Saturday, February 20, 2010

Forgiving those who haven't wronged you

I've often wondered about the problem of forgiving those who haven't wronged you.

Suppose, just for example, that I have a dear woman friend whose husband, whom I knew only somewhat, leaves her for another woman, betraying both her and their children.

It's not my business to forgive him, right? He hasn't done anything to me. But as I watch her heartbreak and that of the children and see all the harm he has caused, I become angrier and angrier. I may even fantasize about getting a chance to tell him off someday, to bring him to his senses, of course. Of course. Well, no, actually, just to tell him off.

Is it even meaningful to speak of my forgiving him? The notion of a debt, connected repeatedly in Scripture (both in Christ's parables and in the Lord's Prayer) with forgiveness, doesn't seem to apply in such a case. He doesn't owe me a debt, and it would be presumptuous in the extreme for me to forgive him for what he's done to others, as if I could tell him, "You're free of the debt you owe for all the harm you've done to your wife and children."

This question has bothered me for a long time, because psychologically, I think one can get so resentful on others' behalf that one really needs to forgive. It's often said that holding a grudge is a problem chiefly for the harm it does to the soul of one holding the grudge. But how to go about forgiving in such a case?

As I've been reading Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead and thinking about it for a review, it has seemed to me that I get a little glimpse of the answer. In a sense, the husband in my example has wronged his wife's friends as well as his wife and children. In a sense, he's wronged a whole bunch of people, because he has, we might say, messed up the world by his sin. That sin causes a ripple effect of pain and suffering both in the people he has wronged directly and also in the vicarious suffering taken on by those who love them. In that way, he has wronged me. But this fact, which hardly seems like good news, actually is good news, because, since he has wronged me, I also can have my own small share in forgiving him and in laying aside my resentment--which really can be hatred--and my grudge. That doesn't, of course, mean that he is clean of his sin before God, if he hasn't repented it and turned back, done what he can to make amends, and so forth. But that is between him and God. And if there are costs to be paid with the civil authorities (for example, if we are talking about a crime for which they are to execute justice), that, too, is between him and them. My own forgiveness, however, is made possible both by the grace of God and by the fact of the indirect wrong done to me.



Robert Kunda said...

I've honestly never even considered this. This strikes me as odd though, as it seems an obvious thing to give attention too.

At first glance (meaning I haven't thought through this), it would make sense to rephrase the title of this to say, "Forgiving those who haven't wronged you directly." In your example you are a party that's harmed, I suppose, by proxy and by your connection to the directly harmed woman.

Because how human connectivity works, how community works, and more specifically how sin works, it affects/harms more than the people directly involved. In that sense, your outrage at such a situation seems not only fair out of care for your friend but because of the global impact.

How much more difficult does that make forgiveness, then?

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, it at least makes forgiveness more complicated psychologically, it seems to me. Whether there's any actual theological or logical problem, I'm not sure. Here's one way of seeing the psychological difficulty: Imagine telling the woman whose husband has left her, "I forgive your husband." It sounds bizarre. It sounds insulting to her. It would be perfectly understandable if she gave you a bitter answer.

I think, too, that the metaphor of canceling a debt makes it more complicated. His direct "debt" is to her and the children, not to me. If I forgive him, what exactly am I wishing or doing? In the Bible, when you forgive your brother a debt, he no longer has to pay it. But I still want the man who left his wife to come to his wife, for example, and say that he was wrong.

Robert Kunda said...

Yeah, I was more referring to the mental part of forgiveness, not logical.

"I forgive your husband." It sounds bizarre.

That does sound bizarre. I think perhaps such a statement might not be incorrect as much as ill-stated. In that situation it might be more beneficial to simply act out the forgiveness, or to act and speak about him in ways that are not, as mentioned above, words designed to 'tell him off.'

In some ways—and maybe I'm wrong on this—it might be more difficult (or difficult in a different way) to forgive that man than if you were directly involved. The emotional removal from the direct grievances would seem to me to add to you the observer an almost parental desire for protection for your hypothetical friend.

