For the past month or so, I have been slowly working my way through Miroslav Volf’s brilliant book, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. This book was written on assignment to ‘write a book sketching Christian faith as a way of life and inviting people to embark upon it’. Volf chose to do so by exploring what he sees as two central practices of Christian faith – giving and forgiving. Volf is Croatian by birth, and the bloody conflict in the former Yugoslavia is never far below the surface of what he writes. His background is Pentecostal, but his chief theological mentor appears to be Martin Luther, and he is currently an Episcopalian and a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. He has written on the topic of forgiveness and love for enemies before, in Exclusion and Embrace, a book I have not read but am now very much looking forward to.
Free of Charge divides roughly into two halves, corresponding to the two themes of the book, giving and forgiving. Volf begins by considering ‘God the Giver’, examining two false images of God which are both common in contemporary culture – God the Negotiator (in which we give God something he demands of us, and in response, God gives to us), and God the Santa Claus (who gives without expecting anything in return). Volf shows how these two images are both inadequate. We cannot relate to God as Negotiator because there is absolutely nothing we can give him which he does not already possess. And while it is true that God gives generously and unconditionally, he does so with the expectation that we also will become ‘joyful givers and not just self-absorbed receivers’. God gives generously in the hope that we will respond with receptive faith, with humble gratitude, and by making ourselves available to the Giver as instruments of his generosity.
In his second chapter, ‘How Should We Give?’, Volf distinguishes three modes in which we relate to each other: the coercive mode (various forms of theft), the sales mode (buying and selling, equivalent exchange), and the gift mode (giving which is unrelated to obligation or ‘just deserts’). The process of Christian growth is the process of growing from taking, to getting, and finally to giving. We exist not just to enjoy things, but to pass them on; ‘they come to us with an ultimate name and address other than our own’. To give as God gives is an art that we need to learn. God gives freely; God gives in order to seek the good of another. God gives because he delights in us; God gives because we are needy; God gives in order to help us give to others.
In his third chapter, ‘How Can We Give?’, Volf addresses the obstacles we encounter in learning this generous way of life. Even our best giving often seems to be tainted by self-interest. We’re hindered by selfishness, pride, and sloth. We need to learn new attitudes toward our possessions, toward others, and toward ourselves. Our possessions are not ours by right but are themselves gifts from God. Others are not our competitors for the possession of goods, but the intended beneficiaries of God’s gifts. And as for ourselves, a true sense of wealth does not depend on how much we own, but on the richness of the presence of the gift-giving Christ living in us. We are God’s creatures, who can give because of God’s generosity to us. We are God’s redeemed creatures, and our Redeemer lives in us, and gives to others through us. And we are God’s Spirit-indwelled creatures; the Holy Spirit makes it possible for Christ to be born in us, and puts the talents of each person at Christ’s disposal.
Between the two sections of the book, Volf tells the story of the accidental death in 1957 of his five-year old brother Daniel, a death caused partly by the negligence of his aunt and of a group of soldiers. His parents never blamed his aunt in front of their children, and when the soldier responsible was discharged from the army, Volf’s father took a two-day trip to visit him, to speak to him about God’s love and about forgiveness. Volf’s father learned this lesson the hard way; after the Second World War he was himself imprisoned in a concentration camp and tortured by Marshall Tito’s soldiers, even though he had been a socialist, for the crime of baking bread for the non-combatant units of the defeated enemy. ‘It’s because of God’, says Volf, ‘that my father could later muster the strength to forgive the soldier who had killed his son, to forgive the servant of a brutal regime that enacted on him the very opposite of forgiveness’.
As he did in the first half of the book in examining the subject of giving, Volf starts the second half with the character of God – ‘God the Forgiver’. Like giving, forgiving takes place in a triangle involving the wrongdoer, the wronged person, and God. We forgive because God forgives, as God forgives, by echoing God’s forgiveness.
Volf refers back to the two mistaken images many people have of God – the Negotiator, and the Cosmic Santa Claus. Those who relate to God as Negotiator are in trouble when it comes to guilt, because they have broken their end of the negotiated deal and fallen short of the great commandments. Relate to God as Negotiator, and when you sin you come face to face with God the implacable judge.
Those who relate to God as Santa Claus cannot conceive of the idea that they can do wrong in the eyes of such a doting heavenly grandparent. They see themselves as good, their private sins as their own business and no one else’s, and unconditional affirmation as their right. But when we come face to face with the heinous crimes committed in our times, we have to see God’s wrath as an integral part of his love. Because the world is sinful God does not affirm it indiscriminately, but because God loves the world, he doesn’t punish it in justice.
What does God do? God condemns the fault but spares the doer of the fault. In forgiving God does not excuse or ignore human wrongdoing; rather, he took human sin upon himself in Christ – the one who was offended bears the burden of the offense. And this did not happen in isolation from the offenders; Paul says that ‘one died for all, and therefore all died’. Those who are included ‘in Christ’ have shared his death and now share in his life, so that they are freed from the power of sin and live because of God’s life in them. God, in other words, ‘does not just forgive sinners; he transforms sinners into Christ-like figures and clothes them with Christ’s righteousness’. Our response to this is (1) grateful faith, by which we receive with open hands the gift that God offers, (2) repentance, by which we align ourselves with God’s purposes, and (3) the offering of forgiveness to others.
