Paschal Forgiveness

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For Eastern Orthodox Christians, Pascha is a yearly Jubilee of forgiveness.

It is too easy to make the mistake of thinking that forgiveness is a feeling, or perhaps a lack of a feeling. We often think that if we still feel resentful toward someone, we have not forgiven them.

And it is true that resentful feelings can torment the soul. A fear arises that if one lets go of the resentment, the wrong suffered will never be redressed. That is a terrible fear.

And it is also true that when forgiveness is achieved, resentful feelings are often relieved as one is enabled to “float above” them and enjoy a better state of mind.

But forgiveness itself is something different from that feeling, and one cannot forgive by seeking that feeling.

Forgiveness is letting someone go free, and releasing them from the obligation they have, within the natural order, to suffer for the wrong they have done you. It is freeing them from punishment.

In the natural order, we all suffer from the ancestral curse, which is the inflexible law that says if you do wrong you must suffer. This law does not know the difference between a man and his descendants, because they are one body and the body is what nature knows. This is why we all suffer for Adam’s transgression, and why oftentimes children suffer for their parents’ faults. When we forgive others, we choose not to endorse this law of nature, this ancestral curse, in their cases. We withhold punishment, if it is in our power, or we renounce the claim to see punishment enacted, if it is out of our power. The reason for this as Christians is that the resurrection of the Lord completed the breaking of the ancestral curse within the body of Christ. This is why Pascha is an especially powerful time to forgive.

The light feeling that this true forgiveness brings comes from the fact that when we release others, we ourselves are released. We rise above the law of nature to pronounce God’s forgiveness on others, and find that on that plane, the law has no power over us, either.

I think the reason confusion abounds about the nature of forgiveness is twofold. First, it is due to the necessity of civil justice, which cannot tolerate forgiveness; and second, to the false gospel of substitutionary atonement, which teaches that God himself has no authority to forgive people.

Many Christians make the mistake of reasoning about politics as if they were reasoning about religion, and vice verse, perhaps. While Christians are meant to forgive others in their personal lives, even a Christian nation must have civil justice. The reason is simply that the government is not God, and cannot protect people through any divine power.

God redresses grievances by providentially bringing about good through the circumstances that result from the wrongdoing. That is his justice. For instance, when I consider the fact that one of my ancestors only came to America in the first place because he wanted to fight in the civil war to help free the slaves, I realize that I would not even exist if it were not for American slavery. And in fact, this is also true of most of the black people in our nation today.

The government, on the other hand, can only protect people, and promote peace and prosperity, by using its God-given power of punishment to prevent people from harming and defrauding one another. It cannot tolerate crime simply on the basis that good may come from it in the long run.

When a Christian declines to press charges against someone who has wronged him, he is behaving mercifully. When the government does the same thing, it is failing in its duty. (And perhaps a Christian actually has a civil duty to press charges in many cases, as well, where the criminal is likely to hurt other innocents if set free.)

A good example of this principle is Singapore. This Asian city-state has very strict punishments, including flogging and the death penalty. Every year, a few criminals undergo horrifying punishments. This is seen by many around the world as a transgression against human rights. Nevertheless, crime is hardly known there. The streets of Singapore are thronged with people who would otherwise be poorer, wickeder, or deader than they are.

This leads me to believe that everyone in the United States who is murdered or robbed or assaulted or driven to desperation because criminals are emboldened by government leniency is an unnecessary victim. Certainly the hundreds and hundreds of infant girls who are vaginally raped by adult males in India every year, are unnecessary victims. Such men would have been flogged and executed in colonial days, and others would then have refrained from doing it out of fear. Thousands of tiny, helpless, bewildered, agonized infant girls would then be saved from having their internal organs torn to pieces by the engorged male members of soulless men. The government, and everyone who promotes civil leniency, is morally responsible for those victims.

Because civil justice is so obviously necessary, it may be hard to understand what forgiveness is in our personal lives. Many people say they forgive criminals, while they still prosecute them. What they mean, perhaps, is that they forgive the sin on a spiritual level, but seek to protect others by prosecuting the crime on a civil level. This is certainly permissible, as far as I can tell, but people ought to be clear about what they mean to avoid causing confusion. Some people, on the other hand, refuse forgiveness of any kind unless the criminal is repentant. A biblical argument can certainly be made for this practice. I think it is safer to forgive all sins against oneself so as to ensure forgiveness for one’s own sins. This is perhaps clearer in cases where the wrong done was not a crime, and especially where the offending party does not even know he has offended.

