How to Do the Hardest Thing
Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I?, Timothy Keller. New York: Viking, 2022. Hardcover, 272 pages.
There are different levels of hurt someone can inflict on you. When it comes to the worst hurts, it can be so hard to forgive. Take abuse. Or sexual assault. How can you forgive someone who perpetrates these heinous sins? Can you?
As a seasoned pastor, Tim Keller acknowledges this seemingly impossible challenge and how it’s become even harder in our culture. Right from the beginning of Forgive, he speaks about the turn against forgiveness spawned by the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. “Black forgiveness of whites only results in support for white supremacy.” “Forgiveness of abusers only encourages more abuse.” Keller quotes one author who proclaims, “To Hell with Forgiveness Culture.” Forgiveness, she says, is just “a deeply ingrained religious hangover from Christianity” which idealizes “the pseudo-spiritual fairy-tale of redemption and forgiveness over the inherent right for people not to be abused.”
Forgive is a stout defence of the biblical concept of forgiveness. But not merely. It offers a blistering critique of the current alternatives. And it explains clearly from Scripture how Christian forgiveness can and should happen, even in the worst cases. He deals with all the hard questions, including:
- Does forgiving mean forgetting?
- Is forgiveness supposed to be automatic and unconditional?
- When can we let “love cover a multitude of sins” and just overlook an offense?
- What if I just can’t forgive myself?
Best of all, in typical Keller fashion, he grounds all of this in the gospel.
I really appreciate Keller’s distinction between two types of forgiveness. He writes, “Reading Luke 17 apart from Mark 11:25 has led many to believe that no forgiveness is necessary until there is full repentance and restitution by the offender” (p.105). Keller believes Scripture must interpret Scripture. When the whole context of Scripture is considered, we discover there’s a forgiveness that has to take place in the heart, regardless of what the offender does – that’s Mark 11:25, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone…” Keller calls this attitudinal forgiveness. But there’s also a forgiveness that involves an interaction between the offender and the offended – that’s Luke 17:3, “…if he repents, forgive him.” Keller calls that reconciled forgiveness. The first is meant to lead to the second. Yet there can be instances where the first is as far as you can go; for example, if the offender has died.
Another positive feature is the use of real-life stories. There’s the well-known story of Rachael Denhollander, an American gymnast repeatedly sexually assaulted by a doctor, Larry Nassar. How was Denhollander able to forgive Nassar while at the same time being part of the process which brought him to justice? Keller tells of Kevin McDonald, a New York City police officer paralyzed in a shooting involving a fifteen-year old boy. McDonald began writing with the imprisoned Shavod Jones. It appeared reconciliation was happening. But Jones died in a motorcycle accident shortly after his release. How did McDonald process that in terms of the forgiveness process? There’s the story of Corrie ten Boom being confronted with a repentant Nazi concentration camp guard. He asked her to forgive him. How could she when her sister Betsie died in that brutal camp?
Others and I have been critical of Tim Keller for his stance on theistic evolution. Unfortunately, there is one place where evolution briefly comes up in Forgive:
Did we get the idea that God is love by looking at nature and its beauty? This seems more promising until we look more deeply. Think of modern evolutionary theory, which is absolutely brutal so that only the ‘fittest’ survive. (p.76)
Keller appears to equate “nature” with “modern evolutionary theory.” He could have said “natural selection” and I wouldn’t be mentioning this. Natural selection is, after all, an observable process in nature. While it may be a component of evolutionary theory, it’s not synonymous with it. It’s regrettable the author slipped this in. But since it’s one sentence in the whole book and not foundational to its argument, I think we can spit out this bone.
Forgiveness is hard, no doubt. If you’re struggling with it and are looking for a well-written, biblically-based, pastorally sensitive guide, then Forgive fits the bill.
Originally published in Clarion 72.5 (April 7, 2023)