Yesterday I finished my comments on the Penn State scandals by saying this:
Cultivating a heart of mercy and forgiveness is the only way bring ourselves to be willing to see that evil.
Today I want to elaborate.
When I talk about “forgiveness”, I don’t mean pseudo-forgiveness, in which we say things like “You didn’t mean to do it”, or “No harm done.” I’m speaking of actual forgiving, in which the guilty person has done something to injure, and the victim chooses to set aside wrath and revenge, and instead be at peace with the guilty one. It could be for a small matter or a serious one.
Why would forgiveness matter, when it comes to identifying egregious sins?
Short Answer: People who forgive are people who can see sin. People who do not forgive must necessarily overlook some amount of sin, or else go mad with loneliness and despair. Therefore, the habitual practice of forgiveness disposes one to more easily identify sin.
Long Version, Same Answer:
Here is how relationships work among people who know only condemnation:
- The worlds divides into two groups: “good” people and “bad” people
- The various things that good people do might be “wrong choices”, or “done in ignorance” or “under pressure”, or perhaps they are just “human nature”.
- Someone caught doing something undeniably evil is a bad person. This boggles and overwhelms, when that person had heretofore been amongst the good ones, and furthermore the person still shows plenty of evidence of goodness.
Here, in contrast, is how relationships work among people who practice forgiveness:
- The world doesn’t divide. People are people. We humans do a lot of good things, and some bad things, in varying portions.
- There certainly can be mistakes and extenuating circumstances. But also sometimes we just plain sin.
- Someone caught doing something undeniably evil is, well, just like the rest of us. The way is open for repentance and forgiveness, if the person chooses it.
I might be shocked or surprised when my dear friend sins in a way I would never have guessed. But that does not require me to condemn or reject, nor to make 1,000 excuses and insist such sin is impossible. Of course such sin is possible. I’m a rank sinner. Why shouldn’t other people be just as capable of evil as I am?
Forgiveness causes sanity. Habitually forgiving means no longer having to explain away one’s batty relatives, or tolerate spousal nonsense, insisting it’s “just their way.” Forgiveness means being able to say, “_______ was utterly wrong to act that way,” and still love that person, still maintain a relationship with that person.
Habitual forgiveness means being able to hear an accusation against a loved one, and be able to say, “Well, I don’t think so, but it is always possible. I’ll look into it.” There is no danger. If it is true, out of love for the other, you want the situation rectified. If it is false, better to know it. In either case, better to love honestly than to love a lie.
The irony of forgiveness is that one can better see sin, but also be less bothered by it. It is no longer necessary to put up with bad behavior by calling it good behavior.
The greatest hazard of condemnation is that it becomes impossible to see one’s own sins. To do so would be to condemn oneself.
This is a danger when it comes to protecting children from abusive situations. For if I convince myself of my own sinlessness, I must excuse the same bad behavior in others. And the more wrong actions I accept as good actions, the fewer clues I have at my disposal for detecting abuse. I’ve thrown out evidence.
As it happens, the habit of forgiveness also creates a family environment where children are more likely to tell their parents about abuse when it happens. And at the same time, the awareness of the signs of sin makes it less likely for parents to put their children into doubtful situations in the first place. Neither of those are magic force fields. Nothing parents do can keep children safe from all evil. But it helps. And when evil does strike, parents who have built that foundation of love and protectiveness have also given their children a place and a means for healing.
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