The Fallout from Forgetting Forgiveness

Jonathan Landry Cruse

New Horizons: May 2022

Apprentices in Forgiveness

Also in this issue

Apprentices in Forgiveness

Reconcilable Differences in Christ: Philemon and Forgiveness

“America has forgotten how to forgive.” So came the indictment from journalist Graeme Wood in the title of his March 2021 article in The Atlantic. Wood was reporting on the news that another periodical had reneged on a recent hire after some unsavory tweets surfaced from her past.

The woman’s sincere apologies weren’t enough—nor was the fact that the posts were from her adolescence—and this new chapter in her career ended before it got started.

Our current culture struggles to know what to do with “the guilty.” Beyond losing the tools to enact forgiveness, I fear we are losing even the desire for it. Ours is an inquisitorial age, one that seems to almost relish condemning others.

We could cite the disappearance of forgiveness as yet another proof that Christianity’s influence in the postmodern world is waning rapidly. Arising in its place is a godless approach to life—namely, secularism—which has little to no conception of grace. It was C. S. Lewis who, when asked what Christianity’s unique contribution was, remarked, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

However, the point of this article is not to despair at our present moment, nor bemoan a bygone “Christian America” (if one ever existed). Instead, my aim is look at the lack of forgiveness for at least two reasons. First, to prepare us apologetically, helping us to know how the humanistic individual is thinking and then equipping us to address others in truth and love. Second, and perhaps more urgently, to keep in mind that we Christians breathe the same air as those around us. What we see “out there” is oftentimes an indicator of the bent of our own hearts. We must be on guard to not allow the unbiblical, gospel-less standards of the day to infiltrate the church—and where and when they have, we must repent. Believers must rediscover the bedrock of our ethics, the gospel of Christ, which when received in true faith will always empower us to forgive as we have been forgiven (Col. 3:13).

To that end, we will explore two major deficiencies in the secular worldview that hinder forgiveness—its understanding of justice and its understanding of the self—while being careful to examine if we have bought into these conceptions as well. I pray that believers would recognize the powerful evangelistic opportunity that forgiveness offers us. When we prize forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, not only do we show the world a better way that has been forgotten, but we also embody the new world that Christ has inaugurated through his death and resurrection. In that vein, I conclude with two recent examples where the world glimpsed the grace of forgiveness.

Justice without Grace

In recent years, the public interest in social justice has risen tremendously, for which there is much to be grateful. But grace has not risen in equal measure to justice. This has resulted in what is often referred to as “cancel culture”—where the indignation against a perceived wrong is so great within the majority culture that there is no alternative but to excise the offending parties and excommunicate them permanently. Have we ever stopped to ponder why this is so? Why is there no middle ground? Why must we now always gang up on the guilty with the zeal of a full-blown pitchfork-and-torches mob? It is evidence of a certain understanding of the human experience, which, although offering a seemingly robust doctrine of judgment, is devoid of any doctrine of salvation.

But this should not surprise us. The grace of salvation is unnatural to us. Judgment, justice, and guilt (the law) are hardwired into us from creation. But true forgiveness and restoration (the gospel) are external to us—they come from another world and can only be apprehended through faith in the good news of God’s gift from heaven (Rom. 3:23–25). The Christian worldview alone can hold in beautiful harmony what otherwise seem to be in tension: a robust pursuit of justice, and a ready proffering of forgiveness. This is because we follow the One who is both just and justifier (v. 26).

There is, of course, a realm that is all justice and no grace, a place where forgiveness is entirely foreign. The Christian knows it by the name hell. Would it be too much to say that the secular agenda is creating a living hell in our modern world? If we trace out the implications of this humanistic worldview—one that operates in what Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame,” lacking any conception of the transcendent or eternal—a living hell makes sense. After all, if there is no Judge at the end of the story, we must be the ones who wield the sword now.

Ironically, it’s the Christian’s firm belief in a literal hell in the world to come that allows us to bestow grace in the here and now. Vengeance belongs to the Lord (Deut. 32:35), and we trust that, since God will right all wrongs, we don’t have to. Instead, we can bestow the same sort of forgiving grace that we have received in the gospel. Far from needing to construct a grace-less, hellish society, the Christian lives joyfully knowing that now is the time of God’s favor and forgiveness—now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2).

Compare this joy and freedom with the unrelenting anxiety that accompanies the secular worldview. A world with strict justice and no grace is fine when you are on top, but who’s to say that unforgiving fury won’t soon come after you? That’s the real dread of secularism: with no ethical or moral guide, the conceptions of right and wrong are constantly in flux. Certain views or stances that are lauded one year are condemned the next. During her confirmation hearing for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2020, for example, Amy Coney Barrett twice used the term “sexual preference” and later had to apologize as one senator informed her that the term was extremely “offensive and outdated.” Of course, it was offensive because it was outdated. The LGBTQ+ community that championed the term only a few years ago had since gone on to declare it bigoted. Barrett wasn’t keeping up.

Secularism is a safe space for no one—not even for its own. It is all justice and no grace.

Our neighbors know, by experience, increasingly less of reconciliation, and increasingly more of eradication. The church must stand firm against the culture’s corrosive influence, and she can do so most simply—but also most profoundly—by practicing forgiveness. We must point to a God who loves justice so much that he will “by no means clear the guilty,” and yet a God who is so rich in compassion and love that he would send his only Son to bear our guilt for us and declare us righteous in him (see also Exod. 34:7; 2 Cor. 5:21).

