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Ethics: Forgiveness, in Three Parts

What makes forgiveness an ethical issue? Forgiveness is obviously central to Christian belief: God offers sinners forgiveness of sins. But what makes it a question of morals?

The Lord’s Prayer asserts the connection in the petition that God forgive us our trespasses “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In this prayer, Jesus makes the claim that God’s forgiveness of us is somehow connected with our forgiveness of others: “as we forgive.” So forgiveness is to make a change in our behavior, in our human practices. But this assertion in the Lord’s Prayer does not explain the connection. What are the ethics of forgiveness?

Let’s start with a distinction that Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral Theology at Oxford, has made in various contexts. It applies both to one individual forgiving another, and to the sort of corporate forgiveness that might be called for in group relations. Biggar distinguishes two aspects of a complete act of forgiveness: compassion and absolution.

We begin with compassion toward the person who has sinned against us. Compassion leads us to recognize that the person who has harmed us is a fellow human being. We remember that none of us is perfect, and we ponder that there may be things in the life of the person who has harmed us that we don’t know about and that have played into her action, and so forth. It is, as we say, a willingness to cut others some slack.

I remember reading in a story by Tolstoy (the rest of the story I have long forgotten) the protestation of a character that, although everyone thought he was a good person, there was no evil deed beyond his doing. He had never murdered or robbed or committed adultery, but he knew, given the right circumstances, he could have committed any of those deeds.

Biggar says similarly that each of us can realize we are “no stranger to the psychic powers that drive human beings to abuse each other; that some individuals … are less well equipped than others to resist common pressures; and that some are fated to find themselves trapped in situations where only an extraordinary moral heroism could save them from doing terrible evil” (In Defence of War [Oxford, 2013], p. 63).

To have compassion is emphatically not to deny that a wrong has been committed. Compassion does not sweep wrongdoing under the proverbial rug. Indeed, if the sin is a crime, compassion does not foreclose facing legal consequences. You can have compassion on people at the same time as you believe they need to face the law.

Nonetheless, compassion precedes all consequences. It is one-sided. It is entirely within the hands of those who have suffered harm at the hands of others. We can have compassion for, and offer compassion to, anyone who has sinned against us — the offender does not need to be sorry or repentant or anything else. Compassion thus is a letting go from our side, a certain humility that decides not keep score and will not allow this sin to be determinative of our own future.

This first step of forgiveness, compassion, is our willingness to be reconciled, should that turn out to be possible.

The second half of forgiveness is absolution. Unlike compassion, absolution requires that sinners repent and be willing to atone for the sin that has been done. When the sinner does repent and is willing to repair, then the victim is able to offer, and should not withhold, absolution. This is, Biggar writes, “the moment when … the victim addresses the perpetrator and says, ‘I forgive you. The trust that was broken is now restored. Our future will no longer be haunted by our past’” (p. 66).

Real absolution is contingent on the offender’s sorrowful recognition. There are three parts to this. First, the offender must own that it was a fault that was committed, not just a mistake, not just “I’m sorry it bothered you, what I did.” No: there must be acknowledgment that what has happened was truly wrong.

Second, ownership: the offender must see that the wrong is something for which the offender is responsible. It will not do to say, “Yes, that was wrong, but it wasn’t my fault.”

And third, there must be sorrow. One might say, “I know it was wrong, and I know I’m responsible, but I don’t care.” That’s not enough.

But when an offender acknowledges that a fault has been committed, and takes responsibility for it, and has sorrow, that is enough. Now absolution can occur. And it is the moral responsibility of the victim then to step forward, to grant absolution, to complete the process of forgiveness.

Forgiveness, one sees, is a complex matter that requires discernment, a certain openness, a steadiness in truthful naming, a process over time, and more. It truly is a matter of ethics, of moral growth and virtue. This complexity, I have found, is pastorally helpful.

Parishioners of mine have felt guilty because, they said, they could not forgive someone who had abused them. But when I inquired, I would find out that the wrongdoer never asked for forgiveness, never repented. In such a case, complete forgiveness is not humanly possible: absolution requires repentance. They need not feel guilt, I would say, although the situation is certainly one of sorrow.

Sometimes they are surprised to hear this. “I thought Christians were supposed to forgive everyone.” Then we can explore the two parts of forgiveness, the distinction between compassion and absolution. Even though absolution is impossible in this case, is it possible to work on one’s compassion?

I know a priest who takes this further. Given the brokenness of our world and the egregiousness of the sin that was done to you (he might say), you do not have to offer forgiveness. What if your offender came to you with full repentance? Would you be able to forgive him? Maybe not, he would say, and maybe in this broken world you do not have to. “But in that case,” this priest asks, “would it be okay with you” — here he pauses — “if God forgave him?”

Such are the realities that show the moral task of forgiveness in this life. When the kingdom comes, all offenses are overcome: acknowledged and forgiven in full, not only by God but by the fellowship of compassionate former sinners who are that kingdom’s citizens, people who used to pray from their heart (but no longer need to) that their sins would be forgiven even as they forgave the sins of others.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is theologian in residence for the Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.


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