The Cost of Forgiveness

A collection of recent circumstances has me thinking about the concept of forgiveness.  I heard an artist from the alternative christian band Tenth Avenue North introducing a live version of the band’s song “Losing”.  I am frequently underwhelmed at the spiritual depth in many of today’s popular songs, but I must admit I was struck by both the content and subject of the artist’s introduction and song.

The artist was lamenting the fact that growing up in the church he heard constantly the importance of forgiveness, but he was never prepared for how hard it was to actually forgive someone.  The song reminds us that forgiveness, when done right, will always feel a little bit like losing.  It is never clean, and it is never easy.

I was reminded of an essay written by Tim Keller regarding the concept of serving each other through forgiveness.  Consider this excerpt from Dr. Keller;
When speaking of forgiveness, Jesus uses the image of debts to describe the nature of sins (Matt. 6:12; 18:21–35). When someone seriously wrongs you, there is an absolutely unavoidable sense that the wrongdoer owes you. The wrong has incurred an obligation, a liability, a debt. Anyone who has been wronged feels a compulsion to make the other person pay down that debt. We do that by hurting them, yelling at them, making them feel bad in some way, or just waiting and watching and hoping that something bad happens to them. Only after we see them suffer in some commensurate way do we sense that the debt has been paid and the sense of obligation is gone. This sense of debt/liability and obligation is impossible to escape. Anyone who denies it exists has simply not been wronged or sinned against in any serious way.

What then is forgiveness? Forgiveness means giving up the right to seek repayment from the one who harmed you. But it must be recognized that forgiveness is a form of voluntary suffering. What does that mean? Think about how monetary debts work. If a friend breaks my lamp, and if the lamp costs fifty dollars to replace, then the act of lamp-breaking incurs a debt of fifty dollars. If I let him pay for and replace the lamp, I get my lamp back and he’s out fifty dollars. But if I forgive him for what he did, the debt does not somehow vanish into thin air. When I forgive him, I absorb the cost and payment for the lamp: either I will pay the fifty dollars to replace it or I will lose the lighting in that room. To forgive is to cancel a debt by paying it or absorbing it yourself. Someone always pays every debt.
I recognize the divisive nature of a topic such as capital punishment.  Regardless of your views, you have to be moved by the forgiveness exemplified by the woman described in this story.  In seeking clemency for her husband’s killer, Mamie Norwood released this declaration.
You can read more about the details of the story, but it appears that Mrs. Norwood’s husband sexually abused his killer.  The tragic complexity of the case is heartbreaking.  In the midst of the anger, rage, perversion, and exploitation stands this woman who is left behind to try and work through forgiving both her husband and her husband’s killer.    Mrs. Norwood states in her declaration that it was necessary for her to forgive in order for her to move on in her life.  I expect she would concede however that it also felt a little like losing. The debt was absorbed.  Someone always pays every debt.

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