In the UK, as in the States, there has been a spate of sexual predators who, although admitting to their crimes, have claimed that God has already forgiven them their misdemeanours (the links provide only a couple of examples; there are many more out there). Naturally the abusers expect this to carry weight in any trial they face or in their rehabilitation into society, but it seems to me that such claims are, every one of them, bogus and fraudulent.
Overlooking the fact that God’s forgiveness is an impossibility – on account of there being no God – the idea is incompatible with the brand of Christianity, drawn from Paul’s theology, practised today. According to Paul’s reasoning – I use the term loosely – God doesn’t offer forgiveness. He provides the means to have one’s sins overlooked, covered by the blood of Christ. They are not forgiven, rather Jesus’ death serves as an atonement for sin. In those letters that are genuinely his (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and Philemon), Paul doesn’t mention divine forgiveness once.
On the other hand, Jesus, whose teaching is largely ignored by those who claim to follow him, does have plenty to say about forgiveness. This isn’t, however, the easy ‘get out of jail free’ card proffered by today’s offenders and populist preachers. Like all of Jesus’ morality, this forgiveness is hard to come by. If you want God’s forgiveness, Jesus says, it has to be earned; it is dependent on whether we ourselves forgive. Here’s how he puts it:
If you forgive others the wrongs they have done to you, your Father in heaven will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done. (Matthew 6:14-15)
The same idea is preserved in the so-called Lord’s prayer: ‘forgive us our sins in direct proportion to the sins we have forgiven’ (Matthew 6:12). This measure-for-measure approach is central to Jesus’ teaching.
So are those who’ve hurt or abused others claiming they’ve forgiven everyone else for offences that they’ve been subject to and have so earned God’s forgiveness? Even so, is this good enough? ‘I have God’s forgiveness because I’ve forgiven those who’ve hurt me,’ doesn’t begin to cover the hurt I may have caused others. What about them? As usual Jesus’ morality here is inadequate in the real world.
He has another go at it in Matthew 18:21-22 where he commands his disciples to forgive others innumerable times. But again this covers only those who have offended me; it doesn’t do anything for those whom I might have offended. It’s not good enough. His parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) has the same problem.
If I’ve caused the hurt, have I the right to expect my victims to forgive me so that they in turn can earn God’s forgiveness for their sins? This seems to be the implication. And the answer is ‘no’, I can’t expect those I’ve hurt to forgive me just so they can be forgiven; it’s unrealistic. It doesn’t work.
Rather, when we have hurt or offended others the onus is on us to ask for forgiveness and to make reparation. This is how seeking forgiveness really works. You want forgiveness from others, you earn it. I need forgiveness from others, I earn it.
Jesus makes brief mention of this in Matthew 5:23-24:
So if you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God.
‘Make peace with your brother’: it’s not enough, is it? Jesus doesn’t say how to ‘make peace’ and what sort of reparation he has in mind; his teaching is strictly ‘in-house’: believers are not being called upon to forgive those outside the fold at all, nor do women appear to be covered by his edict. This is a paltry, poorly thought-through version of how to seek and earn forgiveness.
The easy claims of abusers, rapists and other offenders, that God has forgiven them simply because they’ve asked him to, is cynical, insulting and cheap beside the sorrow and effort that is really needed to merit others’ forgiveness; not just cheap – worthless.