Forgiveness & Happiness Continued

The following video is a follow-up to the one I posted last Friday on Forgiveness and Happiness. What I found interesting – and initially almost kept me from posting it – is that it’s barely about forgiveness. In the video, Justin, the host of Soul Pancake’s Science of Happiness series, asks one of the participants if he wants to take the exercise from the experiment – delivering to a mirror the words of forgiveness he’d prepared for his sister – one step further by actually calling her.

As he does, you’ll realize it’s not so much that she’s done something wrong, but that he feels bad for being far away and regrets the lack of communication between them.

That’s not forgiveness, I thought at first; that’s just tending an important relationship. But then it struck me: Forgiveness is finally and ultimately and completely about relationships.

Think about it. Even though we often construct it this way, forgiveness isn’t really about justice. Forgiveness, when you get right down to it, is always manifestly unfair. I mean, if it was fair – if the person who’s hurt you has found some way to make it up to you or pay you back in any substantial way – then you wouldn’t really have to forgive anything; you would just have to accept the payment.

So forgiveness isn’t fair. It’s a gift. It’s one person releasing a past claim on another for no better reason than that that relationship is important and that life is better for that act.

I think this relational dimension is key to keep in mind when we talk about forgiveness, including God forgiving us. One of the major problems, I think, with the penal substitutionary (sometimes also called satisfaction) theory of atonement is that it is conducted almost entirely in legal and accounting terms rather than relational ones. God can’t forgive without satisfaction of sin, the old argument goes. God’s justice wouldn’t mean anything if there weren’t consequences (i.e. punishment) for our sin. Therefore, we’re lucky Jesus was willing to be punished for us.

I think that understanding of forgiveness misses entirely the relational dimension of forgiveness whereby we release our claim of justice on someone simply because we know the relationship cannot move forward without doing so and that relationship and person more important to us than our claim. Which means that the cross isn’t the mechanism by which God is able to forgive us but rather is the sign of just how far God will go to communicate that God loves us and already has forgiven us.

By putting it this way, I don’t mean to imply that forgiveness is easy. Usually it is not and sometimes it can be excruciating (though rarely worse than harboring bitterness much of our lives!) Instead, I just want to point out that when forgiveness happens, it’s always a relational act rather than a legal one.

So take a look at the four-minute video. And then give some thought to a relationship you might tend, whether by forgiveness or just simple connection, and maybe even think about picking up the phone.

Notes: 1) If you are receiving this post by email, you may need to click on the title at the top of the post in order to watch the video. 2) If you want to think more about the connection between forgiveness and the cross, you can read my Making Sense of the Cross or enroll in the MOOC based on it (which concludes Wednesday at midnight).