In their conversation you’ll hear about Dr. Keller’s motivation for writing his new book, Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I?, which will be released in November 2022.
Here are some edited highlights from the first part of their interview:
Susan Nacorda Stang:
Why are you thinking about the subject of forgiveness right now and particularly enough that you’re wanting to write about it?
To start with we have to see that at the heart of the gospel is forgiveness. I have to see that I have a need for forgiveness because I am a sinner. Now, that’s sort of negative. That’s humility. That helps toward forgiving other people when you realize “I’m a sinner too.” But that’s the bad news. The good news is the cost of forgiveness. What God went through, what Jesus went through in order to get you that forgiveness and to forgive you freely. And that fills you with grateful joy, and there’s a need for both the humility and the joy. In order to forgive somebody else, you have to have a lot of humility before God, “I’m a sinner too,” but a lot of joy that “God has accepted me.” If you only have one and not the other, it doesn’t work. And then, that gets activated in your life through repentance, and then you know that God has saved you and you’re a sinner, but you’re saved by grace.
Look at the early church. I think there’s basically three ways in which the early Christian Church was very different from its surrounding society. It was very, very big on caring for the poor and for racial unity, and it was a multi-ethnic society, so you might call that mercy. It was very unusual in that it was a multi-ethnic church, multi-social level church. It was also very, very, very concerned about the poor. Secondly, it was a forgiving, reconciling community. If they got persecuted–the Christians were persecuted constantly–they never paid back. And they were always warned, that’s not how Christians do things, that’s not how Christ did it. So you forgive and you’re reconciled with the people who are persecuting you, even killing you. You don’t revenge, you don’t retaliate. And then thirdly, there’s a whole area of sexuality which made Christians radically different in the way they understood sex and marriage and family. And I think those three things are things that we have to bring into the present and ask, what does that look like for Christians today?
You talk about the original church, they’re forgiving and reconciling posture. What do you see in the world today, how our culture views forgiveness?
What you have in a way today is, I’d say the crux of the problem is people don’t see how forgiveness and justice go together. And whereas 30 years ago, justice was not on everybody’s lips. By the way, in 1989 when I first came to New York, the thing that was on everybody’s lips had more to do with psychology and identity. Everybody was worried about dysfunctional families, addictions, enabling behavior, low self esteem, so it was a psychological culture. That is not gone, but on top of it is a very powerful layer of concern about justice and about social inequality and social equity. And because of that, because of this new drilling down and thinking about justice so much, a lot of people are trying to say, “Well, how does that work with forgiveness?”
So how do I say it, in psychological New York, everybody wanted to hear about forgiveness. How do I forgive my parents for not loving me? That was a big issue, big issue in the early ’90s and we spent lots of time talking about that. And everybody wanted to hear about forgiveness in the psychological age. But in the sociological age, an age in which we’re talking about justice so much, a lot of people just don’t see how that works. You can either forgive or you can pursue justice, but it doesn’t look like you can do both. And there’s plenty of people on both sides that agree with that, by the way. I would say you’ve got people who are alienated from the idea of forgiveness saying, “I can’t forgive, I want justice.” But you even have people on the other side who are telling people they have to forgive, “You must forgive, you must forgive.”
But they’re doing it by hinting or sometimes coming right out and saying, “But you shouldn’t seek justice. You should forgive us. You should just let us off the hook. You just let the bygones be bygones, forgive and forget and move forward.” There’s people on both sides right now who don’t seem to see how justice and love go together, at all. And that’s a new development, Susan. I was just on the internet and found an article, though it’s kind of a rant, but it’s still a fair rant, called, “To Hell with Forgiveness Culture.” And basically a woman felt like she experienced injustice or abuse, and forgiveness was used as a cajole to kind of shut her up, the demand for forgiveness. It’s actually a cultural issue. It’s a cultural lightning rod right now, in a way I never saw when I was younger. Everybody saw it as an unmitigated good, but today there’s lots of questions about it, so that’s another reason to write the book.
Yeah, sometimes people feel like they can’t come together, because calls for forgiveness seem to come separate from a call for accountability. And in that article you mentioned, for example, you mentioned that some observe that the Black Lives Matter movement is one that seems to be angrier than in the past. And then that made me think about, what is the role of, particularly for followers of Christ, of empathy and seeking to understand in forgiveness, while when one sees anger. I think particularly of what Martin Luther King Jr. said, while not affirming any sort of violence or anything like that, “Riot is the voice of the unheard.” What role do you feel like empathy has to play?
Well, I do think one of the things that gets people angry about how Christians talk about forgiveness, one of the problems is that there’s a rush to it. That is to say, there is no empathy. And to give you a couple biblical answers to the question, should there be empathy, and the answer is yes, of course. If people are finding it hard to forgive or they’re slow to do it and they have a lot of questions, the Book of Job is a fascinating book. It’s 42 chapters of Job basically ranting and raving against God because of his suffering. He doesn’t understand it, it doesn’t seem fair. And he just goes on and on. And of course his friends are there saying things… The book is talking so much about forgiveness as much as it’s talking about suffering.
His friends show no empathy to him at all. But at the end, what’s interesting to me, at the end of the Book of Job, God vindicates Job, says that Job was more faithful to God than the friends were. Because in the end, even though Job never got a good answer, and he stayed pretty mad during the whole thing, he never stopped praying. See if you realize that 42 chapters of Job, is him complaining, he’s complaining to God. He’s ranting and raving to God but he never stops praying, never walks away from God, even though he doesn’t understand it at all. And if that’s the message of the book, and that is the message, look, you may not get it, you may struggle, you may not be able to say, “Oh Lord, I submit, I see, you’re so wise, you’re so good. I don’t know why all my children were killed. Why all my money’s been taken away and why my health is hanging by a thread. But that’s okay, I’m just praising the Lord.”
No, he doesn’t do that. He struggles and wrestles, but he does it in front of God and in the end, God vindicates him and honors him for that. And when you see that, then you say, “Okay, if somebody’s having trouble getting to a place, the Book of Job says, “Be merciful to them in doubt.” There’s all kinds of indications in the Bible, we’re supposed to be patient and empathetic to people, especially when they’ve been wronged. The person that has to forgive has been wronged, keep that in mind. You’re not to start to blame them for not being quick to forgive, that is just another wrong. The Bible does call people to forgive, but it doesn’t put a timeline on it, it doesn’t. We tend to do that.
And if you look at Psalm 88 or Psalm 39 or these other places like parts of Jeremiah, where the strugglers stay struggling for a long time and God still honors them and stays faithful to them. I can still say we need to call for forgiveness. But you are absolutely right about how the calls for swift forgiveness, the lack of empathy of what the person has gone through, can just wrong them and alienate them and make it even harder for them to trust God or trust the church or forgive.
Watch the whole interview above or listen to it on our podcast.