I had lunch the other day with someone who helps me see the world in a new way. He's a poet (actually, really a poet), and his insights seem gentle at first, but their power lingers for weeks afterward. We discussed family and church and God and lots of stuff in between. At some point in our conversation, we spoke of the language we use to speak of God, and Harry remarked how much of our religious vocabulary has to do with money--redeem, indebtedness, absolve, forgive. In preparation for this Sunday, I've been reading Matthew 18:21-36, and I've had his words in mind as I've considered the transaction of forgiveness.
Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. I dated a Presbyterian once, but it became clear that reciting the Lord's prayer would always keep us apart. Still, that's the real language of Jesus' prayer. We've tallied up spiritual debts against God, and we know forgiveness of those debts as we offer forgiveness to others. It's transactional.
It's no accident that the parable Jesus tells to illustrate the importance of forgiveness centers on two debtors. One slave owes a tremendous amount to his master and is also owed a pittance by another slave. The master forgives the huge debt, but the slave refuses to forgive his peer's obligation. When the master finds out, he holds the first slave responsible for the entire amount, "hand[ing] him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt."
Except in the cases when money is involved, we probably don't think about forgiveness in these transactional terms, but I believe there is a real and clear exchange going on when we forgive or are forgiven. Instead of money, though, the exchange is one of power.
When you wrong me, I have something to hold against you. I can snub you. I can shame you. I can make you feel guilty. And, even if you're immune to my maltreatment, I can feel justified in what I do. "She hurt my feelings, so I'm going to get her back," we say to ourselves with impunity. But, when we forgive the one who has hurt us, we give all of that power back. We say to the other person, "Even though I might have a very good reason to hold this over you, I choose to give that back." Forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting, but it does mean I don't get to hold you accountable (notice the money word) for what you did.
The truth is, though, that there's another channel of power at work in a moment of withheld forgiveness. If you have wronged me and I refuse to offer forgiveness, you continue to wield power over me through the original act. Even if we don't see each other again, when I lie down on my bed at night and think of you and how angry I am at you, you win. I am still in your control. In a sense, therefore, forgiveness isn't just a one-on-one transaction. It's also something that can be exchanged internally. You might not ever know that I have forgiven you, but, when I have made peace with you and your wrong--when it no longer has any affect in my life--that means that I have forgiven you.
Forgiveness is about the exchange of power. Forgiveness is about yielding back to the other person that which is rightfully ours. Forgiveness is about finding equilibrium (shalom) in a relationship. God has more than enough reason to hand us over to be tortured until we have paid the entire debt, but instead he wipes the slate clean. He absolves us of our obligation. He gives that power back to us. That transaction cannot be real to us until we model it in our own lives.