of evil in the world. Really, however, I had to shift my perspective and acknowledge my guilty participation in the sin that so burdens humankind.
explorefaith: You write that, contrary to the prevailing culture of his day, Jesus valued the individual. But aren’t our efforts to preserve our individualism and focus on self-fulfillment one of the factors that inhibits our ability to forgive those who have offended us?
Paula Huston: Jesus dealt lovingly with everyone who came seeking, regardless of profession, gender, or social rank, which resulted in a diversity among his followers that was amazing for its times. His message was truly democratic in that sense. Each person had value in his eyes. As Paul reminds the church at Colosse, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).
I find it sad, then, that Christ’s precious gift of personhood should have slowly evolved into the self-absorbed individualism we see today in the post-modern world. According to Christ, I am made in the image of God, naturally endowed with the capacity for spiritual communion. More, as it says in Psalm 139, I am created for a unique purpose, and I am intimately known by God from the time I begin life in my mother’s womb. It is hard to imagine greater dignity than this. The full flowering of this personhood, however, only comes when I live in right relationship with God. He is essential to this enterprise. If I try to leave him out of the picture and live only for myself, my growth is stunted.
Pursuing self-fulfillment under these circumstances encourages a myopic self-centeredness. When everything is about me, then my only criterion for judging the actions of others is whether or not I personally am pleased or peeved by what they do. When I subscribe to the notion that my emotional responses are the best clues I have to reading a given situation, I have little reason to question whether I am seeing the situation clearly. Feeling hurt is enough evidence that I’ve suffered a legitimate wound. I can easily believe that refusing to forgive the person who has upset me is my way of not being a “doormat,” and of protecting myself from further emotional turmoil.
The Christian person, in contrast, is quite a different creature than the post-modern individualist; as a Christian, I am seriously engaged in the ongoing struggle to surrender the ego to God’s healing grace. Instead of self-fulfillment, I am seeking a closer and more trusting relationship with him. I realize that my emotional responses to perceived hurt can blind me, and so I am open to the possibility that some wounds are completely imaginary. I’m also aware that others suffer from the same blurred vision as I do—that this is the human condition—which makes it far easier for me to forgive people when they do baffling, insulting or cruel things to me.
explorefaith: But when the tables are turned, and we are the ones who need to ask for forgiveness, why can’t we just chalk up our misdeeds and mistakes to being human, and move on with life?
Paula Huston: Isn’t it funny how casually I can dismiss my own misdeeds, but how outraged I become at the mistakes of others? I think Jesus was struck by the sad comedy in this too—witness his famous words that I should take the log out of my own eye before I try to remove the speck in my brother’s. He was wise to my ways, especially my convenient blindness to my own sin, and I think this must be why he insists on my seeking out a wounded brother and trying to make reparations, even when I don’t believe I have done anything wrong. For usually I have, even though I indignantly declare my innocence to myself and anybody else who cares to listen. My talent for self-justification is seemingly endless, so Jesus cuts through all this prevaricating and bluntly tells me what I need to do: assume that I am at fault, go find the person I have hurt, and try to make amends. The sin I don’t think I have committed may have the power to cripple another person’s life; it is better, Jesus seems to be saying, that I always err on the side of caution and of love.
explorefaith: But what if there is no one around from whom we can ask forgiveness?
Paula Huston: This happens. People die before we realize what we need to do, for example. This is too often the case with unresolved parent/child conflicts—the elderly parent passes away without ever hearing those longed-for words from a wayward child. But this doesn’t mean I can’t ask for forgiveness. Instead of going to the person I hurt, who is no longer available, I can go to God and sincerely and contritely pray to be forgiven for the sins I have committed against a person who can no longer hear my confession. Then, in honor of that person I have hurt, I strive to live in a more Christ-like way.
explorefaith: Shame is something we try to avoid at all costs. Do you see a positive value in shame?
Paula Huston: Shame is the stomach-dropping realization that I have let myself down before others, and that they are negatively judging me for this. In a hyper-competitive society like ours, the shame potential is thus extremely high. A recent book called OverSuccess points out the enormous shame toll that our excessively high measure of success takes on us. The author theorizes that many of the pathologies in our society—high rates of depression and anxiety, obesity, stress-related illness, and the disturbing nihilistic undercurrent on high school campuses—are connected with what he calls “social defeat,” or shame.
Yet moral shame (as opposed to the success-connected version) can be a wake-up call that I have done something harmful or cruel and need to make amends. This kind of shame is a natural and appropriate reaction to moral failure, and if I can face up to it honestly and see what it is teaching me, I have the chance of emerging from a horribly uncomfortable situation as a better and more loving person.
Unfortunately, however, shame is so painful that I am easily tempted into self-deception to avoid it. I rationalize my behavior, tell myself a story, or try to deny that real moral standards exist; I reassure myself that “everything is relative” anyway, so why should I be concerned about someone else’s negative judgment? Again, Christianity points me toward humility as the key to honest self-assessment—seeing myself as neither too high or too low, acknowledging that I will, on occasion, mess up, hurt others and need to make amends.
explorefaith: How is forgiveness tied to hope?
Paula Huston: Forgiving someone who has hurt me means that he as a human being and a child of God has more value to me than the lingering pain of the wound he caused. Forgiving him means I’m capable of taking the long view, casting my bet on the hopeful possibility that he can become better, and that my act of forgiveness may help him along his way. As a Christian, I know what it means to be forgiven myself—how freeing that is—and how the resulting gratitude so often becomes an impetus for real metanoia. When I forgive in the name of Jesus, I am allying myself with his redemptive work in the world: I am making an act of faith that love can transform evil into good. I am embracing a great vision of a “new heaven and the new earth,” where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelations 21:4). When I forgive in the name of Christ, I am making a concrete act of faith that what he told us was true, and that even though I may not ever know the results of my loving act, by forgiving my enemies I am participating in God’s mysterious, magnificent plan for the world. I am on his side, and not on the side of the doubters and scoffers and cynics who snicker at the notion of goodness and love. That is hope.
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