Substitutionary atonement causes much more difficulty than a confusion between civil and moral transgression. According to this teaching, God forgives sinners when Christ’s death is accepted by God as a substitute punishment for their sins. ‘Forgive’ in this idea is a misnomer, since the punishment is still exacted, but from a substitute. People who teach this doctrine commonly say that God “cannot” forgive until the sinner accepts Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf, either through baptism (Roman Catholicism) or a sinner’s prayer (Protestantism.)

What they are really saying is that God is unable to forgive sins, and in fact has no moral authority to do so, in the sense of “releasing from punishment.” The most he can do is to transfer punishment.

If one’s idea of God’s forgiveness is so insubstantial, and basically consists of God’s smiling on one again after the horrifying punishment is over, one may have trouble imagining what it could mean for one human being to forgive another. One may be tempted to smile on others and show sweet behavior to them, while harboring a hardened expectation that God will punish them eventually and give them their comeuppance. This is bad for the soul, and bad for the state of the world, too.

Our thoughts determine our lives.” When people are full of vengeful thoughts, the pendulum of evil is kept in motion. It swings at someone in punishment, and then swings back at the people who exacted punishment. The whole world is full of evil because everyone is exacting punishment and insisting that their suffering cannot be redressed except by the suffering of others. In this way, evil increases – just as evil increases through civil governments making the opposite mistake.

The law of nature was not meant, perhaps, to handle the case of a fallen mankind. It was probably meant to assist in bringing up a naive mankind. Now it swings out of control. To be children of God, we cannot participate in the moralistic law of nature. We have been freed from it and we must free others from it as well. Only then can evil cease. Or at least we can be freed from participating in it.

On Pascha, a good prayer to pray is simply this: “O Lord, in the forgiveness of Pascha I release from punishment all who have wronged me. Please let them go free, and bring them to goodness through your goodness and not through the evil of the world. Let me go free as well, and bring me to goodness in the same way.”

Ultimately, goodness begets goodness, while evil foments evil. Even on the civil level, the punishment, while preventing other crimes, usually makes the criminal even worse. (Although this might happen less often if crimes were punished by exacting reparations instead of retribution.)

To live as children of God, Christians must devote themselves to the same extreme kind of goodness that God enjoys. God could easily force everyone to behave properly, but he refuses to engage in any kind of evil, even the evil of retracting his gift of freedom from his fallen and sinful creatures.

I guess God isn’t a behaviorist.

I also think that Christian parents should be more like God and less like civil authorities, except perhaps in cases where the offspring have seriously wronged another person. In the Hebrew scriptures about childrearing, we are looking at a tribal society in which parents and familial elders are the civil authority. To apply those precepts to Christian families in societies with distinct civil and familial authorities is always a mistake, and results in a loss of trust and adversarial relations between parents and children. In the Christian Scriptures, the only childrearing method mentioned is that of discipleship – the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Certainly this involves both the teaching and practice of forgiveness. A parent who cannot forgive a child, but insists on exacting punishment, is raising something less than a Christian – and being something less than a Christian, as well.

A blessed Pascha to all. Forgiveness to all. Christ is risen.

14 Comments »

  1. A case study from my Lenten journey: 23 years ago a man did a great harm to me and my family. It especially impacted by wife and my son. Although my wife reposed, the affects of the action linger to this day in my son.

    In the intervening years I have prayed and sought the ability to forgive–mostly by praying for the man while trying to avoid praying “at him”–expecting my prayers to change him.

    This Lent, through a “chance” conversation, I realized that as real as the harm was and how cruel and unnecessary the actions that caused the harm were, that man had done more than almost anyone else to bring God into my life. At that moment, I could begin to thank God for him. He was the priest who laid hands on me to Baptize and Chrismate me and my family into the Church. He was also the man whose actions created an animosity between my wife and the rest of our home parish at the time and necessitated that we leave that parish and take up life in another. My son still has difficulty trusting priests because of what occurred. He has since left the priesthood, the Church and his family. He was a tortured man. Yet, God let me know He has mercy on him and so should I.

    It was no coincidence that God put that man in the place to lay hands on me and my family to bring us into the Church and salvation. I can now only hope the man himself will turn back and be restored. That would be a glorious day indeed. It is what I now pray for.

    Still the memory of what occurred is not gone nor will it ever be and for many years I hoped for justice–my justice. In fact, he has suffered far more than any punishment I could have devised. Enough is enough.

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  2. Wonderful post. Thank you.
    While I agree with 99% of what you expressed so eloquently, I would offer these thoughts for your consideration.