I run into rude people frequently in day-to-day life (hopefully, I'm not acting this way!) and it's usually easy enough to brush off, but relayed a story of this type of behavior toward my wife—look out. And when a good friend is harmed by another—look out! In the case of my wife, I'm not as removed as in the case of a friend, but the emotional connection is similar, I think.

I am not sure what kind of point I am getting at. What a provocative subject.

Lydia McGrew said...

At least for the kinds of harms that have come within my orbit (either to me or to my friends), I think it _is_ harder to forgive something that happens to someone else. It might be different if we were talking about something physical, like torture or rape. Then it might be nigh-impossible to forgive the thing done to yourself anyway.

One thing I have noticed is that often the person directly wronged--say, in a divorce--is forced by life itself to "get beyond" the anger at the other person. The wife has to learn how to talk about her husband to the children and so forth, she is so caught up in survival that she can't afford to brood over the way he treated her when he deceived her and so forth. A person more removed from the situation can freeze-frame his emotional response, in a sense. He can put it down in his head, "So-and-so is that horrible jerk who told my friend Jenny that he was going on a men's retreat when he was really going off with his mistress," and that's how he has so-and-so down in his head. Jenny has had to be continuing to call him "daddy" to the kids for three years and so forth and has had to think about getting a job, so it could happen that two years later the friend would say, "I can't believe how well you're taking this Jenny. I remember the time he told you that he was going to a men's retreat, and really..." and Jenny says, "Well, that's water under the bridge. I understand that he was under a lot of pressure at the time, and she really came on to him" or whatever. She's had to find a way to deal with it psychologically, while her friend has just kept a static tally of grievances.

Idris said...

Lydia: This is very interesting! I don't have much to contribute to explaining what you'd like explained.

But I recall that Darwall and Gibbard make a big deal about the connection between what they call "impartial anger" and the violation of the requirements of morality.

Probably, you will not think that impartial anger has the kind of explanatory priority over moral obligation that Gibbard thinks it does. But, at least, it is part of the phenomenology of our moral judgment that we often experience a kind of anger at violations of the moral law -- even when we are not harmed by these violations in any obvious way. Call this "impartial anger".

Perhaps you might find it helpful to think about the connections between partial anger and forgiveness (on the one hand) and the dynamics of impartial anger (on the other). There might be a kind of letting go of impartial anger that functions like stereotypical forgiveness.

Also: here's an idea: a violator of the moral law is reaping benefits (or aims to reap benefits) that a follower of the moral law forgoes. This is, at least, unfair. It doesn't really harm you -- though maybe it makes you comparatively worse off. So maybe there is something the violator of the moral law does to you... and so there is a rationale for forgiveness.


-Alex H.

Lydia McGrew said...

Alex, I had thought about what I would call righteous anger. There is definitely a place for righteous anger, and part of the struggle with forgiving those who have wronged others is that a call to do so can seem like a call to give up correct, righteous indignation. In fact, this is really at the heart of the psychological struggle: Are we not _supposed_ to be angry against the wicked, the oppressor, and so forth? Scripture seems to teach that we are, and Jesus certainly seems to have been--when he condemned the Pharisees who devour widows' houses, for example.

I don't have a good answer to this. On the one hand, it seems that I should not hang on to resentment on my friend's behalf. On the other hand, it seems that I should follow Jesus' example by condemning his evil and not letting it be swept under the rug.

I think two parts of the problem are

a) the human difficulty in forgiving without excusing (notice that I picture the hypothetical wife in a comment above offering excuses for her husband)


b) the human difficulty in offering God's forgiveness to a person who does not want it or ask for it, while recognizing that the person cannot, in fact, be forgiven if he is not repentant.

Idris said...


I was mostly interested in the question of whether it might be "my business" whether I forgive someone who has not straightforwardly harmed me.

