On What Will Forgiveness Depend?
Whether we ourselves go to heaven or hell may well depend on where we hope our enemies will end up.
Is forgiveness possible without faith? Suppose someone has no faith, then falls victim to another’s injustice — must he then be expected to forgive his assailant? Surely, the heart cries out, here is a bridge too far. Besides, in the absence of any real sign of the higher life coursing through the soul, why would anyone even wish to forgive another? On what possible basis could such a thing be justified, much less required?
And if that were the case, would it not also follow that the virtues of hope and charity were also missing? A regular trifecta, in other words, has got to be in place before real forgiveness can happen.
So, how does it work?
Begin with faith, which is nothing other than the belief that God can write straight with crooked lines. However misshapen the pencil, God can reach right down and untwist the instrument in order to make it write smooth. When terrible things happen and wicked men prey upon the innocent, it is faith that tells us that God, in the teeth of all the horror that was done, can and will most certainly bring good out of it. Not only that he has the capacity to pull off such miracles, but that he desires to do so even more than we do. In fact, so mighty is God’s power that nothing can finally stand in the way of its exercise, never mind how deep or grievous the damage done by another’s sin.
After all, if nothing is impossible with God, to recall the angel’s explanation to Mary, for whom an unimaginably great good is about to be done, why should it suddenly become impossible when, faced with an equally unimaginable evil, God decides to do something about it? Is he somehow less powerful than he is good? Wounded by the world’s wickedness, who then would not want to turn to such an all-powerful and all-loving God? Without God, where does one go to assuage the pain? Unless, of course, out of some perversity of pride, we prefer clinging to our pain rather than ridding ourselves of it, as though the damage done were so definitive, so utterly over-the-top, that even God himself could not remedy the awfulness of it.
But to forgive is also an exercise in hope, which is why in refusing to forgive we are in effect condemning another to hell, consigning their immortal soul to a condition of hopelessness so complete that there could never be an end to it. Not to forgive means to say to another: “This is who you are for all eternity.” Is this not a judgment only God himself is qualified to make? Meanwhile, our part in the play is far simpler, which to hope that great sinners may be saved.
Especially those we think least deserving of it — which would be you and me, right? The Scriptures are very clear on this, reminding us that anyone, at any moment, may choose to cut himself off from God. Or wish to do so to another. Forever.
“The terrible compliment” is the phrase C.S. Lewis uses, which is the freedom God gives us, which he takes with such seriousness that we are at liberty to use it in burning every bridge to Beatitude, including even the ones we’ve knocked down lest others reach across them.
“The Christian message,” Karl Rahner reminds us, “says to each one of us, not to the other, but in each case to me: You can, through yourself, through the one that you are in your innermost center and irrevocably wish to be, also be the one who shuts himself off from God in the absolute, lifeless, irrevocable desolation of the ‘No.’” To say that to God — whether meant for oneself or another does not finally matter — will ineluctably carry one straight to hell, where we say over and over to the One who made us for himself and for all those equally annealed in God: “I don’t want to love. I don’t want to be loved. I just want to be left alone.”
Hope, therefore, can never be for oneself alone; it must always reach out to the other. Indeed, if the only genuine hope is one that does not finally depend on oneself, but on the grace of God, it is no less true to say that the happy outcome of such hope necessarily includes others. Yes, even the ones we least want to see in heaven. Because getting in ourselves may well depend on where we hope all the others will go. Matthew’s Gospel could not have put it more plainly: “Blessed are the merciful,” we are told, “for they shall obtain mercy” (5:7).
Or there is this stunning text from Jean Danielou:
Too often, we think of hope in too individualistic a manner, as merely our personal salvation. But hope essentially bears on the great actions of God concerning the whole of creation. … It is the salvation of the world that we await. In reality hope bears on the salvation of all men — and it is only in the measure that I am immersed in them that it bears upon me.
If hell is the place where but a single refrain is repeated over and over, which is that of wanting to remain always alone, then is not heaven the place where one is never alone, where the longing for the other finds lasting and perfect fulfillment? And what will the currency we’ll need to spend be in order to get in?
Love. “The unfamiliar Name,” T.S. Eliot calls it, “behind the hands that wove the intolerable shirt of flame / Which human power cannot remove. / We only live, only suspire, / Consumed by either fire or fire.”
And those who will not forgive, who refuse ever to show mercy, they are the ones who cannot love. What does it really mean, asks Archbishop Fulton Sheen, when Jesus enjoins us to turn the other cheek? It means just this: “I forgive; I refuse to hate you. If I hate you, I will add my quota to the sum total of hate. This I refuse to do. I will kill your hate; I will drive it from the earth. I will love you.”
All is possible, therefore, provided one has faith, hope and love — yes, even forgiveness.