    God does not “refuse to do evil.” Indeed God cannot do evil. Evil is not a thing in itself, but a lack of a good that should be there. God IS Goodness and fullness itself. There is nothing lacking in Him.
    Roman Catholicism does not teach substitutionary punishment, and not all Protestant denominations either. I find it to be a case-by-case phenomenon. You are correct that it is a vital misunderstanding of the nature of redemption and atonement.
    The law of nature/natural law brings about natural consequences–be they perceived/experienced as positive or negative (yet in God’s Divine Providence, all things work toward the good, much as Mr. Bauman’s post so beautifully testifies). All are instructive to prideful and selfish mankind.
    In MANY places Scripture addresses child rearing:
    Teach your child the way to go andthey will not depart from it,
    spare the rod and spoil the child,
    children honor and obey your parents,
    parents do not vex your children,
    the Parable of the Prodigal Son, etc.

    Much of child rearing is prudential judgement based on the particular needs and temperament of each child. There is clearly room for variation, but, when applied prudently, all are forms of discipleship. Your distinctions between civil and familial/communal forgiveness and mercy are spot-on.

    I am grateful for your thoughtfulness and your profound ability in the use of the English language to express your thoughts and feelings. Thank you for making the Web a better place.

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    • Susan, I agree with your view of evil. Evil is not part of a duality with goodness. The cosmic evil which may sometimes seem like part of a duality is, as you say, mere absence or perversion of good. It is not substantial; it has no being of its own. However, this cosmic good-opposite is not the only way the word ‘evil’ is used in common parlance, in scripture, or in classical usage. Very often, ‘evil’ is used to refer to wrong acts, which definitely have substance because they are acts, and destructive events, which also have substance as events.

      It is commonly believed that God cannot commit moral/cosmic evil but that he is perfectly willing to inflict evil events on people for some greater good. I take the radical view that God refuses to perform such acts of destruction, and that when we see God doing so in the scriptures, it is actually angels and other spirits doing so within his overarching governance, much like angels gave Moses the ten commandments (according to the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews) even though to Moses at the time, it was God himself he met on the mountain.

      There are many reasons I believe this, but it is mainly because this is the only way that an intellectually honest Christian can answer those who refute the existence of God on the basis of the existence of evil. Basically, the only way for God to get rid of evil using his omnipotence would involve inflicting evil or doing acts of evil, and he refuses to do so even though on one view we might say he has the right to do so. Such acts of evil might mean withdrawing his gifts from people – gifts of life, being, free agency, etc. They would also involve his interference in the all-important question of human reproduction. It seems on the basis of St. John’s introduction to Christology in John 1 that human reproduction has been given into man’s hands to express “the will of man.” God does not interfere in the issue of who, out of the many possible human beings, gets conceived within the womb. The human body must come to full fruition through its own urgency of growth, its own choice. It is the second birth he holds within his power, as the father of the new human race constituted in Jesus’ body.

      Because of Jesus’ position within this new human race, he will someday be able to end evil organically from within, rather than from outside as an act of destruction. Meanwhile, God’s focus is presumably on getting people across the bridge of human life to the safe landfall of his Kingdom.

      Can God do evil? Obviously it is important to assert that it is impossible for God to commit evil. However, I think it is equally necessary, theologically speaking, to assert that God is perfectly free in his goodness. I know it seems like a logical contradiction. However, what we have to remember is that whenever we make positive statements like this we are talking about God as if he were a knowable object – that is to say, a creature. Properly, God is unknowable and nothing can be positively asserted about him. Even when we say God is Good we are not speaking perfectly about him, because we are not capable of meaning anything by the word ‘Good’ that matches God’s actual substance, which is beyond our comprehension or imagination. Of course, he is not less than good. He is more than good. And it is only in this sense that it is proper to say that God is good – because it is the closest thing we can say, and he does allow us to use human language about him.

      That being said, both “God cannot do evil” and “God refuses to do evil” are examples of using human language about God. I am certain they are both appropriate in their own ways, and both utterly insufficient, as well. I don’t like to think of God as helpless. I like to think of him as strong and freely coursing on his own way through the vital force of his good will, and not because he is hemmed in by impossibilities. Since his nature was not given to him by another, the impossibilities we assert of him are not imposed on him from outside himself but are the fullest expression of his own impassable will.