But the psychology of your example is interesting and complex. The picture is complicated by your friendship to the woman who has been abandoned by her husband. [Maybe it is hard to be subject to genuinely impartial anger in such a circumstance!] At any rate, I can imagine feeling that my friendship might require a persisting anger toward her husband. Maybe: It is not right for me to forgive him until she has forgiven him.

[What her anger persists longer than is appropriate? Perhaps, then, she asks too much of our friendship, as it were.]

After she has forgiven him, it seems to me that I am free to either forgive or not. (...though perhaps my anger would be best if it persisted in a somewhat passionless way.)

If I continue to be angry, it is not exactly that I am angry at him on her behalf -- as a kind of stand-in for her or a fellow-traveler. Once she has forgiven him, there is no need for this. Rather, at this point, the anger ought to be impartial.

Suppose that I choose to forgive -- perhaps long after my friend has. Why might I do this? What does my forgiveness consist in?

I do not think that I am offering God's forgiveness to him. This is beyond my power. It is not mine to offer. What I do in offering forgiveness is alter my relation with the object of forgiveness. I cannot alter God's relation to him.

"Aren't we supposed to be angry?!"

If we set aside the duties of friendship and those arising from the care of the self, it is hard for me to say much about whether we ought to retain our anger.

Here is something: Anger would be fitting, but even fitting attitudes might reasonably be abandoned. [I will die in battle today, but I would do well to extinguish my fear (if I can) because it is good to be courageous.] The sense in which I am _supposed_ to be angry, then, cannot simply be that anger would be fitting. The fittingness of an attitude (unlike the unfittingness of an attitude) doesn't carry much normative force.

We need something more to capture the idea that I am supposed to be angry.

How about this: If I am not angry, I will have failed to do my part to enforce the moral law.

[But I have already done my part by being angry for at least the time during which my friend was angry!]

John said...

I'm responding to an old post because I am new here!

It might help to consider two philosphic approaches to forgiveness (see the book "Forgiveness" by Troy Martin and Avis Clendenon). In the first, the goal of forgiveness is to cleanse your own psychology of bitterness. In the second, it is to address the disruption of a relationship (optimally by forgiving and healing the break.

The second option represents the Biblical approach. The former is merely exonoration: you forgive unconditionally and you do it inside yourself (and may not even communicate with the offender).

In Biblical forgiveness, there is a place for "righteous anger" and confrontation (which intends to provoke repentance). If the offender repents, forgiveness may be extended. If it is not given, the matter is handed over to God, but the wounded person is not obligated in such cases to forgive (even God does not do this).

Exoneration places the burdern of responsibility entirely upon the one who was hurt by the offense/sin. The relational approach requires responsibility from both parties.

Biblical forgiveness works though the process used in "church discipline" or "disfellowship" (Matt. 18 and 1 Cor. 5).

Hope this helps!

Lydia McGrew said...

John, is it really true that in the case of Biblical forgiveness, one isn't obligated to forgive if the person doesn't repent?

It seems to me that the Bible gives us somewhat unclear signals on this. On the one hand, it's quite clear that no one is going to heaven if he hasn't repented and accepted God's forgiveness. Universalism is false. God isn't just going to say, "Hey, you died in your sin and never came to me, but I forgive you anyway. Enter into heaven. Come one, come all." That seems to support your position.

On the other hand, when Jesus was on the cross, he said, "Father, forgive them" regarding people who obviously were not repenting at the time--whether we take him to have been referring to the Roman soldiers or to the Jewish leaders or to both. Also, when Jesus tells us that the Father will not forgive us if we do not forgive, and when he puts, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" into the Lord's Prayer, it sounds unqualified. It doesn't sound like it applies only to those who have repented and sought our forgiveness.

I don't claim to have a good answer to this. It's a bit of a conundrum. We might try to reconcile the two sets of Biblical evidence by saying that God's forgiveness is _offered_ to all but that those who do not repent and hence accept that forgiveness are still under the wrath of God. Perhaps then it would be an attitude of being _willing_ that the other person be forgiven that is called for from us. For example, would we feel resentful (as one character does in _The Great Divorce_) if the person obtained God's forgiveness and went to heaven? Would we feel that he'd "gotten off too lightly" and should have been punished instead? Then, one could say, that shows that we have the wrong attitude and have not forgiven him as we are called upon to do. (And it's surprising to find how easy it would be to have that attitude. "Grrr. I hope you _suffered_ some for that before you just repented and got let off the hook, buddy!"

