Forgiveness: the Pearl of Great Price

Forgiveness is horribly dear; it entails relinquishing a precious moral asset. But unless we forgive, and so long as we hold on to our grudges, or to any creaturely treasure, for that matter, we are tethered to Earth, and unfit for Heaven.

Someone has injured you. Under the Law of this world, therefore, you have a claim upon him. It is a moral asset, and it can be gauged in sheerly economic terms (human relationships are moral projects, through and through; this is why economics, the study of the Law of the Household, is the science of the moral sentiments). You can even come to a legal agreement with the person who has injured you, that his payment to you of a sufficient sum of money will discharge forever the moral debt he owes you on account of the injury he has done to you.

But the legal agreement of satisfaction is merely nominal. It can never truly suffice to wipe the slate clean. Say for example that your old friend Harald has inadvertently cut off your left foot. He didn’t mean to do it, he wasn’t being negligent, it was just one of those things. Despite all that, he is at fault: he knows it, you know it, and the law knows it. You know you shouldn’t resent him for the injury, but you just do, and you can’t not. Now you might agree together that if he paid you $1 million, you’d call it square, and no hard feelings. He pays the money, you shake hands on the deal, and everyone is a stand up guy about it thenceforth. Well and good.

But there is no sum of money that can quite compensate for the damage Harald has done to you. That’s the thing that bugs the hell out of you. Even if we had a way to regrow your foot, as good as new, there is no way that Harald could make it so that you had not suffered the agonies and inconveniences that the inadvertent amputation imposed upon you. No matter how much money Harald paid you, no matter what anyone did for you, there is no way to make the fact of the amputation, together with all the suffering attendant thereto, simply go away as if it had never been. The amputation is an ineluctable fact, and there are not enough ontological resources in the entire universe to make things all better, in respect thereto.

So even though you and Harald are square in the eyes of the Law, de facto there can be no such thing. Harald owes you, forever.

Unless you forgive him that debt. This can happen between true friends. They get drunk together, they get pissed at each other, they scream at each other, they fight, they fall down weeping. Then, they laugh at how ridiculous and tragic, how silly and stupid the whole thing is. They rise up, closer and more dear to each other than ever. Such reconciliations of the spirit are more precious than gold. There is nothing finer, nothing nobler in the world than when we forgive those who have injured us.

We used to read a book to our children when they were very young, a product of the Sesame Street complex that has done so much to injure our civilization, even as it civilizes our young. In the book, Ernie is given charge of the cafe for the day, and in the process he stupidly smashes the teapot that the proprietor – I forget his name, a kindly old man – has told him to take special care about, it being very precious to him, having belonged to his dead wife. Ernie is terrified at what will happen, but being a good egg at bottom, he confesses his crime in fear and trembling. The proprietor takes a moment to process this information, and then – he forgives Ernie. He says, “My friend Ernie is more important to me than some old teapot.”

Now you can call me a sentimental old sap till the cows come home, and you’d be right, but these words – “more important to me than some old teapot” – never failed to choke me up a bit. For they told my children that while they could certainly hurt me, and despite the very real costs that I or they might have to pay as a result, I loved them, and they were more important to me than anything but the Truth (the Truth being Himself, of course, the only means by which they could be important to me in the first place). And this was simply true. My children heard me choke up when I read that line, and so they learned that it was true. Thus they learned how they ought to treat each other.

Such is the forgiveness you offer Harald after you’ve beat each other up and become friends again, fast and true, despite the silly business about your foot. Hell, you’d have lost that foot sooner or later anyway. Harald will be your friend forever.

Grudges are moral claims upon the universe. They are just like money, or riches of any kind. If you let your life be about the grudges, or any other sort of riches, you will be attached to the world. You will be worshiping an idol. And you will be a slave to your idol.

Are you angry at the wife who divorced you, the husband who disappointed you, the children who moved away and neglected you? Are you bitter about what happened at work, pissed off at that guy in the car this morning? Are you spending a lot of your life feeling beleaguered and angry at moslems, Jews, the US Government, liberals, feminists, the UN, or busybodies?

Do you see how these feelings are *killing* you?

So long as we turn these things over and over in our minds, nursing them and worrying about them, they have dominion over us. So doing, we give them power to dispose of our inner world as they see fit.

To the extent that hatred and anger suffuses your day, you are enslaved to the objects of your hatred and anger. The greater your outrage, the greater their power to outrage.

Their power will end when we learn at last to laugh at them, and to love them, the silly old things. Nothing so challenges Satan as our laughter at the pathetic foolishness of his rebellion against God. Rebellion? Against *God*? Are you kidding me?

