Some Practical Problems in Forgiveness - Part 1

Forgiveness & the "Unworthy"

by Amy Alexander

As a mother of a seven-year-old and a five-year-old, I can confidently say I watch Disney films a lot.  Besides all the qualities that make them appealing to kids (beautiful royalty and attire, exotic surroundings, catchy tunes, fun sidekicks, magic, etc.), they also offer us a glimpse of a simpler and more understandable world: the "good" characters either have pure or relatable motives, and more satisfyingly, the bad characters are purely evil and unrepentant (except that they honestly sing about their devious motives in exceptional voices).  We love that each fairy tale gives us permission to hate these villains because they are "bad."  They are only present to be foils for our heroes and heroines to make them look beautiful and morally superior.

After my husband gave me a Disney villain coloring book for Christmas, I started contemplating these unredeemable, conscience-free characters.  Lists ranking them are even available online.  While some seem "better" than others (Gaston in Beauty and the Beast is a supremely handsome and charismatic man whom my seven-year-old niece declares is her favorite Disney character), they all share one important trait: they have all committed an "unforgivable" offense against our hero/heroine.  We know these sins are unforgivable because the villain never apologizes, our hero/heroine never forgives them, and then the bad guys/gals dramatically die by falling from a tower, getting stabbed by a sword in a bramble thicket, being entombed forever in a lamp, etc.  In short, the villain is a "problem case" for forgiveness: unworthy, unrepentant, and unreachable.

Let's examine what a Disney hero/heroine forgiving an unworthy Disney villain might look like.  One of the major themes in the movie Frozen is forgiveness.  Hans and Anna have just met.  The "love" they proclaim is based only on feelings (infatuation and security).  At the end of the movie, Hans betrays Anna by admitting that he planned to marry her only as a means to the throne, by imprisoning her, and by threatening to kill her sister.  The characters and audience alike forget about the traitor Hans in the transformation of flower-festooned spring and magical year-round snowmen.  Hans has no part in the miracle of forgiveness.  Imagine Anna telling Hans that because of her love for her sister and their restored relationship, she will extend the same grace to him and hold no resentment against him.  Even though they are no longer going to get married, Hans is free to return home to the Southern Isles with no animosity, and she will not declare war or impose any penalties on his country.

Too often, we let our assessment of another person's character and motives impede our ability to extend forgiveness.  If forgiveness can only be offered to those "worthy" of forgiveness, we will not be able to forgive someone until our emotions change or the pain subsides as the past becomes more hazy in our minds.  In the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis warns against using feelings as the benchmark of an effective prayer.  Senior devil Screwtape writes to his nephew Wormwood: "When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven."

This point is especially important when we are trying to forgive the "unworthy." If we focus on God's grace to help us release a grudge against another person, we are no longer focused on whether the offender "deserves" forgiveness.