Most of us know what is asked of us in forgiveness, and it is precisely because we know it that we don’t want to do it. Forgiveness is altogether difficult, painful, and unnatural to humans in our present state before God. A good meditation on forgiveness, then, is not so much a how-to guide, but rather encouragement to obedience. And that’s more or less what we have in David Augsburger’s book, The Freedom of Forgiveness. The book is a series of explorations on the topic of forgiveness which revolves around, and frequently quotes, Jesus’ statement that we ought to forgive one another not merely seven times, but seventy times seven times—well beyond what is naturally expected in human relationships.
The best part of Augsburger’s book is the overall picture of forgiveness that emerges from it. Unforgiveness, he points out, is cancerous to our relationships, because “Hidden hatred turns trust into suspicion, compassion into caustic criticism, and faith in others into cold cynicism” (16). Forgiveness breaks this cycle by restoring relationships, and it is painful in part because “Being responsible in any painful situation usually calls for us to accept our part of the blame for the way things are” (17). None of us enjoys blame, and yet in the end, and from the teaching of the Bible, “Forgiving and being forgiven are all of one piece” (18). We cannot have one without the other.
What is the action of forgiveness, then? According to Augsburger is it “acceptance with no exception” (29). It is a dual action of memory, then release. It is a conscious choice “to hurt, to suffer,” and this is a decision that “is one of the hardest voluntary choices we can make—to accept undeserved suffering. Suffering we could have avoided, suffering that rightly belongs to whomever wronged us” (49). In forgiveness the wronged party absorbs the pain of the wrong and lets it go. But forgiveness is not the same as forgetting; one “may recall the hurt,” but “you may not relive it” (46). We don’t forget wrongs, but in forgiveness we refuse to drudge up their pain. Augsburger, commenting on the difficulty of this process, quotes a counselee who once remarked that, “I doubt that very many people actually forgive… their memory just becomes fatigued. There’s a big difference between real forgiveness and a tired memory'” (48).
The first fifty pages of Augsburger’s book are the strongest half, and within those pages are his best meditations and reflections on forgiveness. As the book continues he makes some valuable comments on topics like Anger, Confession, and Marriage, but in some ways the focus of the book seems lost. A later chapter on forgiveness and prejudice was particularly disappointing; it was more about gossip than prejudice, and didn’t really address forgiveness at all. The closing chapters were not terribly memorable. Still, in my estimation, Augsburger on a bad day is better stuff than some other writers on forgiveness.
Each chapter opens and is liberally smattered with rich stories of forgiveness (or unforgiveness) in action. The stories are an important and powerful aspect of the book, in part I expect because we need to witness forgiveness happen in order to rally the courage to actually go through with forgiveness. They help us remember that forgiveness, though unnatural, is completely possible. But perhaps the best part about any sustained meditation on forgiveness is that it forces us to reevaluate our relationship with God. The action, pain, and unique suffering of forgiveness is one of the purest windows into the character of God available to fallen humanity. Read a good book about forgiveness, and invariably you will have read a powerful book about God. Augsburger’s book is no exception.