The Complicated World of Forgiveness

March 31, 2022

The word "forgiveness" on a board

Jesus preached a great deal about forgiveness. It must have been a central part of His message. Firstly, He taught about gaining God’s forgiveness, but He also spoke about our duty to forgive others. Both Luke and Matthew have a version of the Lord’s Prayer, including that line, “Forgive us as we forgive others.” (Lk 11:4, Mt 6:12)

And yet, there circulates what I call the ‘Oprah’ psychologizing notion of forgiveness, although it might not be fair to do so. I am not saying there is nothing good and true in this notion, but I am saying that it needs some nuance. This is the idea of forgiveness as a forgone state of affairs, one which demands nothing from the other person. It’s common to hear about forgiveness as arising from the needs of the person wronged. I am not saying that healing is not an interior event, something done with God deep within the heart, something that doesn’t depend upon anyone else in the world, of course it is. I just wouldn’t call this forgiveness.

We might quibble over words. The Greek word that appears most often in the Gospel for ‘forgiveness’ is aphiemi, and it means “to send away.” And, although it’s not obvious from the Our Father, usually when Jesus speaks about forgiving others, He associates it with a prior action, that the guilty party first asks for forgiveness, as in Luke 17:3-4,

“If your brother sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Forgiveness is meant for those who ask for it. Jesus says nothing about forgiving those who don’t. The proper thing to do to a person who sins and does not ask for forgiveness is rebuke, not forgiveness.

And yet, He also says to love our enemies. He doesn’t say forgive; He says love. We might be able to gain some insight through an examination of the English word, forgive. It is from the Old English forgiefan “give, grant, allow.” It has two elements: for and give. The preposition for can mean a lot of things, but in this case it seems to imply ‘giving in’ to someone, or to ‘give up’ the desire for revenge, to ‘give up’ anger, or ‘give to,’ as in give pardon to; the modern emphasis lies with giving up resentment. In any case, the giving part is pretty important.

As I so often do when I have a moral-theological question, I opened my copy of the Summa Theologica. There is no other book so comprehensive and yet pithy. I’ve taught a course on Aquinas for many years and yet I could not think right off where he would discuss forgiveness. Of course, I turned to the section of the work on moral theology, the so-called Secunda Secundae (‘the second part of the second part’). I assumed that he would consider our duty to forgive under the general virtue of justice. It wasn’t there. Then I thought, well, strictly speaking, forgiveness isn’t an act of justice, it’s an act of love. So I looked at the section on the theological virtue of love. Nope, not there either. I went to the table of contents. Nothing on forgiveness. Then I thought about synonyms. Pardon, maybe? The question on pardon was not about forgiveness; it was about systems of law. So I started to look in other sections, the First, the First of the Second, the Third. Nothing! What I really wanted was to know how he interpreted Luke 17:4 There was always his Catena Aurea (Golden Chain), which was the commentary on the Gospels he put together out of excerpts from the Fathers of the Church. And, yes, I could have looked at Augustine’s Commentary on the Lord’s Sermons on the Mount, which work I knew well enough. Yet by this point what I really wanted to know was why forgiveness didn’t hold a prominent place in Aquinas’ moral theology. It was a mystery I has stumbled into by accident. I thought forgiving others is important in Christian life!

No, its place in the Summa isn’t obvious. But I kept looking. I kept looking for synonyms and other related terms. It was becoming apparent to me that because Aquinas took the concept of justice very seriously, and reasoned with exacting precision from it (as a philosopher is want to do), it might be difficult to make a place for an altruistic concept like forgiveness. Altruism refers to doing something completely selfless. But this is a relatively modern term (coined in the 19th century). When Aquinas talked about ‘going beyond the call of duty,’ he distinguished between ‘commands’ and ‘counsels.’ A command is something that is mandatory – if you don’t do it, you sin. On the other hand, a counsel is something very good, but to which you are not obliged per se. That is why we call poverty, chastity and obedience ‘counsels of perfection.’ Did Aquinas view forgiveness as a counsel, in other words, as something to which we are not obliged? Not from I could determine, at least not overtly.

But my perseverance started to pay off.

I started to arrive at the Thomistic ‘best-fit’ for our English word forgive, and for the Greek word aphiemi, when I gave up the idea that I would find what I was looking for in his massive section on justice. The closest I got while looking there was when I hit on the antonym vengeance. More clues emerged, but the mystery was not yet solved. The fact is, to Aquinas, forgiveness is not an act of justice.

Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues. It was in relation to one of the other cardinal virtues that he developed his thinking about what I was looking for: temperance. This virtue is about self-control, and what impedes forgiveness is, as we saw above, anger and resentment. Anger is the problem Aquinas focused on since, once again, resentment is a modern preoccupation. Temperance restricts the free play of anger. The job of the will and the intellect is to guide the feelings (passions, as he called them).

But here we are into a different realm than the more black-and-white realm of justice. Justice is more of an intellectual virtue. Temperance is more of a ‘moral’ virtue, which means it pertains to the will. We are supposed to use our wills to control our impulses or feelings (appetites is his technical word). Temperance is meant to respond to things that tug on us, things like anger. Justice is meant to control our mental outlook; temperance the desires of our body. This also means that if the duty to forgive fits in here, then it is more about us than about the other person. So Oprah is right – but she takes it too far. Justice determines who did wrong. Temperance tells us how to conduct ourselves when we feel wronged. If what impedes forgiveness is anger, then what virtues pertain to controlling anger? Aquinas mentions two, and deals with them together: clemency and meekness. Clemency isn’t a word we use very often these days – other than in the Hail, Holy Queen. Meekness is a bit more popular, but, still, not very, and I bet very few people could define it. About clemency, Aquinas quotes the Roman philosopher, Seneca: it is “leniency towards an inferior”; meekness, he says, is leniency in general. Then he expands his thought:

through the passion of anger a man is provoked to inflict a too severe punishment, while it belongs directly to clemency to mitigate punishment, and this [mitigation] might be prevented by excessive anger.

Consequently meekness, in so far as it restrains the onslaught of anger, concurs with clemency towards the same effect; yet they differ from one another, inasmuch as clemency moderates external punishment, while meekness properly mitigates the passion of anger.

Clemency is a good virtue to associate with the Blessed Virgin (she is our superior, after all), since it is her role to intercede for us with her Son. We appeal to the Virgin, to appeal to her Son not to act out of anger towards us (as we deserve).

So after this circuitous fact-finding mission into forgiveness, what have we learned? If Aquinas is right, forgiveness is about doing good, not as we are bound by the moral law (since forgiveness is not a matter of justice), but for two reasons:

1) it is bad for us not to control our anger,

2) acts done through excessive anger are bad acts.

Seeing that forgiveness has nothing (little) to do with justice, that is to say, things we have to do, I think this might give us pause to consider the good that forgiveness can do. Aquinas very much considers it a problem about us, not the other person. The anger that comes from being wronged is my problem to deal with. It is a problem because if we give way to anger, we can hurt ourselves. Aquinas is not as concerned about the other person, the person who wronged us. He is concerned about us, the person wronged. But if God forgives, forgiveness must do something good for the person forgiven too. What would this be? Essentially, a second chance.

And yet, I will insist upon something. Forgiveness is an act of generosity, not of obligation. I think Christians too often speak of it as an obligation. I think this is often the case today because we are too afraid to insist upon the truth: that good is really good and that evil is really bad. We want to sweep things under the mat too quickly for sake of peace. Forgiveness too swiftly given is likely not an act of moral courage, but of cowardice. It is the fear of dealing with hard things. It’s easier to pretend that the slight never happened at all.

Jesus was all about love and forgiveness, and yet He came to came to set the world on fire, not to bring peace. (Lk 12:49-51) He came to clearly set good and evil apart, to create division. In other words, the most important thing we need to consider when we think about forgiveness, is why are we doing it? Why does God forgive? Not because He has to, but because He wants to give us a second chance because He loves us. He does not forgive us because He is afraid of losing our affection. And so neither should we act from such a motive. You should always forgive from strength: you want good to thrive. The evil has to be acknowledged, and forgiveness given only because it is good for you and good for them, not only because it is good for them and easier on you.

Forgiveness arises from strength of soul, from your will to do good to others (that is what love is, after all), not from weakness, fear of dealing with the harsh reality of sin. As every knight knows, sometimes you must face the enemy down, not pretend like he doesn’t mean to harm you or hasn’t already harmed you.

colin-kerrColin Kerr

Colin wrote this Article for the Knights of the Holy Eucharist. He has been married to Anne-Marie since 1999, and they are proud to raise their six children, in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Colin has a PhD in Theology and works tirelessly to promote the Gospel. “Just share the Word,” is what he believes the Lord says to him – and so he does. He recently founded The Catholic Review of Books, a printed journal and website dedicated to “all things books” from the perspectives of faithful Catholics. He is fascinated by the concept of chivalry as it applies to being a man and a father in today’s crazy world.


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