The Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 2.1--Rethinking the Meaning of Forgiveness

One of the subtle, but powerful, dimensions of James Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong is the way in which it asks pointed questions about the notion of God's forgiveness.  The message of God's forgiveness, delivered through Jesus, is a key component of what makes the "euangelion" the Good News.  And yet, this message of forgiveness is often not experienced by the recipients as a good news, but as a kind of burden.  What's going on here?  Alison suggests that our problems with God's forgiveness have to do with the way it is framed and presented.  In particular, Alison argues that God's forgiveness is not in fact a kind of emotional blackmail, notwithstanding the fact that it is often presented in "emotional blackmail-ish" terms.

Consider this scene, one that I suspect that vast majority of you have been on both sides of at one point or another.  It's the evening, and your husband/wife/spouse/significant other/roommate/family member comes to you and says "I have to leave early tomorrow morning for a meeting.  Will you please take the dry cleaning to the dry cleaners on your way to work?"  "No problem," you say.  But when you wake up next morning, your mind is elsewhere and you simply forget about the dry cleaning, and go on to work without a thought.

Your significant other gets home before you and sees that you have not in fact taken the dry cleaning to the dry cleaners.  What happens when you get home?

Let's begin with Scenario #1.  In Scenario #1, your significant other greets you at the door and dresses you down for failing to bring in the dry cleaning.  He or she tells you that you need to be more responsible, and that he or she is very upset with you for the irresponsibility you have shown.  And, of course, your significant other is right--you were asked to bring in the dry cleaning and you didn't do it.  So, you apologize, and your significant other accepts your apology.

Now, let's break down this scenario from your point of view.  Obviously, it is a good thing for you that your significant other has forgiven you, as opposed to holding it against you, taking it out on you later, breaking off the relationship, etc.  So, that's good.  But to the extent there was a period of time when you were not sure that he or she was going to accept your apology, you were in a very precarious position.  All of those disastrous outcomes were in play.  Anyone who has ever been in that position knows what that feels like, and it is a terrible feeling.

Suppose that your significant other decided before you came home that he or she was going to forgive you if you asked for forgiveness.  Why would he or she go through the process of getting mad, making you ask for forgiveness, and then accepting it?  Ultimately, whether consciously or not, he or she is trying to get you to feel that feeling of dislocation that comes from not knowing whether you will be forgiven.  It's a kind of emotional blackmail--he or she wants you to feel the negative experience of being in limbo in the hopes that you will avoid the experience in the future by doing what you are supposed to do.


But there is another dimension to Scenario #1, and that is that the process of asking for forgiveness is humiliating.  Whether or not you "deserve it," you are being brought low in front of this other person, and this other person is actively facilitating your being brought low.  There is a power exchange involved here, and you are on the losing end of that exchange.  That is an unpleasant experience.  Moreover, it is unpleasant even if you know that the other person is going to forgive you in the end.  So, even if you don't actually believe that you will be cut off as a result of your dry cleaning-related offense, it is still a form of emotional blackmail to make you ask for forgiveness in this way.

I don't want to over-steer here, and suggest that it is never OK to get an apology from someone.  Sometimes we legitimately need to be knocked down a peg.  But we can see in this dynamic the seeds from which a destructive, co-dependent relationship can grow.  If the vast majority of our interactions with our significant other are defined by this kind of dislocation and humiliation, then most people would call this an unhealthy relationship.  The point is not that this model of forgiveness is always and everywhere harmful; it is that it contains the seeds of a dangerous and destructive vision of relationship.

OK, let's try Scenario #2.  This time, your significant other greets you at the door and says "you forgot to take the dry cleaning to the dry cleaner, but I forgive you."  This scenario removes the aspect of uncertainty as to whether you will be forgiven, but it retains the humiliation element.  And, arguably, it actually ratchets up the humiliation part, since you are being deprived of any sort of agency in this process.  We become entirely passive receivers of forgiveness, and so the power exchange is actually greater than in Scenario #1.  So, while Scenario #2 is probably less problematic than Scenario #1, it still has a element of emotional blackmail involved.