How should we forgive? Volf refers back to the three modes of existence he identified in chapter two – taking, getting, and giving – and relates them to how we deal with offences against ourselves. The ‘taker’ will respond with acts of illicit vengeance, the ‘getter’ with demands for justice, the ‘giver’, with forgiveness. Revenge doesn’t demand an eye for an eye but says, ‘If you take my eye I’ll blow your brains out’. Paul explicitly condemns this in Romans 12 where he says ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves’ (v.19). But why is retributive justice not an option for Christians? For three reasons. First, because ‘consistent enforcement of justice would wreak havoc in a world shot through with transgression. It may rid the world of evil, but at the cost of the world’s destruction’. Second, because the line between justice and vengeance is so hard to draw. Third, and most fundamentally, because of the graciousness of God to sinful humanity.
At the sight of our sin, God did not give way to uncontrolled rage and measureless vengeance; nether did God insist on just retribution. Instead, God bore our sin and condemned it in Jesus Christ. But God did so not out of impotence and cowardice, but in order to free us from sin’s guilt and power. That’s how we should treat those who transgress against us. We should absorb the wrongdoing in order to transform the wrongdoers.
When God forgives, God names the act for what it is and condemns the doer – that’s God’s wrath. But when God forgives, he doesn’t condemn any more. To forgive is not to shrug off the offense as if it didn’t matter; this, says Volf, would be morally wrong. A genuine debt has been incurred, and forgiveness is a generous release from that debt. To forgive means to forego the demand for retribution against the wrongdoer – even though disciplinary measures (for instance, to protect the public against a violent offender) may still be necessary. To forgive means also to lift the burden of guilt from the offender’s shoulders, and to imitate God in forgetting the offense (to refuse to contemplate this final step, Volf says, is to continue to keep mental score and to place on the offender an indelible sign that reads ‘evildoer!’).
Volf goes on to discuss, in a section some will find controversial, the relationship between forgiveness and repentance. God’s forgiveness, he argues, is indiscriminate: ‘One has died for all’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). God loves and forgives us before we repent; it was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us. And we should thus forgive others before they repent. This does not mean that repentance is unimportant. The gift of forgiveness can be given unconditionally, but it cannot be received without repentance. The goal of forgiveness is the restoration of a relationship, and this cannot happen without repentance. Repentance is part of the response to forgiveness, but it cannot be the ground of forgiveness.
How can we forgive others? We can forgive because God has forgiven, and we make his forgiveness our own. We can forgive because Christ lives in us and gives us the willingness and the power to forgive.
‘Just as Christ grieved more over our sin than over the injury our sin caused him, so we can grieve for others if Christ lives in us. Just as Christ overcame evil with the power of good rather than avenging himself, so can we. Just as Christ absorbed the effect of wrongdoing so as to free wrongdoers from punishment, so can we if we are united with Christ. Just as Christ lifted the guilt from their shoulders, so can we. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”, wrote the apostle Paul (Galatians 2:20). Echoing these words, we can say, “It is no longer I who forgive, but Christ who forgives through me”’.
Volf gives the example of the actors in Nikos Kazantzakis’ book The Greek Passion, who enact Christ’s passion and are instructed to prepare for it by taking on the character of the people they are to portray and living it out in their daily lives. What would it mean to ‘enact Christ’ – indeed, to ‘practice Christ’, in this way? It would mean that it was not so much us acting ourselves into Christ, but rather Christ acting through us.
What are some of the obstacles to forgiving? One is the sense that we should get what we deserve, but this can never hold for Christians because it is not how God acts towards us. Another obstacle is vicious abuse perpetrated by the offender, and if we are the victim this obstacle can only be overcome when Christ cradles us, holds us in his arms and sings to us the songs of gentle care and firm protection. A third obstacle is that we live in an unforgiving culture and are not trained in the art of forgiveness. Volf’s parents were able to forgive his aunt and the soldier who caused his brother’s death because the little Pentecostal congregation to which they belonged had formed them in that practice. If we want to become forgiving people, we should seek out communities of forgiven forgivers!
God commands forgiveness and makes it possible, but we are the ones who have to put this into practice, and this is always difficult. Even when we are at our very best as forgivers, our forgiveness remains only a start. We do not know the whole truth about anyone, and neither do they know the whole truth about us. ‘All our forgiving is inescapably incomplete. That’s why it’s so crucial to see our forgiving as not simply our own act, but as participation in God’s forgiving’, and as an anticipation of the day when all secrets will be known and all sins forgiven.
Free of Charge is not an easy book to read. This is partly due to Volf’s rich writing style; this is one of those books that would repay continued re-reading, and unhurried meditation, in order to get the full benefit from his theological insights and his practical wisdom. But of course, the real reason this is a challenging book is that the practice of it will be challenging! I confess that when it comes to giving I am a slothful person, far more likely to conserve my energy and save myself the trouble of giving myself to others. And when it comes to forgiving, I am not a good forgetter; somewhere buried deep in my psyche, I know that mental scorecard Volf referred to can still be found. The book has challenged me to a closer imitation of the generous and forgiving God who loved me and gave himself for me. I highly recommend it.