Strictures on Forgiveness

Kristor asked me to jot down some reflections on forgiveness, and I here happily comply.  Forgiveness is an important Christian virtue, and I am personally grateful for the many, many times I have been forgiven.  I try to show my gratitude by being forgiving myself.  But, as you shall see, I also think Christians are often too forgiving, and at the same time wracked with unnecessary guilt that they are not forgiving enough.


Forgiveness is one of the good thing of which it is possible to have too much.  To be rigidly unforgiving is bad because, in a society where everyone is rigidly unforgiving, everyone will eventually have an irreparable falling out with everyone else.  A society in which everyone has irreparably fallen out is a society that has fallen apart.

But it is at least equally bad to forgive every injury immediately and unconditionally.  Immediate and unconditional forgiveness of injuries reduces the cost of inflicting injury to zero, without in any way reducing the benefits, so a society with a policy of immediate and unconditional forgiveness will be torn to pieces in a riot of unlimited injuries.

Thus the moral question of forgiveness is not always “how can I be more forgiving.”  It often is.  Many of us are, by nature, too rigidly unforgiving, too given to indignation, bitterness, resentment and revenge.  But many of us are also natural doormats and pushovers who use the mask of forgiveness to cover our cowardice and masochism.

The moral question for those of us who are natural doormats and pushovers is not, “how can I be more forgiving.”  It is, “how can I be less forgiving.”  And this is a moral question, because a society of doormats and pushovers, operating on a policy of immediate and unconditional forgiveness, will be torn to pieces in a riot of unlimited injuries.


A moralist is always addressing a particular audience, whether an individual or a social group, and he naturally tailors his teachings to the moral vices of that individual or group.  The moral virtue of temperance should not, for instance, appear in a moral address to a society of teetotalers.  A moralist addressing such a society should instead dwell upon, and thereby aim to correct, the national vice of dishonesty, or unchastity, or even, perchance, rigid unforgiveness.

I could well imagine admonishing one man to be more forgiving and, in almost the same breath, admonishing a second man to “have a little pride,” “show a little spine,” and “stop letting people kick you around.”


All former ages recognized that human diversity extends to diversity of vices.  All former ages recognized that this is true of groups as well as individuals, so that the characteristic vice of one nation, or age, or religion, is not the characteristic vice of every other nation, age or religion.  Modern political correctness condemns this old wisdom about group vices as “negative stereotypes,” but modern political correctness is an ass.  Some nations have a drinking problem, for instance, and a moralist addressing one of these nations of drunkards will properly lay emphasis on the need for wider temperance.  His temperance teachings would be pointless in a nation where insobriety was not the characteristic national vice.

What is more, his temperance teachings might actually do harm, since they might engender an unhealthy horror of alcohol, which has genuine social benefits among a people who know when to say when.  Harping on chastity probably does harm in a nation where breaches of chastity are not out of control, since this can once again lead to unhealthy mortifications of the flesh.

We must always remember that morality aims to correct mores, which is to say customs, that it particularly aims to correct customary vices, and that customs and customary vices are always peculiar to a particular nation, class, religion or age.  This is why moral teachings are always properly addressed to a particular nation, class, religion, or age.

We should never read moral teachings as universal declarations.


Now I come to the difficult part of my argument.  When Jesus enjoined greater forgiveness, he was addressing the Jewish nation in the first century A.D.  I think there are excellent reasons to believe that this society was much more rigidly unforgiving than our society, and that, among these Jews, holding a grudge was a “national vice.”

This could be said of the ancient world generally, since forgiveness was not a classical virtue and revenge was not a classical vice.  Christian morality aimed to correct this classical vice.  It was not altogether successful, but the success that it did have was limited to the nations that were Christianized.

The Jewish nation has many virtues, but I don’t know anyone would say that letting bygones be bygones is one of them.  Indeed, from the Old Testament to the modern period, Jews seem to have observed “never forget” as a moral precept.  There is a reason people say, “don’t f#!% with the Jews.”