Self without Selflessness

Another major barrier to real forgiveness in today’s world is the elevated, yet warped, understanding of the self. In the Christian conception, the self is important but certainly not ultimate. For the postmodern Westerner, however, as Justice Anthony Kennedy once wrote, “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey [1992]). To put it succinctly, the self is sacred.

We are seeing this idea play out in many spheres, both public and private, but perhaps nowhere as fascinating and unsettling as in the world of transgenderism. When Hollywood actress Ellen Page transitioned to Elliot Page in December of 2020, she wrote, “I can’t begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am enough to pursue my authentic self ” (Buzzfeed News, March 16, 2021, emphasis added). More recently, there has been much attention given to the story of U. Penn’s Lia Thomas, who before transition ranked as the number 462 male collegiate swimmer but now ranks as one of the top competitors in female swimming. Disheartened by the obvious unfairness of a biological male swimming against women, sixteen of Thomas’s teammates anonymously sent a letter to the university. And yet even so, they prefaced their complaint with these words: “We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman. Lia has every right to live her life authentically” (USA Today, March 3, 2022, emphasis added). These swimmers were trying to thread a difficult needle: secure what they believed to be a fair competition in their sport, but also not be found guilty of blaspheming the sacred self of secularism.

Not only is the self sacred, but it also somehow must be expressed in order to be “true”—a concept often referred to as expressive individualism. Israeli ethicist and journalist Yuval Levin defines this term as:

a desire to pursue one’s own path but also a yearning for fulfillment through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity. It is a drive both to be more like whatever you already are and also to live in society by fully asserting who you are. (The Fractured Republic, 148, emphasis added)

Do you see how this conception flies in the face of real forgiveness? Forgiveness is the exact opposite of self-assertion. It is self-denial. Forgiveness means not holding a wrong over someone; it means letting go of our rights and privileges and wants for the sake of restoring an offender. The world is preaching at us all day long that what matters most is “me, me, me”—no wonder we are starting to forget how to forgive! Forgiveness requires that we think less highly of ourselves and care more about others. It is one of the ways we take up our cross in an act of self-denial, and follow our Savior, who promises to lead us through suffering and into glory.

Again, we can take a sigh of relief at how much sweeter it is to belong to God’s economy than this world’s graceless recession. The center of secularism is the self. To renounce yourself therefore is to lose your center of gravity, your world spinning into chaos. Your purpose is lost. But the center of Christianity is Christ, and we are never so at home or on solid ground as when we forget ourselves and find him: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Paul tells us that as Christians we live for Christ, which is another way of saying that we live like Christ. What does this have to do with forgiveness? Everything: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).

Glimpses of Grace

Thankfully, gospel-empowered forgiveness has at times found its way into the public eye over the last few years. Two recent examples are worth noting, so that we would see the powerful picture of grace that forgiveness paints to the world and also be inspired to offer it to a world that has all but forgotten it exists.

The first heart-wrenching story comes from Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, when nine peaceful believers at Emanuel AME were shot to death by deranged racist Dylan Roof who attacked a midweek prayer meeting. Only two days later, at Roof’s hearing, the victims’ families spoke. The world was watching the church for a change. And what happened? One by one, each expressed their willingness to forgive Roof and called on him to repent and believe. Incredibly, reporter Charles C. W. Cooke for the National Review tweeted, “I am a non-Christian, and I must say: This is a remarkable advertisement for Christianity.”

The second story comes a few years later. There were no deaths, but many more victims. The hearing this time was for Dr. Larry Nassar, the former Olympic trainer who abused hundreds of young female athletes. The hearing included impact statements from over two hundred victims. One said to Nassar, “I know that I am going to move on and be OK … but this is something I will never forgive you for.” Another, age fifteen, said, “I will never forgive what you’ve done to me. You’re a coward and a sick man. You don’t deserve to see the light of day.” One victim’s mother read her daughter’s statement, adding her own “I hate you!” in conclusion.

Aren’t these statements entirely understandable? We can hardly imagine the pain, the shame, the terror that these poor young girls faced, nor the range of emotions that flooded them as they had the opportunity to address their abuser. These reactions make sense. What was truly confounding is what came from Rachael Denhollander in her statement. She was in large measure responsible for cracking the case on Nassar and exposing his sordid system of abuse. She had become a household name at the time of the scandal and trial. Again, the world was watching. And what did Denhollander say?

Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found.  And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well. (CNN, January 30, 2018)

What a testimony. It wasn’t as though Denhollander was expecting that Nassar be let off. She fought to see him get, in her words, the “greatest measure of justice available.” But she wasn’t to be his judge—not in this life or the next. Empowered by God’s grace, she chose to “love [her] enemies” (Matt. 5:44) and extend forgiveness in the sincere hope that it would be received. Only the biblical worldview can allow for such a response: one that blends justice with grace and finds real fulfillment in self-denial for the sake of Christ.

Isn’t this far better than the way the world wants us to operate? Once you know the liberty of being forgiven, you will be at liberty to forgive others. As we have seen, this godless religion that has emerged in recent years lacks grace, and thus it can only bring fear and frustration. The efforts to enact perfect justice and to promote an uninhibited self will prove to be only a burden. But in this burdensome moment, believers know the blessing of being forgiven: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Ps. 32:1). We who know this blessing have an opportunity—a responsibility and indeed a privilege—to be a blessing to others. May it never be said of the church that we have forgotten how to forgive.  

The author is pastor of Community Presbyterian in Kalamazoo, Michigan. New Horizons, May 2022.

New Horizons: May 2022

Apprentices in Forgiveness

Also in this issue

Apprentices in Forgiveness

Reconcilable Differences in Christ: Philemon and Forgiveness

Download PDFDownload MobiDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church