But I admit that I'm far from having all the answers on this topic.

John said...

“Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4, ASV)
This passage describes what I would call a “covenantal” approach to forgiveness, as opposed to what I earlier called exoneration. Exoneration can be a mature decision, in which we simply decide to let another person off the hook (and quite likely will do this privately, within our personal psyche, without any communication at all with the offender). Occasionally we here, for example, of the parent of a murdered child forgiving the murderer (and in one instance even adopting him!). However, since it is usually private and impersonal, it fails to accomplish the purpose of covenantal forgiveness: to heal and reconcile the relationship.
You might think here of what you might, or might not forgive, in your own spouse. This is relevant (and you need not share your personal reflections with us) because your marriage is a covenant. It works on the same dynamics, and I think you will find your approach very similar to that of God. The goal is fixing damaged or broken relationships, and as you said, universalism is not an achievable ideal in this endeavor. Repentance is not optional here (or we lock ourselves into dangerous and destructive patterns of enabling).
The approach to real relational healing calls for confrontation. First this is done privately, protecting the offender from greater shame (love covers a multitude of sins). If no repentance takes place, the confrontation applies the added social pressure of a few witnesses, or of the entire church (assuming a congregational setting). If the process fails, the offender is handed over to Satan. And, the matter is handed over to God. Martin and Clendenon (book metioned earlier) call this “transferal”). The offended has taken the process as far as possible, and says, “Father, you forgive him.” In such cases, it is not likely that God will set aside the usual requirements of forgiveness and salvation. The prayer of Jesus (like that of Stephen, Acts 7) is not a guarantee of automatic exoneration. There is yet a relationship that needs to be fixed.

Lydia McGrew said...

John, thanks for the additional Scripture reference. I agree that that sounds like the repentance is a necessary requirement for the forgiveness, because in conversation we often use "if" in such contexts to mean "if and only if." On the other hand, one could argue that if your Christian brother does this again and again in one day, you are justified in thinking that his repentance is not genuine. Yet Jesus is apparently telling us to discount that.

I also agree that the whole process of church discipline and separation from someone living in unrepentant sin doesn't sound at all like the modern notion of forgiveness.

What I'm wondering is what sort of mental attitude is required of us even if we cannot be in fellowship with that other person because he will not repent.

Your interpretation of "Father forgive him" is unique. Of course I know that it is not a guarantee of exoneration, but I'm not sure what mental intent it is supposed to indicate on the part of the person who utters it. I still haven't figured that out. If I'm understanding you correctly (and perhaps I'm not), you seem to be saying that it is an expression of a kind of giving up or exasperation: "Father, you forgive him if he can be forgiven. I'm done with this." But that seems rather unconvincing to me.

At a minimum, as I mentioned before, it seems that we have a duty to have a mental attitude of forgiveness *in the sense of* a willingness that the other person should be forgiven, without taking it upon ourselves to ask whether God has exacted enough punishment. This can be rather hard to achieve, especially when one is tempted to go over and over the wrong he has done and not actively "will him well."

By the way, what I'm saying here might be misunderstood, so I want to clarify: I actually _oppose_ efforts by the family of a victim of a heinous crime to induce the authorities to lessen the criminal's punishment. I think that such efforts confuse the areas of forgiveness between individuals and, on the other hand, the rightful role of the ruler in punishing evildoers. I think that such efforts make Christianity look like a force for public chaos by sentimentally attempting to undermine the important mechanism of retributive justice in the public arena. So when I speak of a willingness that the person should be forgiven without worrying about whether God has punished him enough, I'm not talking about writing letters to the governor asking that your daughter's murderer be pardoned!