Think about it for a sec. We trads get all huffy about liberalism, and gosh we enjoy it, but just think about it. Liberals propose to reconfigure Man. Riiight. Have you *ever* heard anything so risible? Hell, it’s not even funny, it’s just pathetic and sad. I mean, this is like the kooky guy in the neighbourhood who thinks the Martians are in charge of the water supply, and walks about wearing a billboard, right? It’s nuts. Why do we let this bother us? Why do we think about it for more than a moment or two? Why aren’t’ we saying to ourselves, “OK, right, that’s absurd, I’m out of here, better things to do.” Sure, they’re in charge, but … let’s just all decide we aren’t going to live in the asylum anymore, OK?

If we are going to live into the organic society, the True society, the orthogonal, righteous society, the very first thing we are going to have to do is shake from off our feet the dust of the towns that do not welcome us. We need to just move on. Leave the dead to bury the dead – the poor old fools. Let’s us get out into the fresh air. Until we do, we’ll just be mewling about in the rooms they have soiled.

We cannot do this, cannot get out of the unclean world they have built for themselves, unless we can get over our grudges. It’s the only way to be magnanimous – literally, “great of life.” It’s the only way to be noble. Rise above.

If you can’t do this, you doom yourself to involvement in the coils of this world. You prevent yourself from living into the Kingdom, where the King himself smiles down from his throne. That’s already happening, you know. The only thing that is preventing you from stepping into his realm, this very minute, is your attachment to the moral assets you have amassed in this rotten old world. If you could just stop thinking about what it is that you own, net net, and what you are owed – the two expressions are coterminous – you could get on with living. You could stop being a banker, period full stop, and start being a fell and fearsome knight.

Don’t squander those assets, to be sure. Use them. But not for their cash value; not for what you might get for them in sale, not for what enjoyments their sale might buy you. What have you, really, to do with such things as can be accomplished with them? Are you not about something altogether larger, and nobler, in whose service alone they, or such pleasures as they might buy, can have any true and lasting value? Do not, then, let yourself be about your assets. No living and life-giving business can afford to be about its financial statement. Be about your purposes, which are alone the things in virtue of which assets have any value to begin with.

What is your Quest? Let everything fall into place under that heading. Let go everything that does not fit. This includes grudges. Call upon those who owe you, and forgive them. No investment you might make can so liberate and enlarge you, or them; nothing, in the end, can so ennoble you, and clean your heart; nothing can so fit you for your true Calling.

Which, after all, is waiting for you. It’s right outside, the adventure of a lifetime. Harald is already out there, saddled up. What, are you letting your bum foot hold you back? What’s the hold up?

Don’t think I’m preaching to you. I’m preaching to myself.

9 thoughts on “Forgiveness: the Pearl of Great Price

  1. Forgiving Harald, who paid up, no problem. Forgiving the unreprentant wrongdoer who has gleefully harmed you, and considers himself your superior because of it, is failing to uphold the moral order. Such forgiveness is a wrong, is cowardice and weakness.

    • I’m not talking about forgiving the outward and compensable economic debt, so that the unrepentant sinner never suffers the cost of his sin. I’m talking about letting go of one’s grudge against him, a debt which such a man could never settle even if he wanted to. If you don’t sooner or later, somehow or other relinquish your grudges – which can be accomplished only through forgiveness – then you’ll end up a boiling mass of grudges, and it will be impossible to enjoy anything.

  2. Kristor, my question here has always been: How do I forgive a person who has wronged someone else, on whose behalf I am angry? I discussed this a little here:

    http://lydiaswebpage.blogspot.com/2010/02/forgiving-those-who-havent-wronged-you.html

    This also comes up in the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The protagonist is holding a grudge against Jack Boughton, because Jack at about the age of nineteen seduced a minor girl (one gets the impression she was maybe fourteen or fifteen) and refused to take any responsibility for the child, who later died at about the age of two of septicemia because she always ran around barefoot in her grandparents’ filthy and unloving home and cut her foot. Jack was completely callous when his sister attempted to discuss the matter with him. Now it’s about twenty years later, and John Ames, Jack’s elderly godfather, can’t bring himself to forgive him for being that kind of person. (And for doing various other things that broke his parents’ hearts.) John Ames says, “I don’t forgive him. I wouldn’t know how to begin.” Every time I come to that passage, I get choked up, because I know exactly what he means. How does one *even begin* to forgive on behalf of someone else? It’s presumptuous. It isn’t my business to forgive him. His wrong wasn’t against me. Yet my resentment continues against him. And that sort of anger can be at least as corrosive, if not more so, than my resentment against a person who has wronged me personally.

    • That’s a good one. Only thing I can suggest is something that has worked for me, a little: praying for the sinner in question. The effect is rather analogous to that of forcing your face into a smile when you are feeling quite grumpy. Putting on a happy face almost always makes a person feel happier.

      Likewise, when I pray for people who have done terribly evil things to those I love, it almost instantly triggers a “compassion routine,” which has the effect of flooding me with an apprehension of the agonies they suffer as the wages of their sin (whether or not they are aware of these defects of their own being, power, and nobility, or would characterize them as such). This sympathy softens my wrath, and reduces both the grip it has upon me and the toll it takes upon me, without at all softening my indictment of the sin, or my judgement of the sinner’s moral defect – or, indeed, the wrath I might feel it proper to express to the sinner.

