Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Forgiveness and Logical Consequence

A few months ago, I wrote a few short pieces for an article in my college's alumni magazine entitled "Life 101". The article was full of advice from alumni about various practical topics. One of the sections I wrote was about how to forgive others, and it was based on my interview with a local Catholic priest. He had lots of great advice, including the short excerpt below:

"Separate forgiveness from justice. Forgiveness shouldn't preclude justice (or vice versa). In the sacrament of confession, sometimes the priest will give a person an act of penance to perform (such as prayers and charitable works or giving); likewise, when we forgive people who commit terrible crimes, those people still have to complete their course of rehabilitation. We have a strong need for justice, but we should be willing to forgive even before justice is rendered."

I also wrote a section about how to survive your children's teenage years, for which I interviewed a wonderful lady who had raised three children and 13 foster children with her husband. Most of the foster children had been abused, so it was important for the home to be a safe place where people talked out their problems without violence and no one got worked up over accidents. She told me about how she and her husband tried not to have a lot of little, picky household rules, instead focusing on a few really important rules. When a rule was broken, there were consequences, but there was also love and forgiveness:

"A lot of families have a family doctor or a family lawyer; we had a family probation officer. He told us that knowing where the kids came from might explain their behavior but couldn't ever excuse it. He taught us the expression logical consequence. When things go badly, kids have to take responsibility for what they've done."

Writing these two pieces gave me some valuable insight into the complicated dynamics of forgiveness. In my own words, here are some of the things I learned:

  • It's important to forgive people, even when they make terrible mistakes. Forgiveness frees us from the negative feelings of hurt, anger, betrayal, and outrage that might otherwise consume us. If we wait for justice to forgive but justice never comes, we will be condemned to suffer with the negative feelings that only forgiveness could release.
  • Forgiving someone isn't the same thing as letting them off the hook. It doesn't mean that everything's better, that the incident is forgotten, or that consequences are eliminated. When I forgive someone, I think of that person again as someone with both good and bad qualities who sometimes makes bad decisions instead of thinking of him/her only as the person who committed such-and-such terrible act. After forgiveness, there are no more murderers, thieves, adulterers, or backstabbers. There are only people whose pasts include transgressions but whose futures still hold potential promise. Nevertheless, people whose past includes crime may still have prison time in their futures, even if the label "criminal" has disappeared.
  • It is always a kindness to forgive someone, but smoothing over incidents and protecting others from logical consequences is not always kind. If we love someone, sometimes the best thing we can do is stand back and let that person learn an important lesson by paying for his/her mistake. If the woman I interviewed had covered up for her foster children when they broke the law, those children might have learned that they could get away with breaking more and more laws, thereby landing themselves into even bigger trouble.
  • Logical consequences are not the same thing as punishment. If we are truly forgiving others, then revenge should not be a motive for us. Logical consequences teach lessons, restore order, and protect others—they are not the same thing as punishments intended to cause suffering. 
Even God, who forgives us our sins, does not spare us from all consequences. Our sin does hurt us and others, and forgiveness doesn't undo that pain—it can only transcend it. Forgiveness isn't a free pass that lets us do whatever we want and escape the consequences afterward; it's a treatment for the very real wounds that sin causes. It would, of course, be infinitely better if we didn't sin at all, but in a fallen world where that is impossible, forgiveness is essential to save us all from being destroyed by the damage done by both ourselves and others.
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