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I’ll forgive. But Someone must pay!

February 28, 2024

I came across arresting paragraph below from Oliver D. Crisp:

“Jones can forgive her child for a misdemeanor, or punish him. But Jones cannot forgive the child by exacting reparation from him by means of punishment. That makes no sense… You cannot embrace someone by pushing them away, and you cannot forgive someone by exacting reparation from them in the form of punishment”
Oliver D. Crisp “Approaching the Atonement”

When you forgive someone, what does it actually mean? Beyond the interpersonal level (which we shall come back to shortly), what do christians mean when they claim that Christ died in order to pay for our debts/sins? Doesn’t this line of thinking come in opposition to above analogy from Crisp? Isn’t Christianity’s idea of forgiveness a bit odd? If God really forgave our debts, why does anyone have to pay for them by—and here the strangeness—dying “in our place”? If there is any forgiveness at all in the good Lord, so the idea goes, then there really is no need for anyone coming to die in our place. That would be redundant. Either God is so unforgiving that He needs to be appeased by the death of an innocent man (and who would want to worship such a God?) or God really and actually forgives and there’s no need for a savior to atone for our sins. But the two cannot both be true.

The implications could be difficult to live with if such inconsistency in God was ever to be proven true: The thought that God is so cruel and vengeful to require someone’s death; the thought that He’s this much incapable of forgiveness implies that, not only is He not good, but also it showcases His hypocrisy when He commands us to forgive our enemies and when He asks us to pray daily for his forgiveness (that He obviously doesn’t have himself) as we forgive our debtors.

Well, let’s first work with Oliver Crisp’s example above and dissect it a little bit. We have a child that “sinned” and whose misdemeanor must either be forgiven or punished. We cannot forgive and at the same time punish, but also we cannot forgive by punishing. None of this would make any sense.

We need, however, to know a bit more about this incident, don’t we? What is this misdemeanor? Did he not make his bed in the morning? Or did he break the window in his room? If we have a broken window, regardless of whether we punish or forgive, the cost of replacing it will not just vanish. And as a parent, Jones must bear that expense. So in a sense, Jones can “forgive” and “pay” at the same time. Therefore, the two are not (always) mutually exclusive.

If you think about it, Crisp’s example actually portrays the Gospel so well. The one who is punished is not the one to have committed the sin. Someone else pays. Someone else, in a sense, “suffers”. And if the sinner (the child) gets forgiveness, it doesn’t therefore imply that the punishment (or the payment) disappeared. Which is exactly what (in very simple terms) the Gospel affirms: we are sinners, we sinned against God, God himself forgives,God himself in his Son suffers and pays.

I think I now see what I (and many like me) do not often consider when forgiveness takes place. The dynamics that come into play are really interesting and powerful; overlooking them leads us to the initial riddle.

…you may say, “I forgive you”, but the price of the wrong does not evaporate into the air… Forgiveness means the cost of the wrong moves from the perpetrator to you, and you bear it. Forgiveness, then, is a form of voluntary suffering…
Tim Keller, Forgiveness

“Voluntary suffering” indeed! This really helps explain how the God gave abundant forgiveness through suffering.

Coming back to interpersonal relationships, anyone who had to forgive something serious understands this very well: there is a load to bear, and it is sometimes heavy; attempts to remove or hide this fact only trivializes what it means to forgive.

We’ve been working with an example where there’s a monetary cost implied. However, harm can have an unquantifiable aspect; it could come in form of emotional distress, psychological trauma that could be irreversible, or in short, damage that cannot be remediated through financial means. How would forgiveness work in this context? Consider those who need to forgive a murderer! Since the wrong done is irremediable by nature, then forgiveness means, in this case, letting the murderer go, as the situation is beyond repair: forgiveness will let it all go.

However, this kind of wrong never “evaporates into the air”. Forgiving someone who killed a loved one implies you take on a heavier weight. The price of the wrong is in fact higher; the monetary injuries pale in comparison. Absorbing such loss is more demanding because “paying” it takes more than an instant. In a sense, you must be willing to “burn” inside you all cries for vengeance and justice. You must be willing to accept to be the one “punished” instead of the perpetrator. And that, you must do for a long period of time.

This is what convinced me that most of us do not really realize what forgiveness entails. In 2017, Danielle Berrin asked “Should We Forgive the Men Who Assaulted Us?” in the New York Times. Someone, who I think grasped the difficulty in forgiving, commented on the article:

“Forgiveness… heals [neither] the body or mind… Let the criminals ask his gods, if there be any, for forgiveness… Instead of talking about victims who must forgive, we should be talking about tattooing the words “Rapist” or “Sexual Predator” on the foreheads of criminals—this would actually help make women and children safer.”
Quoted from Keller Tim, Forgiveness

‘But our sins are just misdemeanors’, you may object, ‘they’re nothing to make a big deal out of’. One little white lie for example (as we talked about previously) is really insignificant; in the grand scheme of things. It is much like not making your bed. Most of us aren’t murderers or sexual predators. We’re not committing anything that God cannot just overlook… That’s if he isn’t petty!

Nevertheless, the Son of God died. And death is too expensive a cost to be paid for just “misdemeanors”! We all know how kids sometimes don’t know when they’re making mistakes—big or small. It’s the reason they’re still kids: They don’t know any better. They don’t understand. Could it then be that we’re like kids who have no clue of the gravity of our “sins”? Could it be that our liabilities are greater than we’d like to admit? Perhaps we underestimate what happens when we commit such a seemingly innocent and insignificant “sin”. But more on this another day.

The question we addressed just scratches the surface of the matter; we in fact haven’t even started plumbing the depths of God’s forgiveness. What we were able to establish today however was the fact that God himself bears this heavy load; no one else. Even though the christian account of things has (obviously) way much more to say about this, I’ll close by noting that the Christian good news—the Gospel—not only makes sense of this world, but is beautiful altogether. And if it is true (and I believe it is), the appropriate response to it should be gratefulness and worship to the God who is driven by love and mercy when He forgives to the point of paying this ultimate price for us Himself.


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"He adds to his other miseries that of blindness, so that he believes himself free, happy, possessed of liberty and ability, whole and alive”

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Why running here and there trying to fix what is beyond your ability to manage?

ForgivenessOliver D. CrispTim KellerAtonement

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