I don’t think there is any question that women have always enjoyed a uniquely high status in Christian society.  By global standards, oppression and exploitation of women was not the characteristic Christian vice.  Indeed, when Christians observed the mores of other nations, their Christian moral sensibility was almost always shocked by the degraded status of heathen women.  Here, for instance, is a Christian missionary shocked by the sexual mores of the Hindus.

“To claim the service of woman as his divine right, to take it for granted, makes him a petty tyrant, a brute, and a boor.  Brahman law exhibits here its characteristic vice . . . . It is opposed to the unselfishness and humility of the spirit of Christian service and chivalry.”*

I mention this in order to observe that the moral principle of female dignity works most actively among people in whom that moral principle is most advanced.  If we take feminism as a radical moral doctrine, we observe that feminism is most ferocious in nations (and classes) where misogyny is not the national vice.  The same thing might be said about the moral doctrine of anti-racism.

And I believe the same thing might be said about the moral doctrine of forgiveness.  If a nation (or age, or religion) is writhing with moral guilt over its inability to forgive, that nation (etc.) is almost certainly one where automatic and unconditional forgiveness has become a national vice.

This is also true for individuals.

If you feel guilt that you are unforgiving, there is a very good chance you are too forgiving and need to correct in the other direction.

13 thoughts on “Strictures on Forgiveness

  1. To forgive is a universal command of our Lord. But it doesn’t mean forgetting. It is ok to forgive a murderer and still support the state executing him. I think you have made a category error.
    The forgiveness a Christian practices is for our own theosis. A grave sin committed against you calls for forgiveness but also prudence in not exposing yourself and others to the same danger again.

    • I always get strong pushback on this, but I think Christian forgiveness is conditional. God does not offer unconditional forgiveness, and it seems blasphemous to say that I am better than God. I think forgiveness is conditional on contrition and repentance. It should also be long-suffering and prepared to forgive many more times than once. I agree with what you say about prudence, and would add that Christians should eschew revenge and brooding hatred. If I’m avoiding a person, am not brooding, and seek no revenge, I’m not sure what more I can do.

      • While I’m not going to rule out the possibility that Christian forgiveness is conditional, I will say that it definitely is not conditioned exclusively on contrition. Consider Jesus’ prayer at the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”: no repentance is involved.

      • That’s an interesting piece of evidence, but I don’t think it swings the case. First, it is not at all clear that “them” refers to all humanity, or even all members of the Sanhedrim. It is not generally taken to refer to Judas. I would say that it referred to the unwitting accessories to his murder, such as the Roman soldiers who were carrying out the execution. But with that said, it remains that there is nothing special about forgiving people who unjustly harmed you without knowing that they unjustly harmed you. For this line to support your argument, I think it would have to be “Father, forgive them, although they know exactly what they are doing and would do it again if they could.”

  2. Excellent commentary, as usual. I would add too that our culture seems to suffer the vice of habitually offering a kind of unauthorized proxy-forgiveness. We can be quick to “forgive” the moral failings of elements in our society which do great damage to others, but leave us relatively untouched.

    Some sticky-fingered rioters loot a Target in a poor neighborhood? Forgive them. A lustful woman abandons her children to pursue her “dreams”? Forgive her. A famous director drugs and raped a young girl years ago? Forgive him. What never occurs to any of these people is that the forgiveness they so readily proclaim is not theirs to offer. Mercy that is offered without the consent of the aggrieved is simply a violation of justice.

    Of course, cross any one of those people personally, and you’ll see how forgiving they really are.

    • That’s a good point. You have probably heard the quote that “everyone is conservative about what he know best.” Your observation suggests this corollary: “everyone is liberal about what concerns himself least.”

  3. “Enough now with this turning the other cheek! It’s our duty to protect ourselves,” Monsignor Velasio De Paolis, secretary of the Vatican’s supreme court [the Apostolic Signatura], thundered in the daily La Stampa. Jesus told his followers to “turn the other cheek” when struck.” From

    Cardinal DePaolis, as he later was, was a very strong figure in Rome until his death. Eternal memory.