      “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” And love is willing another’s good, whether by natural inclination (as with the love of one’s children) or formally in prayer for a sinner’s release from slavery to sin. The merely formal intercession undertaken in sincerity of heart cannot but generate at least a bit of concrete charitable intention. The empty form of intercession is a vacuum that our nature is so ordered as to fill, however recalcitrant our inclinations.

      I should say also that, as you noted in your post on the question, you do indeed have some ontologically efficacious forgiving work to do in respect to a sinner who has not directly injured you; for inasmuch as the world is ontologically coherent, an injury to any part of it is an injury to the whole, and thus to you. No man an island, and all.

      • Thanks, Kristor, I appreciate that. What you are saying is to love the person, to pray for him, and to desire his highest good, regardless of whether or to what extent or in what sense the term “forgiveness” applies.

      • Right. I *can’t* forgive Joe for the injury he caused Betty, only for the injury her injury caused me (via the general impoverishment it imposed upon the world). You had already sussed that in your post.

        It goes further. Unless she wills it, not even Christ can atone for, nor his Father forgive, Joe’s injury to Betty on her behalf. He can atone for, and his Father forgive, only the injury Joe does *to God* in virtue of the hurt Joe has caused God’s beloved daughter, Betty. Joe’s moral debt to Betty is her moral asset, and is therefore hers to dispose of as she sees fit.

        I go into punishing detail on these matters in my series of posts on the economy of forgiveness.

        The most I can do is pray for Joe and Betty, that they shall discover a way to be reconciled, so that she forgives his debt; and that, failing such a reconciliation, they will repent of their worldly affections and offer themselves, together with their moral debts and assets, at the altar for purgation.

        What is not forgiven must be purged. The outstanding wages of sin must be meted out.

        How the prayers, the forgiveness, or the purgation are actually posted in the Book of Life, so that everything foots properly at the end of the day, I have no idea. I have faith though that every sparrow’s fall – and, a fortiori, every amicus brief I file through intercession in prayer with the Court of Heaven – is there faithfully recorded.

  3. This ties into the marriage post. Feminists have, as the commenter put it, gleefully engaged in a social war against men. A significant number of nominally Christian women have adopted a whitewashed version of feminism.

    It is almost impossible to find a woman in this age who is not infected by this thinking. Therefore, marriage becomes a union to a person who is holding unforgiveness against men as a group, and usually for wrongs committed in decades or centuries past. And in some cases, wrongs that never were committed in the first place.

    Even a couple molecules of feminism makes a woman unworthy of marriage, because it is the pry point for her eventual rebellion against her husband.

  4. I’m not sure that your argument about never being made whole by compensation follows. My reasoning is this:

    1. Suffering for compensation is part of many trades. I would prefer not to go to work. When I am at work, I am bored, I deal with idiots, etc. However, I agree to undergo that suffering and the loss of the leisure that I would otherwise have in exchange for money.

    2. The primary difference between this and Harald cutting off my foot is that I haven’t consented beforehand when he lops it off.

    3. There is some sum of money for which I WOULD consent to allow somebody to cut off my foot. I would, for example, rather have a billion dollars than my left foot.

    4. If Harald gives me this sum of money, I am no worse off than if I had undergone a voluntary trade in exchange for my foot. (This is setting aside the questions of transactional costs associated with haggling after the fact, etc.). I would, after all, rather have a billion dollars than my foot.

    The real place where the rubber hits the road is where I forgive Harald instead of demanding the compensation I would demand of just anybody. Where I express, essentially, that I would rather have Harald as my friend than have my left foot (or a billion dollars).

    It’s a small correction, but one which impacts the setup to your point.

  5. If you sell your left foot voluntarily, there is nothing for you to forgive. But if Harald lops off your foot inadvertently, he has at the very least destroyed, forever, your option of freely entering into a negotiation about the price of your left foot. A forced negotiation is an uncompensated taking.

    But never mind all that. The destruction of your foot, whether voluntary or not, is a permanent reduction in the capacity of the world’s creative resources. It cannot be recovered, or repaired. The compensation of the $1B adds nothing to the creative mix, but rather only moves it around. Think of it this way: if your house is destroyed in a tornado and your insurer totally pays for it, you might declare yourself satisfied, overall. Nevertheless the house is gone. You, and we, would all be wealthier if the insurance proceeds had never been needed to cover your claim.

    Finally, that you accept the $1B in compensation for the foot Harald destroyed does not mean that the injury he caused has been completely repaired *in fact.* This would be so even had he paid you $100B. The only way that one can be *exactly* compensated for the loss of a foot is with the opposite of the loss of that very same foot. That’s the only way you can be “made whole” on the debt that Harald owes you.

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