Dallas Willard on Forgiveness

I have been reading lots of Willard lately.  Here’s a passage worth thinking about.

The moral dimensions of life pose similar demands on the substance of the self. They require the drawing together of massive dimensions of the self, if not of the self as a whole. The morally significant act is an act of the whole person. This is well illustrated by the moral act of forgiveness. It seems to me that forgiveness is best understood as a choice to resume relationships, in the light of good to be realized, after some violation of moral trust that has had significant harmful effects on those who are doing the forgiving. It is decided, by the one who forgives, that the good to be realized by resumption of the relationships—by no means saying the relationships are to be just the same as before the violation—is not to be sacrificed to the gratifications of resentment and retaliation.

Forgiveness is not a tiny, inward act which a discrete effort of will brings forth in response to specific types of occasions. Rather, it is part or product of an overall orientation of lives of a certain kind, which is “there” before any occasion or whether or not any occasion ever arises. The media spokespeople and various public officials expressed amazement at how forgiveness functioned in the Amish community after the recent schoolhouse slayings. But that was the “natural,” though not the inevitable or unalloyed, response of the people involved. The intentionality, structures of thought, historical understanding, feeling, and evaluation around which their consciousness and life were organized, support and issue in forgiveness in relevant situations. The people in that community thought about and approached forgiveness from within the framework of the intentional structures of their particular kind of life and world. Forgiveness requires a substantial self, incorporating subtly nuanced and dynamically organized long-term dispositions of thought, feeling and valuation into a character embracing all essential dimensions of the self. (If it hasn’t got to your body yet, it has a ways to go.) To cultivate forgiveness as a part of human life, if it means anything at all, is to cultivate an overall character of the sort that can do forgiveness, and, when in good shape, can do it at a walk. It is better when one does not have to do this in a particularly self-conscious manner, but any sensible way is better than none at all. “The quality of mercy is not strained,” wrote a profound soul. Likewise for forgiveness. A forgiving person will not understand what all the fuss is about. What else would one do? Like the “righteous gentiles” that put themselves in mortal danger to save their Jewish neighbors. Was there, given who they were, anything else to be done?

6 responses

  1. Where did you get this quotation? I enjoy reading Willard, but I haven’t gotten around to reading more than a couple of his books. I mainly read writings from the archive on his website.


  2. The example of the Amish elder who said, after the shooting, “we must not think evil of this man” remains, for me, a tremendously vivid and poignant instance of the difficult notion of “loving your enemies.” Great sorrow at evil done, and great efforts to block evil from happening, are compatible, it seems, with “not thinking evil” of he who does evil. Perhaps that means one forgives the person, but does not forgive or accept the act.

  3. This reminded me of the description of Alyosha in The Brother Karamazov: “Yet he loved people: it seems that he lived his whole life with an absolute faith in people, though no one ever thought of this as simple or naive. There was something in him that said, and made you believe (and this was so throughout his life), that he did not wish to sit in judgment on others and would never take it upon himself to censure anyone. He seemed willing to tolerate everything without any kind of opprobrium, though he would often be overcome by bitter sadness…, but without the least indication of contempt or reproach towards anyone.”

    Perhaps the “bitter sadness” spoils the image somewhat, since it seems to register “disapproval” of some sort? But perhaps, as Ed Mooney suggests, Alyosha’s sadness is directed to the actions and not the actors. Love the sinners, grieve the sins. Truly, such capacity for forgiveness is divine, and makes me search – far from happily I’m sad to say – inside myself.

    • That’s a nice comparison, Bill, and worth further contemplation. Yes, it is hard to know exactly what to say about A’s “bitter sadness”, but we might (I submit) think of it as caused by and directed toward the ‘fact’ of sin, and not anyone-in-particular’s sin, not even his own. A priest I know used to say (as a kind of refrain): “You are no one’s judge, not even your own.” And Theophan the Recluse advises: “Do not measure yourself.”

      Thanks for the comments!

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