Seventy times seven? I can barely forgive some corrupt clergy once.
"Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know that they are not good, who feel themselves in need of divine mercy, who live in a dimension deeper and higher than that of moral idealism, feel themselves as well as their fellow men convicted of sin by a holy God and know that the differences between the good man and the bad man are insignificant in his sight."
—Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics
I wish I could believe every one of these words from Reinhold Niebuhr. Instinctually, I don't, wishing instead for Dante's hell for certain kinds of sinners—like corrupt pastors who egregiously violate their calling and never repent. In my unregenerate opinion, I believe these types of sinners should be relegated to the eighth and ninth circles of Dante's Inferno.
I've read numerous books on forgiveness. Some of them lead me to conclude that the authors have never known the kind of spiritual betrayal some Christians, including myself, have known. If they did, they could never write the pabulum they are selling.
A diverse collection of books—L. Gregory Jones's Embodying Forgiveness, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics, Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, Miroslav Volf's Free of Charge, and Desmund Tutu's No Future Without Forgiveness—offer honest help for my unforgiving heart. These writers grapple with the call to forgive in the face of real evil. They understand that pop psychology and cheap theology are no match for it. The murderous societies under which most of them suffered find their Christian complement in churches that, for example, allow or ignore the sexual abuse of children and punish those who call the abusers to account.
I'm certainly not unique in having a long history with clergy misconduct ("Sorrow But No Regrets," Christianity Today, July 2007). Perhaps I have the distinction of having walked with a sex-abuse survivor and her family in their quest for justice in a famous mega-church whose leaders vilified them for their decision to prosecute—and of having faced similar treatment for reporting a suspected pedophile in this church ("Day of Reckoning," CT, March 2007).
Two years after my husband resigned his pastoral position there due to systemic corruption, our firstborn child died by suicide ("In the Valley of the Shadow of Suicide," CT, April 2009). I hold certain church leaders responsible for a multiplicity of sins, beginning with false advertising and ending with causing many little ones—including my own—to stumble.
Niebuhr's moral equivalency statement asks me to place my sins on par with those of sexual abusers and their accomplices. I instinctively don't believe it. Nor do I believe that the difference between the sins of "the good man and the bad man" is insignificant in God's eyes.
One only needs to read the parable of the Prodigal Son to see that God acknowledges a difference. When the obedient older brother asks his father why he had never slain "even a young goat" (Luke 15:29) on the son's behalf, the father explains that his younger son was dead, but is now alive, was lost, but is now found. That's a significant demarcation—one that describes not only the father's love but also the sinner's repentance.
In Matthew 18:1-10, Jesus teaches a familiar lesson that contrasts unbridled ambition with undefiled faith. It includes a dire list of consequences for those who harm the undefiled. "[W]hoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me," he says. "But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." That's strong language. Jesus continues by admonishing the guilty to mutilate body parts that cause them to sin rather than have their bodies and souls thrown into hell. "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones," the gentle Savior warns. "For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven."share this page