    • That’s interesting. In Luke 18 I find Jesus telling the elect to pray that God will smite their enemies. This suggests to me that Christian doctrine on forgiveness is more nuanced than some would have us believe. We should certainly be very patient with those who are trying to reform, but we are not required to put up with every sort of abuse.

  4. Thanks, JM, that was great.

    I note only – not in disagreement – that forgiving someone does not entail letting him off the hook. Christian soteriology makes this same distinction: our absolution in the confessional washes away the moral stain of unrepented sin that would otherwise damn us, but it does not eliminate the ontological and moral costs of sin, which we must sooner or later somehow pay. In the confessional and in the baptismal font we enjoy mercy, but there is no escape from justice.

    Likewise, loving someone does not rule out killing him when justice requires his death. The Christian knight loves his enemies, and prays for their salvation, even as he does his best to kill them. The Christian governor loves the criminals in his jails – this is why he feeds them, and supplies them with pastors – but executes them as justice dictates.

    What you have characterized as too much forgiveness, I would characterize as injustice.

    • … our absolution in the confessional washes away the moral stain of unrepented sin that would otherwise damn us, but it does not eliminate the ontological and moral costs of sin, which we must sooner or later somehow pay.

      Complete agreement. To make the point even more inescapable, the Sacrament of Penance involves both confession (and real contrition) and penance for the evil done. If you go out of the confessional and fail to perform your assigned penance through failure of intention, my understanding is your sins are not absolved.

      What you have characterized as too much forgiveness, I would characterize as injustice.

      This is an awful truth. A man can forgive another for the wrongs done to him. But a man who usurps the place of the wronged party to ‘forgive’ the wrongdoer in his behalf neither corrects the wrong nor performs a merciful act. Instead he heaps injustice upon injustice.

      • Apparently quote tags don’t work properly, or I’ve forgotten how to use them. Apologies for the confusion, but I trust the reader to separate appropriately.

      • Thanks, Rhetocrates. I have often and often exited the confessional astonished (and not a little gratified) that my penance for mortal sins that should by rights have bidden fair to damn me sempiternally amounts only to a few paltry prayers. Say 3 of this prayer and 4 of that, and you shall be excused from *infinite* harm. That smells like cheap thrills (tace, R. Crumb; R. Crumb, you have no idea …).

        But here’s the thing. The Prodigal Son returned to his Father with *nothing at all to offer,* so as to make reparation for all the damage he had done to his Father (and to his faithful brother, and to the whole House), other than his regret and his repentance. Yet was he welcomed home, where he would be forever safe. Yet was he made whole again, and reinstated.

        What may we take from this incredible incommensuration between the horrible gravity of our mortal sins and the triviality of the ontological costs we must in penance pay for them, provided we do in fact truly repent of them (and despite the fact that almost all of us will soon fall into them again and again)?

        It seems to me that what we may take from that incommensuration is the immense power of our God to make things well, despite all that his wayward creatures might do. We are, we creatures all, deeply stupid sheep. He rescues us, again and again.

        This is how the continued coherence and reliability of the cosmos are furnished to us, so that we may proceed with our lives. Without the Lógos, the cosmos would perdure not at all. That it does means that we have a shot at repentance at every here and every now, at reformation of life and at virtue. It shows that the Lord himself is with us. The fact of our ever renewed shot at goodness demonstrates his infinite mercy.

        Compared to his infinite goodness, and his infinite power, our sins after all amount to nothing. They cannot withstand his forgiveness.

        If they could, we’d have no cosmos to work with.

        Not that there is ever any magical wicked exit from justice. But, judgement is mine, saith the Lord; Deuteronomy 32:35. It isn’t up to us; that would be Pelagianism. It is up to him. And – fortunately for all his Fallen worlds – the power by which he rescues all his creation from her errors is infinite.

        It boils down to some such accounting as this: “Your sins are enormous and definite, and – being yourself finite – you cannot possibly compensate for the damage they have done; but they are after all finite, while my forgiveness and power to heal histories are without limit; so, say 5 prayers and you are OK. Who says? Me: ehyeh asher ehyeh.”


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