      I think I was accurate to say that the Christian scripture (the New Testament) does not mention any child-rearing method aside from discipleship. The rod, which would be a method, is mentioned only in the Old Testament. It is an example of doing evil that good may come, and is not appropriate for those who are called to be “perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” who “causes the rain to fall on the just and on the unjust.” The Old Testament was not perfect, and many allowances were made. Striking small helpless people to prevent some worse outcome for them was one of them. Even so, it seems on closer inspection that even in the O.T. it was only sons, and not daughters, who could be struck in discipline, and it was mainly for older boys, not little ones. It had to do with keeping them from being criminals.

      It is my understanding that Roman Catholic theology does classically assert the substitutionary punishment theory, and that is where Martin Luther got it from. His main objection was that the RC was teaching an overly complicated way of accessing the benefit of this atonement, in which it had to flow through saints and priests to get to the faithful, and could be bought in the form of indulgences. Luther didn’t change the substance, just the method of access. He wanted to the faithful to be able to access Christ’s atonement through faith, not works. However, this left Protestants with the question of how, practically, to “faith” their way to salvation. Ultimately, the evangelical derision at the RC for “works salvation” ignores the fact that “the sinner’s prayer” on which evangelicals base access to the atonement is also a work – just a really cheap, easy one. You are right, of course, that not all Protestant groups teach substitutionary atonement – especially nowadays. Perhaps many Catholic parishes put little or no emphasis on it, either.

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      • A thought in transit. Even the existential evil AR, is do to our inclination toward nothingness, dissolution and death. God alone can bring goodness out of nothing, life out of death, wholeness out of our dissolute state.

        I do not think you are radical in this. St. Athanasius said as much in his explication of the Incarnation. Rather most of us are not radical enough in calling on and trusting God’s provential care for us and living in a euchristic state.

        The Holy Scriptures are full of admonitions for us to do so.

        Thank you for the reminder.

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        • Yes, I agree it is very hard to think of God as being really good. It often seems really religious to assert various disguised evils of him.

          Josh and I have theorized that this is the true explanation of Satan’s revolt from Heaven. Perhaps he is a great moralizer, who cannot understand the difference between forgiveness and injustice. It would explain why there is so much evil within religion alongside the good.

          I have really enjoyed ‘On The Incarnation’ over the years. It is of that pure theology which can only be expressed simply. I suppose you’ve read C. S. Lewis’ introduction to Sayer’s translation of it?

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    • P.S. I agree that so often what we take for a pronouncement of punishment is rather an announcement of natural consequences. As Michael said, these things arise from our tendency to regress into nothingness when severed from God, our Life, and not from God’s will.

      Excellent discussion.

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          • Natural and logical consequences requires, especially in my parenting experience, that my desire for a certain outcome and process-my will, be subordinated to the good that also includes me. One has to trust in both the goodness of God but also His goodness in particular situations. That His Providence is sufficient.

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            • Oh, yes. And trust that the work his grace is doing in the child does not need the help of some human quick-results substitute. Administering a consequence and then leaving it at that is one thing. Administering pain until you’ve achieved full compliance with your parental agenda is another. It’s the parenting version of totalitarianism, of brainwashing. A modern horror, but one that oddly enough can feel perfectly natural and normal: expected. Makes me shudder.

              All this really places me on the verge of saying that no punishment is really Christian. If a punishment becomes necessary, that represents a failure of the Christianity we want to be guiding our parenting. To be really involved with the child in constructive discipleship, provided nothing else is tearing them down, should be enough.

              I think maybe the point about natural consequences is that they happen naturally. The are not administered at all, or at least not by God. Perhaps some lesser guardian of the world, some power that works under God but lies outside the explicit teachings of our faith. But it is this, I think, that we pray to be delivered from. Unfortunately, in reality it seems that punishment perpetuates evil as often as it restrains it.

              I’ve promised my children that I would never punish them again. The effort to mimic natural consequences turned out to be a joke – if it were natural, I wouldn’t have to administer it. I don’t see that they are any better or naughtier than before. It doesn’t seem to make any difference. Children, like anyone else, are what they are for reasons that go far deeper than behaviorism teaches. Parents assume that the only reason their children aren’t monsters is because they are punishing them, but the truth is that children will do anything to please their parents… until they can’t.

              I do allow my children to experience, without my interference, what happens when they fail in certain ways because I think that is instructive. That also involves allowing them to make mistakes without rushing in to stop them, which in turn involves being prepared to not respond with wrath. All of those things are hard and they are very much at odds with the modern insistence that parents “control” and “supervise” their children at all times. I remind myself often that I am not raising good children. I am raising good adults.

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