“You Have to Forgive Me”
Spiritual Accounting Fraud
The other day I stepped out of the house for a moment to take out the trash. I returned to find both my older children in tears.
The child that got my attention first, the one gripping the banisters at the top of the stairs and crying “Dad!” between sobs was Henry. I saw his look of fear from bottom of the stairs and ran up. As I did so he began to explain.
“Addie is crying about something I did and I already said ‘Sorry!’”
He seemed otherwise fine. The fears and tears were anticipatory of consequences. “What did you do?” I asked Henry as we followed the sound of Addie’s crying into their bedroom.
“I accidentally hit her with her iPad. But I already said ‘Sorry.’” We found Addie was sprawled sideways across the bed, holding her head, and crying. “Addie!” Henry yelled over the tears. “Sorry! It was an accident.”
“It wasn’t an accident,” she screamed back at him. “Daddy, Henry threw the iPad at my face.”
[They both used the word ‘iPad,’ but the device in question is really a Kindle Fire — a small, cheap Amazon tablet. And Henry and Addie have the “Kids Edition” which means the whole device is wrapped in a one-inch thick bubble of brightly colored foam. I only bring that up to reassure you that all the small children (and all the small computers) in this story are just fine.]
“Did you throw the iPad at her?” I asked Henry.
“It was an accident.”
“No it wasn’t. You threw an iPad at her head, Henry. That doesn’t happen by accident.”
“Well I said, ‘Sorry.’
“I know. But you launched a handheld computer at her face!”
At this point he stopped negotiating facts with me. He went over to Addie and said, sharply, “Addie, I said I’m sorry. Forgive me.”
“No!” she yelled.
“Addie, you have to forgive me.” He didn’t say this at all plaintively. He said this the way an IRS agent might say, “You have to pay your taxes.”
See this is Lent. It’s also tax season. That’s how Fr. Dad’s brain works.
Quite honestly, part of me was pleased the whole cycle of being sorry and asking for forgiveness was being played out without my prompting. But there are a few issues here.
Obviously part of the problem with Henry’s response was that his being sorry (contrition) and his asking for forgiveness (or demanding it) were because he was afraid of the punishment he was going to receive. He was repetitively hitting on “Sorry! Forgive me!” the same way many of us hit “Ctrl-Z” on our keyboards. He was trying to find the “Undo” button because he was afraid.
Fear of punishment is not exactly the ideal motivation for repentance. In Christian theology it’s the love of God, not the fear of hell, that is the highest motivation for repentance. But being motivated by fear is better than not being motivated at all. As a parent, I can work with that. God is willing to work with it too.
What was more off was the manner in which he wielded the demand for forgiveness. Forgiveness can never be demanded. It cannot be an obligation we place on someone else, not even God.
The biblical language of forgiveness centers around debts and obligations. The wronged party is owed something; forgiveness is the canceling of that debt. But when the person in the wrong demands forgiveness, he attempts to place an obligation on the wronged party.
Back to our example: Addie was owed something. For simplicity’s sake and not because we use this form of justice at home, let’s say she was owed the chance to throw an iPad at Henry’s head. Forgiveness involves her letting go of that opportunity, and not holding it against Henry in any way going forward. But when Henry said, “You have to forgive me!” he attempted to put her in debt to him. When in truth he owed her something, he instead tried to claim that she owed him forgiveness.
Spiritually speaking, this is accounting fraud.
As adults, we are probably most likely to act like this with God. We act as though once we say “I’m sorry,” and pray to God, “Forgive me,” God owes us that forgiveness.
But don’t we also do it with one another? As a pastor I find find the obligation of forgiveness is wielded most often in our closest relationships — with our spouses and close family. Your spouse has taken a vow to stay by your side no matter what, right? Don’t they have to forgive you? Isn’t it your right to be forgiven?
In this way, forgiveness is often experienced as a social tax on the Christian’s life. As a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, our relationships are taxed by this obligation to forgive. “You have to forgive,” says our spiritual IRS agent. And just like owing real taxes, owing forgiveness breeds resentment and anger.
For our own spiritual health, we do have to forgive. But not because we owe anyone forgiveness. It’s precisely because we don’t owe it to them, because it’s not fair, that forgiveness has any power at all.
The example of stewardship is helpful. The church doesn’t tax its members (at least not in America). You can go to church and not give at all, and some people do. But as a Christian, for your own spiritual health, you do have to give. Free and faithful giving is not an obligation or a tax, but a response to what God has done for us. God has given freely to us; our giving freely in return is one of the ways we live into the image of God.
Likewise, forgiveness should not be seen as a social tax on the Christian life, but rather as social stewardship. We forgive not because we owe the other person our forgiveness, but because God, under absolutely no obligation to us, forgives us and because God commands us to live into his image.
When we’re the ones in the wrong, we must ask for forgiveness not because we’re owed it, but because we have no way to pay the debts, social or otherwise, which we rack up day by day in this life. We must ask one another, and ask God, for something we’re not owed and don’t deserve. Anything else is accounting fraud.
— Fr. Dad