The Divine Logic of Forgiveness

“Everyone says that forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” ~ C.S. Lewis

“The Return” by Jacques Tissot (circa 1882). Oil on canvas; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I was off to meet my two-day-old niece in New York, impatient to peer into her uncluttered eyes, to sniff her suede skin and simply marvel at her newness and beauty. Catching the bus from Philadelphia, I opened my book bag and settled in for the trip. For the next two hours I read stories of inconceivable terror from the Rwandan genocide. Through underwater eyes, I absorbed firsthand accounts of rapes and maimings, of entire villages clubbed and macheted to death, of decapitated men and disemboweled pregnant women.

I emerged from the bus feeling wretched, stunned by humanity’s capacity for inflicting pain on itself. I felt sure that had I been a Tutsi during the genocide, I would have been among those who, so sickened by the senseless cruelty and violence, walked into the arms of their Hutu attackers and welcomed death. When I finally arrived at my destination and held that precious baby girl in my hands, joy glutted my heart, but the outrage at the stories I’d read was heightened as I wondered how anyone could ever harm such a vulnerable and vibrant being as a human child.

Energized by the miracle of my new niece, a few days later I boarded the bus back home, and this time spent the trip reading stories of forgiveness—tales, quite frankly, that were even more shocking than those of the violence that decimated Rwanda. A woman walks a full day to look her rapist in the eye and grant him forgiveness. Another finds the will to forgive—and then trust—and then befriend—the neighbor who slaughtered her sister, nieces, and nephews. Summarizing a sometimes decade-long process of painful soul-searching runs the risk of making these acts sound facile or like cheap grace: Nothing could be further from the truth.

But how to get our hearts and minds around the truth of forgiveness? It is gut-wrenching to read about, let alone live out, the kind of radical forgiveness we see in Rwanda. This kind of forgiveness is completely counter-intuitive, and yet, as I delved more deeply into the subject, I came to see that, in a violent world, as illogical as it is, it is the only thing that makes any sense.

Forgiveness—both the giving and receiving of it—is our only hope. Without it, there is no shalom for us—as individuals, families, communities, or nations. And yet we are remarkably unskilled at it, even in the church, although we have at our disposal the tools most needed to accomplish it: grace, a vocabulary of sin and redemption, and a forgiving God as the ultimate role model.

But we don’t really understand grace, nor do we truly grasp the darkness in our own hearts. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

~Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Thus we cannot comprehend forgiveness. “Forgiveness has an image problem,” writes Michael Henderson in No Enemy to Conquer. “It fosters so many misconceptions. Some withhold forgiveness for fear that they might easily become a ‘doormat’ for others; or that justice might not be served, and cruel people will literally get away with murder; or that forgiveness and apology, particularly in terms of injustices of the past, is just the latest caving in to political correctness.”

Was Jesus a doormat? Is justice disserved when our Savior shows us mercy? If not, then what are we afraid of?

A handful of Scripture verses have always haunted me for the promise they hold out: Jesus says that “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given” to us (Luke 8:10); Peter says that Christ’s “divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him” so that we “may participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4); Paul says that “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). Who can resist such promises?

But what is the path to this knowledge, this powerful divine nature, the very mind of Christ? Might real and radical forgiveness — and all the suffering it entails — take us there?

Christ has every right to be offended: He alone never offends, and we continually offend him. Yet never clinging to his rights, he continually forgives. Human forgiveness, it seems to me, is one of the best and most direct ways of participating in the nature of Christ.

Most of us will need to start small. Hopefully, most of us will never be in a position to have to forgive our child’s murderer, but we can begin today to walk the forgiveness road, for as one of our interviewees reminds us, forgiveness is a calling, and it’s for life.

Kristyn Komarnicki is director of dialogue and convening at CSA.


You may also want to read

Church + Boldness = Hope

By Bridget Eileen Rivera

When I look at the church, what gives me hope?

When I look at the church, I see women stepping up as leaders and holding their brothers to account; I see people of color reminding the world of God’s justice and calling the church to repentance; I see queer people persevering in the faith and living in the safety of God’s love; and I see a global body of Christ that is so much bigger than Western culture.

What Is the Church?

By Kaitlin B. Curtice
In our early married churchgoing days, we attended a little nondenominational congregation, grace-based in belief and charismatic in worship. For community group, we spent the evenings in Justin and Kari’s home with their four kids.