Let's also see the big picture pattern in both Scenario #1 and #2.  In Scenario #1, the order of operations is (1) you are made aware of what you did wrong; (2) you are presented with an opportunity to seek forgiveness; and (3) you are forgiven by the other.  Scenario #2 is basically the same pattern with the middle term removed.  In either case, the key is that first you are made aware of your mistake, and then some act occurs under which you are forgiven.

Now, try Scenario #3.  You come home, you have a very pleasant conversation with your significant other about all sorts of things, and the dry cleaning is never mentioned.  At some point, you go up to your room and open the closet door. . . and see the dry cleaning you were supposed to bring the dry cleaners.  At that moment, you have two realizations simultaneously (1) you become aware of what you did wrong; and (2) you are aware that you have been held in love by your significant other even though your significant other knew all along that you screwed up.  This process of being loved "through" your mistakes is the act of forgiveness.  The act of forgiveness is a process that begins before you are even aware that you have done something wrong, reaching its culmination at your moment of awareness.

Alison argues persuasively that Scenario #3 best represents the model of forgiveness that Jesus provides in the Gospels.  The story of God's forgiveness is not an off/on switch, in which God loves us and then God doesn't love us, and then loves us again.  Instead, it is a story of an unbroken experience of love, one that endures despite, and more importantly through, our faults and failings and sins.  There is no discontinuity in God's love; in fact, if you think about it, how can there be?

For this reason, what changes in the scenario of forgiveness is not God or God's relationship to us, but our awareness of that relationship.  When we become aware of having screwed up, we become aware at the same time that we have been loved continuously during the entire period when we had screwed up but didn't realize it.  Our experience of God's forgiveness is, Alison argues, always backward looking, to the period of time when we did wrong but were loved anyway.

To use a Biblical example, consider the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).  Notice that the father of the Prodigal Son immediately comes out to greet the son when he appears on the road--"So [the son] set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him."  (Luke 15:20).  Note also that this love is not portrayed as being conditioned on any act of contrition on the part of the son--it is only in the next verse, verse 21, where the son gives his apologies.  The most natural reading of the text is that the father persisted in his love for his son through the entirety of the period when the son was gone.  This love is unconditioned and unbroken, and is certainly not contingent upon anything the son does or says.  

The problem with Scenarios #1 and #2 as models for thinking about God's forgiveness is that they presume that it is at least conceptually possible that God will not forgive us; that there is some scenario under which God will stop loving us and never turn God's face back to us.  And it is this possibility that is the engine that powers the emotional blackmail--the implicit fear of being forever cast off that is the club to get us back in line.  That's why we engage in the "forgiveness transaction"--to take away our existential terror of being permanently divorced from God, we take on the humiliation of asking for forgiveness.

This model creates two, related problems for thinking about God.  First, it doesn't portray God in a particularly positive light.  Ultimately, the Scenario #1 and Scenario #2 models involve God exploiting the power imbalance between us and God, as well as our existential fears, to manipulate us into a certain kind of action.  Even if you can justify the manipulation in utilitarian terms (i.e. it is for our greater good that we behave in such and such a way), it is still a manipulation.  Second, just like with relationships between people that operate using this form of manipulation, it sets us up for a dysfunctional relationship with God, where we are being manipulated and emotionally blackmailed into doing good to avoid the existential fear of being cut off from God's love.

We talk about God's "unconditional" love.  But Scenarios #1 and #2, which are the predominant ways that God's forgiveness and love are presented, are not strictly speaking unconditional love.  There is, at their, heart, a hidden condition, even if the condition is never exercised.

Alison's approach wipes all of that away, and allows us to see God's love in a clearer light.  We can see a love and forgiveness which is truly unconditional.  That is, in part, the "joy" referred to in the title The Joy of Being Wrong.

While Alison goes into detail about the Biblical and theological support for his presentation of forgiveness, there is one issue that he doesn't address in response to his view, an issue that is particularly pressing for Catholics and Orthodox Christians--how, in light of this understanding of God's forgiveness, do we understand the sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation?  That topic is for the next post.

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