This week I wanted to talk a bit more about forgiveness, which was the topic of the Alpha Course for week 3. By the end of the night I had three perspectives on forgiveness:

  1. Forgiveness is simply letting go of past hurt so you can move on. (From the people at my table).
  2. Forgiveness is giving up your right to justice. (From TLH)
  3. Forgiveness is letting go of your own hurt and trusting that God will eventually execute justice. (From June Hunt’s pamphlet).

That is a rough summery of June Hunt’s pamphlet. The pamphlet is printed double-sided on a legal-size sheet with 10pt and smaller font. There are more ideas in there, but they aren’t easy to summarize. It is dense and repetitive with lots of platitudes which sound vaguely helpful but don’t mean much when examined closely. This makes it very hard to distill them down to a summary, because they seem to boil away to nothing at all when you try. This is a lot like June Hunt’s radio show, and I think most of her fans just like vaguely uplifting background noise in the car.   

Both the Alpha Course and Hunt’s pamphlet mention that we cannot forgive by ourselves. We require God’s assistance. What strikes me about this is that neither source seems to think that is dependent on the magnitude of the transgression. I can understand why you might think you need supernatural assistance to forgive someone who raped and murdered your child, but what about someone who cut in front of you at the grocery store? Do they really mean that God is necessary for everyday acts of forgiveness?

I don’t believe in God, and I am capable of forgiving. I don’t think any Christian would deny that I’m capable of forgiving (although I would forgive them if they did). Thus, I assume they must believe that God is helping me forgive, even though I don’t believe in him. I don’t understand why he would do that though. If he’s trying to teach us that we need him to forgive, secretly helping me would seem counterproductive.

For bigger injustices, I can see why the idea of God may be helpful. We have an urge to punish transgressions, even when punishing comes at a considerable cost to ourselves. This is necessary to function as a social species, because otherwise selfish individuals would easily take advantage of the group. For major transgressions the instinct is very strong. But in instances where there is nothing you can do to punish the transgressor, you are imposing that cost on yourself for no reason. In order to let it go, it is helpful to believe that someone else will punish them for you. I think that’s a big part of the reason the idea of an omniscient all-powerful judge in the sky caught on in the first place. For example, Hunt’s brochure includes this quote:

“Take the one who offended you off your emotional hook and place him onto God’s hook. The Lord knows how to deal with your offender.”

That idea likely will help you let go of your pain. Other religions have similar ideas, like karma. It satisfies the urge to get revenge when actually getting revenge is not possible. It’s one of those tricky ideas that is helpful whether it is true or not. The problem is that we don’t hold beliefs in isolation. Our beliefs have logical consequences that influence our other beliefs, which can lead to us believing things that are not so harmless. Thus, I think it would be better for us to take the more mature route, and realize that it is useful for us to release our impotent pain, regardless of whether the offender will see justice or not.  

The difference is really demonstrated when you move on to the idea of forgiving yourself. The Alpha Course video says you should forgive yourself, quoting C.S. Lewis: “Not forgiving yourself is setting yourself up as a higher tribunal than God.” If forgiveness just means letting go of your past failings, then sure, forgiving yourself makes sense and is a good thing. But how does that work with something like “forgiveness is dismissing a debt” or “forgiveness is giving up your right to justice”? Can your former self owe you a debt? Do you have a right to justice against your former self?

But what if forgiveness means taking yourself off your emotional hook and placing yourself onto God’s hook? Should you rest in the knowledge that the Lord will deal with you in the future? Suddenly that idea doesn’t seem so comforting, does it? Of course, Christians would say that you don’t have to worry about that because Jesus died to let you off the hook. But then God let your offender of the hook too, didn’t he? So the Lord won’t deal with him in the future, and the belief that he would was false anyway.

This whole situation is a lot simpler if you just avoid the false belief in the first place. Just accept that there is no point in holding onto past transgressions that you have no power to fix. It does not matter if the transgressor was yourself or someone else. It does not matter if they will eventually see justice or not. The pain exists to make sure you’ll do everything in your power to make it right. Once you’ve done that, it serves no further purpose, and you should let it go.